Ubisoft / Ubisoft Paris
There was one underrated Wii game, the now forgotten Rabbids Go Home, in which Ubisoft’s loopy lagomorphs (that’s right) ditched their usual mini-game mediocrity for an adventure game that was genuinely hilarious. I promise.
I’ll talk about Rabbids Go Home some other time: the important thing is that it’s always been proof to me that as annoying as the Rabbids usually are (that ‘funny’ scream cuts right through me), they can be entertaining if used well. It’s just that this has only happened once before.
Well, you can now make that ‘twice’, because Ubisoft has once again managed to pull off a Rabbids game that will genuinely raise a smile. And this time, Nintendo’s along for the ride.
To be clear: the comedy in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle doesn’t really come from the writing. Let’s take the opening premise, which is so throwaway that I’m willing to bet some reading this who are currently playing the game have already forgotten it opened with a human character.
Said human is a teenage boffin who’s a massive Nintendo fan: her bedroom/office is covered from top to bottom in Mario merchandise (nothing of the Rabbids though, so it’s pretty realistic).
She’s clearly a bright spark: not just because of her choice of decor but because she’s also come up with the SupaMerge, a special pair of VR-style goggles that can combine the properties of two different objects she looks at.
When we join her during the game’s intro movie, her invention isn’t working so great. When it overheats for the umpteenth time, she storms off in a bad mood, leaving her bizarre floating robot friend Beep-0 behind.
The Rabbids proceed to fuck around in our nameless inventor’s room, playing with her Mario merchandise and generally being a gaggle of dicks.
Predictably, one of them tries on the SupaMerge and starts turning Rabbids into Mario characters. Somewhat less predictably, the SupaMerge then fires at the washing machine, sucking all the Rabbids inside (as well as Beep-0) and transporting them all to the Mushroom Kingdom.
Cue all sorts of shenanigans that can only be described as ‘madcap’, ‘zany’ and any other words you’d expect to see on the back of an ‘80s VHS high school comedy.
It’s up to Mario, aided initially by a Princess Peach Rabbid and a Luigi Rabbid, to team up and explore the Mushroom Kingdom in search of the Rabbid with the SupaMerge to see if they can undo this monumental mix-up.
On the off-chance this game has completely passed you by somehow, it’s worth noting that they do this via a bunch of turn-based strategic scraps. 36 stages’ worth of them, to be specific (most of them featuring multiple battles).
If you’re not a turn-based strategy expert – and given that the target audience is Mario and Rabbids fans you’ve got to imagine a decent chunk won’t be – think of it as a sort of advanced version of chess. Chess with guns, if you will.
Many have been comparing it to the X-Com games, and that’s a good comparison to make, given the gun-based combat and a much greater emphasis on finding cover than there is in games like, say, Fire Emblem.
That’s not to say it doesn’t put its own little spin on things, though. Most notable is the freedom you have when making your move.
You can perform these moves once each, but in any order you want. Combine this with other tricks, like the ability to run into enemies and slide-tackle them or using nearby pipes to extend your potential movement per turn, and you can put together some brilliant combinations.
Here’s an example. The first of the game’s larger enemies are Smashers: these big pricks carry large blocks of stone with them and can do massive damage if they get near you.
Smashers have loads of HP (hit points), but they do have one quirk: if you shoot them with a weapon they get pissed off and charge towards you for a few steps.
With some experimentation you can take advantage of this and combine your movement, weapon and special abilities (along with those of other characters in your party) to take them out in a brilliantly stylish way.
Let’s say you’ve got Mario, Luigi and Rabbid Peach in a team. Mario’s a close-range offensive character, while Luigi is a distance sniper and Rabbid Peach is a healer.
There are a load of different ways I could take on a Smasher, but here’s how I’d do it if I had, say Mario and Rabbid Peach near him. I’d select Mario and move him over to the Smasher, which would make him pull off a slide tackle and do some damage.
A slide attack doesn’t count towards your distance covered so after performing this I can then run over to Rabbid Peach and do a Team Jump (bouncing off her).
Mario has an extra ability others don’t have: when he does a Team Jump he’ll damage the enemy if he lands on them. This means I can jump onto the Smasher’s head to hurt him more, then bounce off to a reasonable distance.
At this point I could shoot the Smasher with Mario, but that’ll make him mad and he’ll be close enough to run over and do big damage. That’s where Luigi, hiding at a distance, comes into play.
Luigi shoots the Smasher, making him wander off in Luigi’s direction for a few steps. I can then shoot him with Mario, which makes him essentially come back to where he was.
Finally, I trigger Mario’s ‘Hero Sight’ move and Luigi’s ‘Steely Stare’. Both trigger an automatic shot when an enemy starts moving in their line of sight.
That means, when the turn ends, before the Smasher can move over to Mario both he and Luigi will empty two more shots into him.
That’s a total of six hits in one turn:
• the slide tackle
• the bounce off Rabbid Peach onto his head
• Luigi’s shot (to draw him away)
• Mario’s shot
• Luigi’s Steely Stare (when the enemy turn starts)
• Mario’s Hero Sight
And that’s before you even take Rabbid Peach into account: if she was close enough I could have started with a slide tackle and a shot from her too to make it eight hits.
I appreciate those last few paragraphs were probably a mess of confusion, but the reason I wrote it all out is to prove a point.
I’m not a very smart man: I generally don’t like strategy games as a rule because I’m terrible at them. But Mario + Rabbids gives you so much freedom and flexibility that even someone as shite as me can, with a little thought, put together flowing attack routines that make me feel like fucking Winston Churchill. Except not racist.
As you progress through the game, more enemy types appear and your strategies have to change accordingly. Do you concentrate on taking out the Smashers first because of the damage they can do, or focus on trying to draw the Supporters out from cover, because of their ability to heal their allies and easily destroy your cover with grenades?
These questions extend to your own team too, as more Mario and Rabbids characters gradually join your squad. There are eight potential members in all but only three can be brought into battle at a time, meaning you have to think about whether the next battle is going to be better suited to attacking or defensive characters, or combinations of them.
Each battle is also graded: to get the best score you have to win within a specific number of turns (which annoyingly isn’t given until the end of the battle, as far as I can tell) and without anyone on your team dying. Sorry, I mean ‘becoming dizzy’. Mario game and all that.
You can replay battles later on in an attempt to get gold trophies on each of them: it’s a nice way of encouraging replay value because it’s satisfying to come back with a stronger team and rinse the level you barely scraped past before.
The game isn’t all about turn-based scrapping, mind you. In between battles you get to explore the Mushroom Kingdom, solving puzzles in order to proceed to the next mission.
These sections are less entertaining than the turn-based parts, and the puzzles you have to solve – while never really truly brain-teasing – slow you down enough to frustrate you when all you want to do is move onto the next battle instead of shoving blocks around.
Exploring also highlights the game’s other main annoyance: Beep-0. The robot from the intro video is present throughout the game and continually chips in with his tuppence worth, explaining what’s going on and giving general advice.
I don’t have a problem with Beep-0 itself: the addition of an extra character is a necessity when you’re dealing with two sets of protagonists who don’t traditionally speak, and it’s not like Mario hasn’t been accompanied by chatty pricks before (see Luma in Mario Galaxy, Tippi in Super Paper Mario).
The real issue I have is that you actually control Beep-0 during the exploration sections, not Mario. Since Beep-0 is a tiny disc-shaped robot who sweeps across the ground like a Roomba vacuum cleaner, this makes for an oddly disjointed experience where, since you feel like you should be controlling Mario who runs along behind it, for the longest time you’ll feel like there’s massive input lag.
A ground-based robot is also really awkward when it comes to collecting floating coins. Whereas it would be no problem to run through these as Mario, with Beep-0 it’s a hassle trying to line it up and you’ll regularly go right past coins as a result.
This is most telling in the game’s occasional bonus areas, odd blue-hued rooms where you have to collect a number of coins before a timer runs out. The fact that simply picking up coins is considered (and often is) a challenge in these rooms is the clearest proof that controlling Beep-0 is a bastard.
My other issue with Beep-0 is more subjective, and chances are you won’t necessary agree. I just don’t think it’s a very well-written character. Its main role is to deliver snarky comments and one-liners in that standard ‘deadpan robot discourse’ style you’d expect, but I rarely even smirked during any of the game’s dialogue. When you’re dealing with a comedy adventure that’s a problem.
Here are some examples of the shite chat (click to embiggen):
Thankfully, the game’s still funny thanks to the character animations. From the way Rabbid Mario poses like he thinks he’s God’s gift to hares, to the way Rabbid Peach takes selfies of herself while one particular boss plummets to its doom (as Luigi looks on disturbed), the cutscenes and animations constantly had me chuckling in ways the dialogue never threatened to.
Ultimately, despite the exploration sections and the writing being slightly underwhelming, the main meat of Mario + Rabbids remains the turn-based combat sections so it’s a good job this is where the game truly shines.
I can’t remember the last time I played a game for so long that I fell asleep on the couch and woke the next morning, a drool-drizzled Pro Controller and dimmed burn-in protected TV display gazing at me judgmentally.
Its battles have that crucial ‘one more go’ element that will make long journeys breeze by (battery permitting), and while its writing may leave something to be desired, once you properly get into all the permutations of the combat system you’ll be hooked. Roll on the new Season Pass levels.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is out now, priced £49.99 / $59.99 on the Switch eShop. You can also buy the physical version from Amazon UK.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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Header illustration by Jonathan Traynor