'Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle' Is More Than a Surprise, It's Excellent
Who could have predicted this strange mashup would be one of the year's most interesting games?
Image courtesy of Ubisoft
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle doesn't sound like a game that should work. It's a strategy RPG featuring Nintendo characters...from Ubisoft? What? It's not exactly a genre Ubisoft is known for (sorry, Tom Clancy's EndWar), and those aw-shucks-goofy rabbids wore out their welcome nearly as soon as they arrived. And yet, I'm here to tell you Kingdom Battle is a hell of a game, a strategy RPG with more in common with Fire Emblem than XCOM, one that wraps a satisfying turn-based combat game—featuring surprising depth to its systems and mechanics—in the approachable accessibility that's come to define modern Nintendo games.
I'm as shocked as you are, but more than 10 hours laters, I can't put the game down.
The setup for Kingdom Battle is thin, but it's a moot point. A new piece of technology, capable of fusing objects together, overheats and malfunctions, resulting in lots of random things being combined, including the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom and rabbids. Things are messed up, and the ol' Koopa clan is trying to take advantage of the situation. I think that's close? Honestly, I wasn't paying it much attention; the gameplay is the real hook here.
There's no outright platforming here, with players piloting an isometric camera around colorful themed worlds—snow, desert, etc.—in-between combat. The world hides a few secrets, but they're mostly junk collectibles—3D models, music clips—hidden beneath some basic puzzles. Prior to combat, players set their lineup, with three players allowed on the field at once. Kingdom Battle sports a mixture of Nintendo characters and rabbids dressed up like Nintendo characters. (At least, that's what I've seen so far. I've unlocked five of eight.)
Everyone can run, shoot, and jump on one another, but each has a unique characteristic: Mario can jump on enemies, Peach Rabbid can heal and buff defense, Luigi is a master of long-range attacks. (Yes, Luigi is basically a sniper in Kingdom Battle. It's weird. Deal with it!)
When combat begins, everyone takes turns moving across a grid. If you've played a game like this before, there are no great surprises. Each character can move a set amount or perform a handful of actions before the enemy gets their crack at it. Some actions can be performed each turn, others require you to wait for them to recharge. What makes Kingdom Battle special is the unique sense of momentum that defines the pace of fights. Again, there's no "platforming," but characters can slide tackle enemies in their path, jump on one another for extra movement options, and drop into well-placed pipes that let you to zip great heights and distances. In that sense, Kingdom Battle often feels like a platformer, even if you're not controlling the jump itself. Setting it up in turn-based form is nearly as satisfying.
Folks have been describing Kingdom Battle as Mario XCOM since it was first revealed, but it's a little misleading. We've all had a moment in XCOM where you roll up to an enemy and miss, despite the game promising a 99% chance of blasting a sectoid in the face. That never happens in Kingdom Battle; it's far more precise about your chances. The only percentages the game rolls out are 0%, 50%, and 100%, and even during a 50/50 moment, the result of an enemy in cover, it means your bullets start chipping away at what they're hiding behind.
This is why you should think of Kingdom Battle as a hybrid puzzle/tactics game, a notion bolstered by the game's supporting elements. (It also feels a lot like playing Fire Emblem with permadeath on, but never letting anyone die.) At the end of every successful round, it judges your performance on two metrics: if everyone survived and whether you finished under "X" turns. You're rewarded with a perfect grade for accomplishing both, good for missing one of them, etc. Besides earning a shiny gold statue, you end up with more coins, which can be used to purchase more powerful (and varied) weapons for your lineup. You don't have to play the game according to these metrics, of course, but I'm guessing most people will.
If a particular scenario is proving vexing, you can come back later and try again. If you messed up the first set of moves, it's fine; the game doesn't punish you for starting over. Early on, it feels like Kingdom Battle is pushing players towards One True Way to play, but in reality, especially as the game progresses, it's really about enforcing ruthless efficiency, and making sure the player is taking advantage of the way the systems build off of one another.
After coming away from a demo of Kingdom Battle at E3 with positive impressions, my great fear was Ubisoft wouldn't push the concept far enough. It was easy to imagine Kingdom Battle sacrificing too much complexity in the name of simplicity, despite Nintendo's long history—Advance Wars, Fire Emblem—of producing hardcore strategy games. The first world of Kingdom Battle, though enjoyable, did little to dissuade that fear, but the moment I entered the second world, everything changed. Suddenly, enemies were taking advantage of the buffs I'd been using to school them for hours, setting up overwatch-style shots to catch me while dashing across the map, and generally putting up a fight. The puzzle element was still there, but it was pressed against enemies who weren't interested in letting me glide by.
More importantly, the introduction of some fiendishly complex mechanics adds fantastic variety to the ways I could approach combat. For example, Rabbid Mario, as goofy looking as he is, functions as a tank. Besides starting out with higher health than most characters, his special powers give him enormous versatility. One of them reduces damage while moving by 80%, which is infinitely useful when enemies begin setting traps for you. Some maps ask you to guide Toad, who cannot attack, from one end to the other, making him an easy target.
Let's say a few enemies go into the game's take on overwatch, letting them take guaranteed shots at Toad while he moves. Rabbid Mario can flip on this power, absorb most of the hits, and ensure that enemy power goes on a cooldown. Alternatively, Rabbid Mario can force aggro on an enemy with another ability, which lets you set up the opposite scenario. I recently had a situation where Mario and Luigi were sitting in overwatch, with a powerful enemy nearby. Rabbid Mario pulled the aggro, triggering both of their reaction shots (in this case, my upgraded Mario could shoot twice), immediately killing him. That felt really good.
That's to say nothing of stranger abilities like vampirism, wherein anyone who hurts an infected enemy immediately regains some health, based on how much damage they caused.
My hope is that Kingdom Battle continues to layer on on different ways to fight as it progresses. In an ideal world, the remaining characters are like Rabbid Mario, introducing more eccentric classes of fighters that may not fit everyone's approach—you can get by just fine with the initial slate of characters—but rewards players interested in higher-level play.
Like I said, I've only played 10 hours or so. I've finished most of the second world, and I don't know what lies beyond. It's possible the game will plateau in complexity. Maybe not.
Even if that doesn't happen, the game has options for those in pursuit of harder mountains to climb. (Ideally, the game would allow you to start on a harder difficulty mode, but so far as I can tell, that doesn't exist.) Once you've finished a world, running through it again presents a suite of challenges, situations explicitly designed to force a more strategic hand. One might have you defeating 10 enemies in two turns or less, another will ask you to manipulate a charging enemy that, upon being attacked, can bounce you onto an island that's otherwise unreachable. Even the challenges marked as "easy" had me scratching my head, and prompted me to take notes to map out how my hits would stack, as the rounds progress.
Kingdom Battle comes at a perfect time for the Switch. Most people have finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, ARMs was an interesting experiment that didn't quite land, and Splatoon 2 has limited appeal if you're not into competitive multiplayer. Super Mario Odyssey is on the horizon, but I'm still terrified Nintendo's going to delay that one. In the meantime, Kingdom Battle is a meaty if delightfully weird mashup, the likes of which Nintendo should encourage more of in the future. Mario now fires a gun—and it works.