I never would have thought I’d say this, but Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is one of the best games available on Nintendo Switch, coming extremely close to surpassing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as the platform’s top offering.
A mixture of Mario and Rabbids with a huge helping of XCOM thrown in, Kingdom Battle is a top-down, turn-based strategy title, matching a team of three heroes against myriad foot soldiers, sub-, mini and full-fledged bosses. Each hero has his or her own special abilities and weaponry – on the Mario side, the titular hero is a great all-rounder, Princess Peach has a passive heal ability and cover-destroying grenades and Luigi is an expert marksman thanks to all his time with hose-based ghost hunting weaponry. The Mario-cosplaying Rabbids are also very useful, mirroring their counterparts but with their own unique spins on useful talents.
Enemies are largely Rabbid-based, but with Mushroom Kingdom twists; a rogue augmented reality headset, fused to a Rabbid nicknamed Spawny, fuses Ubisoft’s crazy mascots with elements of the Mario world – everything from Donkey Kong to Piranha Plants and more. Baddies are as unique as heroes, wielding front-facing shields, long-range bombs, extra bouncy springs to fly around the map and more. This enemy variety means you’ll constantly need to be adaptive to a situation to overcome it.
Gameplay consists of heading out to a unique world and progressing through many levels. Worlds are stylised like classic Mario games: a green and vibrant starting world, a desert wasteland and a spooky cemetery are only some of the locations you’ll visit. Levels follow a basic structure: eliminate all enemies on the map, survive and reach the end of a map or eliminate a boss. Between levels, you’ll encounter puzzles that will block progress to the next, or a mini-puzzle that will offer up collectibles in the form of weaponry, a soundtrack file, 3D models and more.
These mid-world puzzles help to break up levels, but it’s the mini-puzzles, housed in Tron-like neon blue worlds, that can truly frustrate. In them, you’re tasked to collect several blue coins in a set number of time. In most, you’ll need to crack the order the coins are to be collected in – a switch will open access to a once-closed off area, but inhibit access to another. Figuring the sequence out is relatively easy, but getting it done in time is not; the top-down nature of the game sometimes makes it hard to push a block in the right direction; you think you’re going left, but you end up going down. The trick here is to ignore Mario and use his buddy Beep-O to properly determine the true direction you’re facing. A simple hint, but difficult to really wrap your head around.
As we discovered in our hands-on preview, you’re slowly introduced to the basics of traversal and combat as ultra-aggressive AI teams hunt you down. Almost from the get-go, you’re given hardly any room to breathe; any simple mistake can mean your downfall. While I fared far better this time around, I believe that’s because I’d already spent around two hours playing and truly getting used to designing my own teams and tactics. An easy mode does exist, able to be toggled on at the start of each level, but it merely ups your heroes’ health and doesn’t impact AI aggression.
In combat, you’re given several options. Movement is key, getting into cover or into position to use your characters’ powers or co-op moves. Mario can slide tackle baddies, jump on allies to then stop on other baddies and can then use either a long-range blaster or close-range hammer to finish opponents off. Your characters can also apply buffs, with boosts ranging from weapon power to movement speed, range and healing. The key is to select a team of three with powers that complement each other, then using the team to get the high-ground on baddies.
That’s easier said than done; while manageable, Kingdom Battle is truly, truly difficult. I reviewed the title while on vacation with my 5- and 8-year-old niece and nephew, and it appealed to them almost immediately. They watch the Rabbids TV show and love their antics – and hey, everyone loves Mario. As such, they constantly tried to grab my Switch from me and play, but were quickly dismayed when they were utterly destroyed. We eventually found the compromise; I played through the actual game, handing the screen over to the children with cutscenes occurred. Parents need to be aware that they’ll have to adopt a similar practice unless they’re keen to frustrate their little ones.
Co-op, in which two local players take control of two characters each, is equally difficult. On normal mode, my partner and I managed to eliminate three of twenty potential threats. On easy, we barely squeaked by. After two hours of play, we knew the basics and were managing to string together decent swings of kicks, shots, jumps and cover — but our enemies were ruthless. Make sure you play with someone you’re quite comfortable with… or someone you really enjoy getting into fights with.
There’s no denying Kingdom Battle is an amazing experience, but it’s also a tough one to describe to friends and family. Heavy on Mario characters and locales, it’s not your usual Mario game. It features Ubisoft’s highly annoying Rabbids, but in a format that finally works, subdued and entertaining. It uses humour that kids will appreciate, but parents and adult gamers will get more from. Best yet, it doesn’t hold your hand, demanding a carefully-planned strategy to accomplish your goals. I can’t recommend it enough, but to the right audience – players over the age of 15 will find the title an utter delight.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was reviewed using a promotional code on Switch, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.