Don’t let the cutesy Rabbids or the heart-warming Mario fool you – Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is tough. Like, beyond XCOM level tough. The only huge difference between Ubisoft’s upcoming title and 2K’s familiar franchise is that you’ll “die” a lot more often. Just, you know, you won’t actually die – this is still a game being made in partnership with Nintendo, boys and girls.
In a hands-on preview held in Sydney last week, Stevivor had the opportunity of playing a half an hour near the opening of the top-down strategy game, an hour of the game several hours in and, finally, a quick jaunt through local co-op. My palms were sweating by the time I wrapped things up.
You’re thrown off the deep end almost immediately. The tutorial is quite intricate, teaching you the basics – players have unique stats; at first, the most important is the one that dictates the number of tiles they can move. As things progress, you learn that your team of three can make or break a level; Rabbid Peach is useful to heal your team, while the likes of Yoshi and Rabbid Luigi have specials that buff speed and movement. Your team can also work together, extending their movement by literal leaps and bounds, jumping off the backs of others to reach new distances.
While a majority of the characters and the entire setting are wholly Nintendo, this is clearly an Ubisoft joint. A weapon called Hell in a Shell reinforces this right off the bat. Shock aside – they used a swear word, you guys – this game does not hold your hand.
You learn the basics as an ultra-aggressive AI team hunts you down, without any room to breathe or hardly and margin for error. A simple exercise – to eliminate three enemies – is difficult enough on its own, but you’re immediately told to move from point A to point B afterwards. You don’t get a chance to heal or to evaluate the situation; you jump in, head first. The emphasis changes from battling opponents to simply surviving – in fact, only one of your team needs to make it to the end.
You will fail this sequence. A number of times. It’s hard — and moreover, it’s borderline frustrating. But that challenge is what defines Mario + Rabbids; it’s why I wanted to keep playing and why an Ubisoft handler had to practically wrestle the Switch from my hands at the end of my time.
There is an Easy Mode that can be activated — and practically nags you to do so when you die (note: I died a lot) — but it only fills your health back up, gives it a top-up and sets you back on your way. There is no Super Guide that’s going to finish any altercation that Mario and friends jump into. For me — and, judging the faces of fellow journos around me — this is a great thing; for children who have the game dumped into their hands by well-intended parents, not so much.
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. I desperately want to play again to best them.
There’s not long to wait for the chance — Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle heads to Nintendo Switch on 29 August.