Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is bizarre. It’s a turn-based strategy game, built around an unlikely coupling of Nintendo’s beloved Mushroom Kingdom with the relentless insanity of Ubisoft’s iconic Rabbids. If you think that description is nuts, that’s because it is.
Somewhere, in a thousand alternate dimensions very different to our own, Kingdom Battle is the total, unremitting catastrophe so many people assumed it’d be. But! Somehow, in our dimension, this thing works. It’s a delightful, completely unexpected thing, and it’s easily one of my favourite games of the year.
The game’s story ties this strange crossover together by showing how those mischievous Rabbids, in their never-ending quest to cause as much wanton chaos as possible, manage to get their Rabbid-paws on a thingy that looks kind of like a VR headset and accidentally use it to open a portal to the Mushroom Kingdom. This particular VR headset thingy is like a magical combine-o-tron, able to take objects and smash them together to create a new object that shares properties of the original objects. This is why you’ll encounter things like Pirabbid Plants in your travels, and it’s also why you’ll find characters like Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Yoshi wandering around your Switch’s screen.
Apparently a bunch of the Rabbids become corrupted by the transformation or something. Suddenly they’re all wielding an arsenal of zappy guns and big, stompy melee weapons, and they start shooting/smashing up the place. In other words, things start looking a bit like the start of Saving Private Ryan – except there are Goombas, so it’s cute and endearing, rather than gut-wrenching and horrifying. Thankfully, not all of the Rabbids become unrelenting dicks, and so when Mario sets off to unmake this sticky mess, he’s joined by Rabbid versions of the Mushroom Kingdom’s most iconic heroes. To help deal with the Rabbids’ newfound assortment of zany weaponry, Mario and chums are gifted with their own array of wacky guns-‘n’-stuff.
See? It’s nuts. Immediately, Kingdom Battle is at a bit of a disadvantage, because Ubisoft’s Rabbids are every bit as divisive as the Minions in Despicable Me. You either love the little bastards and their ludicrous antics, or you’re a known puppy murderer who also considers the Rabbids to be insufferablly annoying. Personally, I’ve not had much experience with the Rabbids before Kingdom Battle, so I went in completely indifferent about ’em. Now that I’ve had some time to get to know them, I quite like the little dudes, and I often laughed out loud at their chaotic shenanigans. Then again, I also quite like Despicable Me‘s Minions. Does that make me a bad person? Actually, don’t answer that. Your thoughts and feelings mean nothing to me.
As for the game itself, it’s kind of like XCOM-lite. Your time is split between exploring Kingdom Battle‘s world and engaging in turn-based battles. The exploration side of things sees you guiding your merry band of heroes (led by Mario, of course) through a vibrant overworld, wholly comprised of wonderfully charming, Rabbid-infested renditions of the Mushroom Kingdom’s greatest hits. There’s some light puzzle-solving to be done here, along with a fat list of hidden collectables and secrets to be discovered. This aspect of the game is obviously its least exciting element, and at times it runs the risk of becoming a bit tedious. It’s entirely possibly to rush through it, since there’s no need for you to fully explore each zone and uncover its secrets – but thorough exploration will earn you weapons and ability points (more on these later) that’ll make storming your way through the Rabbid hordes slightly easier.
The meat of Kingdom Battle is in its turn-based punch-ups, and this is where the XCOM comparison comes in. With each skirmish, Mario and two other heroes of your choice find themselves on a grid-based battleground. Concepts like high-ground bonuses and the importance of using cover are quickly introduced, and Kingdom Battle excels at showing the ropes to genre newcomers. The difference between half and full cover, limited movement points and weapon range, the importance of positioning (both your own and that of the enemy) and flanking – intricacies such as these can be quite daunting if you’ve never played a game like this before, and Kingdom Battle does a stellar job of easing you into things. Considering that it’s also designed to appeal to kids, this is crucial, and props to the developers for taking a complex genre and simplifying it for a broader audience.
The thing is, even though it’s a simpler game than XCOM, there’s still a tremendous amount of strategic depth to be enjoyed here. Each playable character has their own strengths, weakness and unique idiosyncrasies. Mario, for example, is able to perform a team-jump off of friendly characters, and if there’s an enemy within range, he can stomp them when he lands to soften them up a bit. Princess Peach can’t stomp enemies, but when she hits the ground after a team-jump, she’ll immediately heal all friendly characters within range, replenishing a small amount of lost health. Every character has these unique traits, in addition to a range of secondary weapons (like grenades and rocket launchers) and special abilities – like Rabbid Mario’s super-sexy ability to attract groups of enemies towards his position.
Learning the intricacies of each character (and how to combine them with those of the others) is highly rewarding, and Kingdom Battle is a strong example of the “easy to learn, tough to master” adage. The difficulty of the battles ramps up really quickly over the course of the game, and this is especially true when you go back and replay them as special challenges. Naturally, there are boss battles too, and these throw in all-new challenges for you to face, particularly since they often create situations where it becomes impossible to rely on your preferred, go-to tactics. The same can also be said of some of the more exotic enemy types, who’ll throw a wrench in your best-laid plans.
There are new weapons to unlock as you progress, bought using coins you collect on your travels. Some of these weapons carry additional effects that’ll be applied to enemies when you land critical hits. Coating them in honey means they can’t move on their next turn, for example. Character abilities can also be bought and upgraded, the bonuses they provide mixed and matched to suit your needs.
Ultimately, this is a fantastic game, and an excellent entry point for anyone interested in turn-based strategy. It’s easy to understand, but beneath the surface of its supposed simplicity and its extremely approachable aesthetic is a game with layer upon layer of depth that genre veterans are sure to appreciate. It’s funny, it’s cute, and it’s an incredibly good fit for the Switch. Most importantly, Ubisoft worked alongside Nintendo to ensure that Kingdom Battle is coated with the polish and inviting charm for which Nintendo’s first-party titles are known, and it shows. This feels like a Nintendo game. And that’s probably the highest praise I can give it.