In 2017 Mario seems to be on something of a departure from his norm. Maybe it's a midlife crisis. First, there's Mario Odyssey on Switch, a game in which our intrepid plumber has ended up in not only familiar lands, such as Sand Kingdom, but also closer-to-reality ones, such as Metropolis - a NY-style city featuring actual humans. Second, there's Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, a game in which Mario has teamed up with Ubisoft's Rabbids - the comical sprites, which are a little like the minions from Despicable Me - in an all-new game.
It's Mario like you've never seen him before. Which was the very point that Shigeru Miyamoto made when appearing on stage at Ubisoft's pre-E3 press conference to announce the game. Nintendo wouldn't give away the licence of its beloved Italiano to any old publisher, so this pairing - exclusively available for Nintendo Switch - is a collaboration built with the intent of pushing an entirely different game idea.
Kingdom Battle is the result: a largely turn-based battle game, with elements of Xcom meets Mario. With, of course, the comical Rabbids; some dress like Princess Peach, others like Luigi, many of them are visible throughout the Mushroom Kingdom, whether floating on giant rubber ducks or appearing elsewhere, to add a punch of comedy to proceedings.
But roaming in 3D platform-game style is far from the point of Kingdom Battle. It's more on rails than that, the goal always to pass through the exploration sections and reach battle phases, in which various opposing Rabbids and other nasties team up against Mario and your gang. It's a good job exploration isn't prolific as it doesn't run very well: the animation is choppy and the frame-rate not right; cutscenes are also noticeably compressed with lots of artefacts which detract from the overall quality that's possible from the Switch.
Anyway, once a battle is engaged, Kingdom Battle doesn't really feel like a Mario game at all. It employs a grid system, where motion followed by an attack can take place. The degree of movement is limited within this grid, so you may wish to use your other compatriots to jump on and extend your reach through the play area.
Various blocks and pipes are present on the battle ground to use to your advantage: whether for defence from opposition, or to whisk yourself away to farther-away points where the opposition can't engage you.
The control mechanics take a little getting used to, but it's soon apparent that dash attacks - used to knock enemies out - are critical when used in combination with shooting attacks. In our demo we also witnessed a shield which was only available to one player of the team every three moves, and we expect there will be an array of additional tools at your disposal as the game progresses.
With each battle the game escalates from a simple premise to something increasingly complex. Using available moves in the right order, avoiding certain enemies - there's a giant Chomp Chain in one battle, which will attack whoever/whatever is nearest to it each turn - will become critical to winning.
We also experienced weapon upgrades, opened by progressing through battles, but only available to purchase by collecting sufficient coins from throughout the exploration sections of the game (i.e. not withing battles).
If you're after a new Mario or Rabbids game then Battle Kingdom is a cute and compelling game. It's not a platformer by the conventional means, so you'll absolutely need to be a tactical turn-based battle game fan to give it the time of day. If, however, turn-based is right up your street then Mario + Rabbids is a perfectly good fun... although it's not a Mario game as you may expect it.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle will be released exclusively for Nintendo Switch on August 29, 2017.