Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle created a stir when it was unveiled at the E3 Show in June. After all, any original Mario-related game is bound to be big news.
Back then it sounded like a rather strange proposition though. Developed by Ubisoft, and a cross-pollination between the worlds of Mario and the French publisher's Raving Rabbids, it would be a turn-based battle-game, in keeping with Mario originator Shigeru Miyamoto's wish that it bear no gameplay resemblance to any existing Mario game.
Ubisoft certainly mastered that brief. But what we weren't expecting was that it would come up with some of the most addictive turn-based gameplay we've ever encountered. Essentially, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is XCOM transplanted to the Mushroom Kingdom with added Rabbids. Which may sound like an improbable mish-mash but trust us: it's yet another exclusive gaming jewel in the Nintendo Switch's crown.
Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle review: What's the story?
Story-wise, Mario + Rabbids is pretty basic, and very Rabbid-oriented. It kicks off in the lab of a Nintendo-obsessive geek who has invented a VR helmet called the SupaMerge, which can scan any two objects and combine them into something new.
A bunch of those anarchic Rabbids gatecrash the scene in a dimension-travelling washing machine, swipe the SupaMerge and end up using it to cause havoc in the Mushroom Kingdom, littering it with giant, incongruous objects from the human world (as it's a Rabbids game, underpants feature heavily) and populating the home of Peach and co with hostile Rabbids.
Which is all a big excuse for you to embark on a quest to catch the Rabbid wearing the SupaMerge, with the aid of some Rabbid-versions of Nintendo characters. Naturally, Bowser Jr gets involved, and the action plays out across four worlds containing nine chapters, innumerable battles against Rabbids and both mid and end-level bosses.
There's plenty of typically silly Rabbids-meet-Mario humour – such as when Peach Rabbid meets the actual Princess Peach, and isn't impressed – but the gameplay turns out to be surprisingly heavyweight.
Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle review: How does it play?
As you traverse the four beautifully constructed worlds – which look superb and trigger memories of Super Mario 3D World, in particular, with their pipes, cannons and push-blocks – you must negotiate environmental puzzles which start off laughably easy but do at least increase in complexity as the game progresses. But the meat of the gameplay lies in the frequent battles against invading Rabbids which you must undertake.
You control a three-member team, which initially consists of Mario, Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi, although you accumulate other characters along the way, such as the real Luigi and Rabbid Mario.
Each character can perform a number of actions per turn – including causing mild damage by tackling enemies within range, getting another team member to give them a boost-jump which extends movement range and gives access to higher ground, and shooting (each team member has a cartoonish gun).
Cover is paramount – both in terms of acquiring clear line of sight for enemies and keeping your team members out of harm's way. While proceedings start off pretty simply, they soon add layers of complexity and tactical sophistication. It feels very much like XCOM, except with frivolous visuals and a beautifully observed, super-shallow learning curve in which the whole of the first world is used to introduce new abilities and concepts one by one, so there's no possibility that you might miss something fundamental.
Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle review: Skills tree
As you win battles, you're awarded purple orbs which can be cashed in on a substantial skills tree for each character.
There, you can boost health and movement range, but also acquire special skills – such as Mario's ability to shoot moving characters out of turn, or Rabbid Peach's ability to heal nearby team-mates – secondary weapons like melee hammers, and uprated abilities such as the chance to tackle more than one enemy per turn. The skills tree lets you shape your characters to a large extent. Swapping team members in and out also becomes a tactical consideration.
Plus you soon acquire an array of more powerful guns, which you can buy with the familiar Mario coins you accumulate, and which give you a chance of a special effect, like Bounce, which sends enemies springing around the battlefield (and out of cover), or Stone, which immobilises them for a turn.
Mind you, the improved weapons and added skills are required, since you soon encounter different types of enemies: Smashers move slowly but cause vast amounts of melee damage with huge blocks of ice; Hoppers can perform team-jumps like Mario and his pals; and Supporters can heal themselves and fellow-enemies.
Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle review: Tactical complexity
So it all gets very tactical indeed – even more so when you factor in the odd environmental effect which doesn't discriminate between friend and foe, such as tornadoes and Chain Chomps.
It's particularly satisfying when you chain moves together and trigger unforeseen effects, such as causing burning enemies to run into and damage other enemies hidden behind cover.
Fighting ordinary battles, your objectives chop and change: sometimes, it's just a case of eliminating all the enemies, but on other occasions, you're invited to kill a certain number of enemies while new ones spawn, to escort other characters (usually Toads) to safe areas or to get one team member to a safe zone.
The boss-battles are great too – both very funny and taxing in strategic terms.
If you own a Nintendo Switch, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is an essential purchase. It's amusing, incredibly addictive, very distinctive and impeccably well structured.
The single-player game is pretty meaty, but there's plenty of extra to do besides to extend the longevity of play. You can take on two-player co-operative local battles (each player gets a two-member team), while each world has a hidden chapter which you can only unlock after your first pass through it.
Mario + Rabbids may initially look like a bit of fluff, but it's anything but that – its underlying gameplay is unimpeachably strategic and very rich indeed.