Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Mario sprints from cover, blaster in hand, sliding into a Rabbid taking cover behind a pipe. The Rabbid falls, stunned but still combat-ready; he'll need to be finished off. Mario takes off, putting his trademark platform skills to use as he jumps onto Rabbid Peach — a Rabbid cosplaying as Peach, also armed — and springs into the air, flying across a river and landing behind some rocks.
A single shot from Mario — the weapon blasting out a green shell — is enough to put down the Rabbid, but there are several more trying to find a route to flank him. Luckily, Luigi is on overwatch, sniper rifle ready.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a Mario game, despite Ubisoft developing the title, but even with the multitude of spin-offs he's appeared in you've never seen him like this before: a Mario bred for combat.
Ubisoft has done good work here, and this feels like a first-party Nintendo game in a lot of ways: The game is well optimised on the Switch for a start, something that has been lacking in third-party titles on the console. Also, Ubisoft has channelled some of that Nintendo magic in taking the core concept of the turn-based tactical shooter and paring away all of the mechanical complexity to deliver a streamlined tactical experience that just so happens to feature everyone's second-favourite plumber and his friends.
Between the fights, your team runs around collecting coins and opening chests, travelling from battle to battle. There's a touch of the Metroidvania to the whole thing, with some puzzles only solvable with certain abilities you unlock later in the game. These moments are notably weaker than the combat but serve as little more than an engine to deliver you to the next battle.
Mario + Rabbids is tactical, then, with a small t. Units can move, shoot and use their special abilities on a cooldown, but there's no real metagame or overlying tactical layer beyond returning to Peach's castle at the end of a string of levels to buy weapons or look at collectibles. For those of you used to the intense long-term strategic choices of XCOM or Jagged Alliance, Mario + Rabbids will feel either hideously shallow or a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately for anyone wanting to watch Luigi cradle his dying brother after he takes a fatal yo-yo blow to the face, there's no permadeath, none of the 'hardcore' elements that have long typified the genre, and similar things like a fog of war or percentage-based abilities are largely kept to a minimum. Tactical, turn-based games have always been a niche genre, but Mario + Rabbids is a successful attempt at creating a more casual entry, and it deserves your attention because it actually works.
Squint a bit and you can see XCOM's influence smeared all over. There's movement budgets, lines of sight, cover, skill trees, and everything else you would expect. Princess Peach has an explosive shotgun, too, despite the fact it looks like a toy. The game feels more movement-based than many others in the genre, perhaps because the maps are so basic, often offering some clear clusters of cover to bed into. This is helped by the range of movement skills on offer, allowing you to travel near unlimited distances using pipes and jumping off of your teammates, with the added ability to attack an enemy for big damage by sliding into them as you run.
The end result of this is that you're often hurling yourself around the map in every direction, and the movement is the biggest joy of Mario + Rabbids. Both you and your enemies are always haring around the place, keeping the pace of combat frenetic.
Tonally, it's a weird mismatch for both the Mario and Rabbids universes, and they fit the theme about as well as they work with each other. The Rabbid universe, by far the junior partner here, largely seems to balance on toilet humour and 'random' behaviour, and seeing a gigantic toilet or a joke about a Goomba getting a jet of water up his butt is downright weird, but over time you get used to it, and there's a lot of character work here: the way Luigi nervously peeks over cover, while Rabbid Peach lounges against the cover with a very 'over it' expression, for example.
Early on, you'll have plenty of time to soak these details up, as the lengthy tutorial extends until mission 1-6, an hour or so into the game. This is when you unlock half of the features in the game, and it suddenly starts to coalesce before you, layering tactical opportunities on top of each other. The pace was a little too slow for me at first, but when you start to access some of the more unique abilities available to each character, the game is much improved.
So, in short: Mario + Rabbids is fun, a refreshing take on turn-based strategy, and another home run for the Switch. Bright, colourful animations and a sense of personality mix with a surprisingly deep tactical combat experience, and while purists might balk at the idea of a stripped back strategy title featuring Nintendo's famous plumber, there's plenty for Switch owners to enjoy here.
February 27 2020 | 11:00