It wasn’t long ago that nobody knew if a rumored crossover between Super Mario and Ubisoft's deranged, Minion-like Rabbids of Rayman series descent was even real. The long-running rumblings of such, while amusing, always seemed suspiciously sourced and best, and on paper never made much sense. Flash forward to E3 2017 and not only has the game been officially confirmed, but it's playable on the show floor at both Nintendo and Ubisoft’s respective booths. I never expected such a pairing to flaunt XCOM-esque trappings wrapped in cotton candy Rabbids and Mario weirdness, but hey, at E3 I’m open to anything that’s fun.
What’s going on here Mario-wise is familiar; Luigi has gone missing and it’s up to Mario, Peach, and a Rabbid in a Luigi hat to try and save the day. Something has gone awry in the Mushroom Kingdom, though luckily there’s a small robot companion along for the ride ready to help Mario and the gang out. The setup is strange, but as noted in my Mario Odyssey preview, when it comes to Mario logistics don’t matter - it just has to be fun. From what I can tell, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is.
Gameplay is split down the middle, alternating between segments of traversal and, well, “Kingdom Battle” itself. The view of the game world is angled, again parroting XCOM and offering a clear sight of terrain and what’s in store should you direct your small brigade a certain direction. I was immediately taken by the vividness of it all; the Rabbids, despite their insanity, have done nothing to sap Mario’s world of its color and lush visual diversity. Some paths lead to small puzzles or challenges, while others lead to combat - my time with the game was too short to determine whether or not repetition will take its toll here, but assuming maps and tasks maintain a steady variety as you progress, it doesn’t have to be a problem.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Mario + Rabbids is thoroughly tactical, with battle squares marked by flags giving you the heads-up as you prep your “army” for what’s ahead. The balance of striking foes and remaining just out of reach appears to play a heavy role, and there are even Fire Emblem-esque skills denoted to each hero. Mario’s allows him to easily attack enemies who breach his direct vision, for example, with similar unique powers assigned to each member of your team.
This of course yields strategy in placing units or handling enemies who sport abilities of their own, and ultimately what’s surprising is not that a game would include such systems, but that a game featuring Mario and a bunch of freakish chibi lagomorphs does. Alas, if it works, it works, and clearly someone at Ubisoft knew what they were doing.
During my demo I did notice a few Rabbid-specific tweaks to familiar tactical behavior, as breaching an enemy grid square allows you to actually deal damage before landing adjacent and not actually wasting your turn. The challenges I encountered centered mainly around collecting coins and manipulating terrain to do so, and frankly the more Kingdom Battle introduces unexpected brain-benders and the like to its clearly familiar formula, the more successful it’s going to be. The aforementioned Fire Emblem skills appear to be tied to particular characters (Rabbid Luigi can shield while Peach can heal), and while this works for now, amassing more units might have you wishing said abilities were swappable. This is only speculation, though; during my hands-on armies remained small and limitations yielded strategies, not frustrations.
My floor demo with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was not particularly long, and if my appointed demo with Nintendo later this week exposes anything the floor demo did not then I’ll be sure to update this article accordingly. Still, from what I did gather Kingdom Battle is a competent strategy title, somehow harnessing the combined weirdness and charm of Rabbids and Mario and sculpting something compelling out of it. If the Rabbids freak you out I expect they’ll continue to do so, but otherwise, your rabbit ears ought to be piqued.