Video Games Preview: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is way harder than you think it is

A few hours of playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle at Ubisoft’s Australian HQ last week made me really glad I sank so many hours into XCOM. Behind its outwardly cute and cartoonish exterior beats the heart of a stone-cold killer.

As I’ve said, this is not my first turn-based strategic rodeo. I’ve paid my dues with games like Final Fantasy TacticsXCOM and Civilization. I’ve learned that having a plan and sticking to it, even as you adapt to a changing battlefield, is the best way to survive. But because there were Rabbids involved, for my idiot brain that definitely knows better, all of that went out the window and I found myself getting schooled by these long-eared harridans.

Let me back up a bit.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle easily made my list of biggest surprises to come out of E3 this year. A smart, effective blend of Nintendo’s beloved Super Mario property with Ubisoft’s own manic, deeply French mascots, it’s clear that Ubisoft have been given a lot of room to try something weird here. I can’t imagine what the pitch meeting to Nintendo must have been like.

What we played of the game had two phases. The first is a kind of exploration-based mode in which your party of three characters are free to wander the overworld, opening up new areas and battlefields. There’s no much more to it than that, it’s really just a pretty simple progression from one part of the world to another. Mario and co do adopt that ridiculous arms-back Naruto run (you know the one) as they move about, which is cute, but that’s really all there is to see in this phase.

Phase Two, the combat phase, is where the real meat of the game lies. As you explore the overworld, you’ll encounter areas that are designed for pitched battles against various Rabbid enemy AIs and the game pivots into turn-based combat.

It’s easy to compare Mario + Rabbids to XCOM, and I will do so again later in this preview, but in describing the combat I think there’s a better comparison. Each player turn in combat actually shares a lot in common with Dungeons & Dragons. In the current edition of D&D, players have three things they can do on their combat turn — an Action (generally an Attack), a Bonus Action (which is a second, usually smaller attack or effect) and Movement. These can be augmented by the gear your character is wearing, or creative use of the terrain. Here, a slight variation on the same rules apply.

On his turn, Mario (as an example) can attack, move and launch a special power up that will grant an attack buff to any squad mates within a particular radius as a bonus action. Basic attacks can be powered up by buying more powerful weapons in the in-game store with in-game currency (that Ubisoft somehow convinced Nintendo to let them give Mario a gun could be the subject of its own article). Boons and specials can be upgraded on the character screen. Simple enough. It’s the movement phase that is augmented on the fly.

Charting a course directly past your enemies will allow Mario to slide-tackle them, dealing a bit of extra damage. If multiple enemies are placed close together and well within Mario’s movement field, chain them up, tackle three or four of them and then take cover, before launching your actual Attack Action from safety. If enemies are placed further away, or you’re looking to get Mario out of dodge, you can instead chart a course for a nearby team mate. Jumping on your team mate’s head will give Mario a boost, allowing him to move twice his regular distance in a single turn or jump to an entirely different part of the board.

This opens up an extra layer of strategy beyond Find Cover, Let Em Have It. Augmenting the Movement phase makes you really think about positioning, but it’s also a double edged sword. That little bit of extra damage from the tackle may be the thing that turns the tide of a given battle, but it may leave you open to attack from parts of the board that are further afield.

Opening up the tactical view on your turn became extremely important. There wasn’t any time limit on my turn so I was free to analyse every move to my heart’s content, running scenario after scenario in my head to try and determine an optimal play. This is part of what makes Mario + Rabbids such a great fit on a system as portable as the Switch. Like Final Fantasy Tactics on the Game Boy Advance SP, I can see myself pulling the game out, taking a turn and put it away again throughout the day.

The combat is where Mario + Rabbids‘ mask slipped and I could see the eyes of a stone-cold killer lurking just behind its cartoonish facade. Every mistake I made, every variable I overlooked, be it in how I positioned my heroes or in failing to take down a significant foe, the AI would capitalise on it immediately. Indeed, the ruthlessness of the enemy AI took me entirely by surprise, reading the board, finding an opportunity, and pouncing. It felt entirely reactive, happy to let me walk into a trap of my own making and then slamming it shut behind me. It would go out of its way to divide my heroes, moving them out of support range and then taking them down one-by-one. It would frequently utilise environmental boons and shortcuts in ways that hadn’t occurred to me yet. In many ways, it feels truly competitive. It felt like the AI was looking for a win the same way I was.

We were given reign over two areas of the game, the first in the Mushroom Kingdom and the second later in the game in a Spooky themed area. The Spooky themed area was utterly punishing, and filled with Boos that would abduct any character that got too close — yours or the AI’s — and transport them to a random spot int he level, ruining your carefully planned unit placement.

These two areas made up the bulk of my time with the game, but before we left we were treated a fast round of the game’s co-operative mode. This worked exceedingly well, though I can see it being more of a couch co-op solution than a portable one. Each player gets two heroes to make up their team (as opposed to three in the campaign). Each player gets a turn to move and attack as they like before handing control over to the next. It allows for an extra layer of tactical nuance which is great, but good communication is essential to success. The AI remains as tricksy and stubborn in co-op as it does in single player.

A few months ago, this whole idea felt terribly strange and out-of-left-field. Having spent time with it, it still feels a bit that way but I’m kind of in love with it. I can’t wait to spend more time with this game when it launches later this month.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle launches in Australia on August 29, exclusively on Nintendo Switch.