Video Games Review: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (Switch, 2017) is the best game Ubisoft have made in years

That headline isn’t bullcrap, I actually believe it. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Ubisoft’s big, bridge-repairing gamble with Nintendo, is one of the studio’s best offerings in years. It’s smart, addictive, tough as nails in the later levels and leverages a genre that doesn’t get much play on console in a way that is perfect for a system as portable as the Switch.

The reason for this high quality, I believe, is Nintendo themselves. I can only imagine what the pitch meeting for this game must have been like. There’s so much in here that doesn’t feel like something Nintendo would have created or included on their own. In this, Mario + Rabbids is a fantastic example of how good we can have it when Nintendo breaks with tradition and embraces third-party.

The Rabbids themselves, Ubisoft’s absurdist, extremely French mascots, remain much as they’ve always been — obsessed with the kind of scatological humour Nintendo would ordinarily turn their noses up at. The Rabbids’ shenanigans are met with good-natured bewilderment from Mario and his friends, which is exactly how I expect the Japanese would respond to these bug-eyed maniacs. There are things in this game I never thought I’d see in Mario titles. There are fart jokes. There are arse puns. Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi are all toting guns. I am still blown away that Nintendo said yes to all of this.

The reason for all this cross-over mayhem is that the Rabbids, after time jumping into the bedroom of a die hard Super Mario fan/apparent mad scientist, accidentally get their hands on a device that is capable of combining any two objects and creating an amalgam of them in their stead. The Rabbids, chaos personified, tumble back into their time travelling washing machine (where did they get it? Why can it do that? Doesn’t matter, they’re French) and bypass the dimensional gate, crash landing in the Super Mario universe. Upon arrival, they immediately set about combining everything in it with … themselves. The story is exactly as nutty as it sounds and no-one is more befuddled by it than Mario himself. Our hero almost instantly resigns himself to fixing this situation with the air of a man who sees weird crap like this every other day.

The most common comparison for Mario + Rabbids is that of its core similarity to the XCOM series — tactical, turn-based combat against various enemies where unit placement and weapon picks matter just as much as your overall strategy. There are a lot of differences from XCOM however — your squaddies can’t permanently die, for instance, they are only knocked out until the battle is over. When the percentage-to-hit indicator reads 100% chance to hit, it actually means it. XCOM staples like the Overwatch mechanic, which lets you take a free attack of opportunity on any target that moves into your line of sight, are now super moves that specific characters like Mario and Luigi can use to lay down a bit of extra fire.

Even with the concessions it makes to cater to a broader audience, the strategy remains surprisingly deep. On your turn, each of your heroes can take three base actions — they can move, they can fire on enemies and they can pop a super move (for stat buffs, heals, etc) if they need to. These can then be augmented to extend their usefulness in combat. In the movement phase, for example, if there is an enemy within your field of movement, you can run by them and perform a slide tackle (which counts as a minor attack) on your way to cover. Alternatively, if you have an ally within your field of movement, you can use them for a boost and double your movement space, allowing you to quickly shuttle heroes around the battlefield. Examining the battlefield prior to the start of a fight and picking weapons from the shop that will grant buffs to particular enemies is another way to maximise your shooting phase with bounce effects, honey to stick foes in place and more. Depending on how crafty you are, you can actually wring quite a bit of play from every single turn you get.

As you progress through the game’s various worlds and individual battles, new hero characters are introduced from both the Super Mario and Ravin’ Rabbid universes, all with their own specific skillsets. Rabbid Peach is a great healer, Luigi shines when part of your strat is to aggressively push the high ground and put his skills as a long range sniper to work. Rabbid Mario is your heavy weapons expert. Each of your characters can be upgraded using an in-game skill tree and swapped out prior to the beginning of a match, allowing you to gain a stat advantage over your foes out of the gate. From there, it’s up to you to formulate a strategy that can capitalise on their talents.

Similarly, new mechanics and enemies are folded in with each new world and so, as the game gives you new skills to add to your strategy toolbox, it also throws new challenges at you. Each battlemap will have an objective, from simply taking out all the enemy combatants, to escort missions where a particular non-combat unit must be moved through the level unharmed, to boss battles in which significant enemies must be overcome using every trick and skill you’ve learned to date. The same goes for the levels themselves, destructable blocks that will grant debuffs on any enemy too close when they go off, to simply taking any available high ground for a damage and accuracy buff.

The further into the game you get, the more challenging it becomes. In the early game, there isn’t much to prevent you from running the same squad, largely unmodified, for levels on end. I was notching multiple significant wins and often completing the battle well under the game’s Par-esque ranking system. At a certain point I began to wonder if I’d accidentally stumbled onto an OP stat build in Mario, Luigi and Rabbid Peach (solid fire power + long range + movement buffs + dual 2x Overwatch + strong heals)  and I came very close to being lulled into a false sense of security. I was disabused of this security very quickly.

In the early game, the enemy AI is deliberately pliant, willingly submitting to an arse kicking because I, as the player, was still learning the ropes. By the time you reach the late game, I found myself having to restart battles over and over because the enemy AI was ruthlessly efficient. It would pounce on any mistake I made and ensured I paid dearly for them. Fail to cover my flanks or simply move a hero in error? They’re going to cop it. The game’s great trick is that this AI barbarism doesn’t come out of nowhere — it’s a gradual thing, very much the old Boiling A Frog In A Pot scenario where you don’t realise the situation is getting harder and harder until you realise that every battle has become a life-or-death struggle, often down to the last unit standing. I love it. I love that there’s a Nintendo game out there that isn’t willing to pull its punches. It’s taught you everything you need to know in order to win — it isn’t Mario + Rabbids’ fault if you aren’t emptying your toolbox in order to succeed.

All of the above is written in regards to the game’s single-player campaign, but there’s actually a cooperative component as well for those who understand that two heads are better than one. Rather than a single squad of three heroes, co-op mode sees each player running a squad of two against a Rabbid army on a slightly larger level built to accommodate the larger hero amount. It’s another example of how much thought has gone into every part of Mario + Rabbids that this mode works as smoothly as it does. It makes complete sense and is a suitably hilarious couch co-op experience.

Aside from the outstanding turn-based combat, there’s also an exploration component to Mario + Rabbids and this, by far, is its weakest point. While each world has its own theme, the occasional puzzle to solve and frequent secrets and bonus levels throughout to help you unlock more guns and upgrades, they’re rarely little more than something to break up the time between combat scenarios. Sadly, the controls aren’t quite where they need to be for some of these areas and puzzles, particularly those that require pushing large blocks in specific directions on a timer. Frequently I would think I was positioned correctly but, due to the lead character in these sections being a small Roomba-shaped robot, it was often hard to tell which way it was looking. The block would then be pushed in the wrong direction and I would have to start the puzzle over.

I get it, I understand the functions these sections serve. If the game was all combat, all the time it would become exhausting, but it feels like there’s more they could be doing here. Why aren’t the puzzles something in the vein of more classic Super Mario Bros. or even Super Mario 64? Why must I be tethered to this Roomba, doomed to run behind it in a straight line forever? Something Ubisoft will address in the (I hope and pray) inevitable sequel.

Even with these disappointing sections, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle‘s chewy strategic centre is worth the price of admission. This is a game with something to prove — about its choice of genre, about its use of characters, and even about its own percieved level of quality. It is an extremely confident first entry in what I hope will be a long-running series. Now all I have to do is put it down long enough to get some actual work done.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Deep, rewarding strategy; Endlessly surprising; Clever design
Lowlights: Overworld exploration still a bit dull
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
System: Nintendo Switch
Available: 29 August, 2017

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.