When Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was revealed to the world through a leaked image of a selfie-taking 'Rabbid Peach', it's fair to say that not all reacted with joy. It seemed like a horrific bit of fan art, especially once follow-up artwork showed Mario and company targeting guns at foes; yet when the game was revealed plenty of eyebrows were raised and it became clear that Ubisoft had embarked upon an ambitious quest to combine Mario, Rabbids and turn-based tactical battles. Having now played the game to completion we can say that this isn't merely 'Mario X-COM', however - it's better than that.

Though a project with Nintendo's blessing, one thing reminded us right away that this is a Ubisoft-developed game - it starts with a lengthy story cutscene. A flashy, high-budget CGI intro shows a programming genius and their AI buddy Beep-0 working on a project, all while surrounded by Mario merchandise in what's clearly a gaming den / basement. There's a revolutionary VR headset, the Rabbids show up in their time travelling washing machine and naturally cause chaos, with one Rabbid having the unit fused to their eyes; through some quirky stretches of gaming logic we find ourselves in the Mushroom Kingdom and it's transformed / fused by Ubisoft's mascots.

It's a fun start to proceedings, even if your humble scribe isn't necessarily the target audience for the Rabbids' style of physical humour. It sets a strong tone for what follows, and in no time you're working through the easy opening stages as the game introduces players to the core mechanics. With a limited initial cast of Mario (who's always in the team), Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Luigi you set off following Beep-0, with the first mental adjustment being to remember that you actually directly control the little AI robot in the free-roaming segments, not Mario and company dashing behind.

There are two separate styles of play in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. The less prominent is exploration, as you explore four different zones and the area around Peach's castle it's a case of embarking upon simple movement and solving basic puzzles. Sometimes item chests (often with music tracks and concept art) are found by moving the camera to spot a hidden area, or you do a combination of block pushing and switch pressing to manipulate the environment. It's all very simplistic - without a huge amount of evolution in the 15 hour+ campaign - but the goal is evidently to show off this particular version of the Mushroom Kingdom; Ubisoft has pushed the boat out visually, which is showcased best in exploration segments.

Aside from finding collectibles and some hidden challenge rooms, exploration sections serve the purpose of moving you towards fixed 'chapters' of turn-based tactical fighting. That's not to say that running around the world is merely busy-work, but rather it sets the scene beautifully; in the process of moving to the next chapter you'll work your way up bric-a-brack mountains, through different areas of a haunted land and more besides; those transitions are then reflected in the battles you fight.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle blends element of turn-based tactical battles from multiple games in the genre, but for those unfamiliar with the likes of X-COM the first half dozen battles do an excellent job of teaching the basics. What's particularly pleasing is how polished and accomplished the mechanics are - this is no kid-friendly half-baked Rabbids take on a hugely popular style of game, it's a high quality reimagining.

You're given the means to survey the battlefield before it all begins, and after the guns have started firing you can still take a birds-eye view, assess movement possibilities of friend and foe, scout enemy units and so on. It feels very familiar too - you get varying protection from half-cover and full cover, some enemies need to be flanked to hit a vulnerable spot, and there are variations on overwatch. Yet even in the first hour or two you quickly realise that the fundamentals merely serve as one layer, with the development team embracing the concept and taking gameplay up a few notches.

Battles are dynamic affairs thanks to the ability to Dash enemies, running through them to cause damage before heading for cover. Team Jumps also allow you to hop off another friendly unit for extra territory, and later on these can even be turned into powerful stomp attacks or even heal moves. Most importantly, Ubisoft minimises the luck of the battle that - in this writer's opinion - is the biggest flaw in some of the genre's biggest games. A shot, for example, always has a hit likelihood of 0%, 50% or 100%; it's that simple, meaning you know the risks before making a move. Sometimes even a zero percent shot is worth it if you want to try and take out some destructible scenery. The 50/50 shots feel just that, too - in the vast majority of cases if you fail a mission it's because you didn't get your strategy right.

The Dash and Team Jump are just the beginning of what this game does well with the turn-based formula - as you progress through the campaign your team grows with new characters, and they all become transformed by improved skills and abilities. You earn coins and Skill Orbs through play, and with these gradually unlock new weapons and skills for each character (main and secondary); not only do you become more powerful but your strategies are informed by the cast's distinctive capabilities. We found ourselves mixing and matching through the whole group to suit the mission requirement and size of stage - if there was high ground and lots of space we'd likely take the sniping Luigi, for example, but in enclosed areas where quick kills are necessary we considered characters like the friendly-fire capable but powerful Rabbid Mario.

Further variety comes through different weapons and their related Super Effects. On the one hand you spend in-game currency on more powerful guns, melee attacks and secondary weapons (depending on the character), but you also have to consider their Super Effects. These vary from Inking enemies and restricting their moves, turning them to Stone for a turn and more besides; choosing which Super Effects to take into battle - and upgrading weapons to boost odds of triggering them - can be hugely important. The Skill Tree also contributes to this as skill moves are key in battle - in each round a character can move, use a weapon and trigger one of two specials (which have cooldowns), so there's plenty of planning and room for manoeuvre.

We always felt like we were learning new strategies; for example very late in the game we got stuck on a tough battle and then realised that Rabbid Luigi's ability to 'curse' enemies after dashing through them opened up innovative healing opportunities. Boss battles are also a mix of puzzle-solving and bringing your best guns to the party, with each having a key vulnerability to trigger; they're also grand in scale and a huge amount of fun.

Ultimately Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle feels like a game of eureka moments; even when occasionally stuck, after a couple of failed attempts on a battle (though you can select 'Easy Mode' before stages which gives you more health) the picture normally forms and you realise what tactics or team you need for a job. The way the pieces fall into place, and the frequency of 'a-ha!' instances where you realise what needs to be done, are sure-fire indications that this is an expertly crafted strategy game.

When you consider the mix of enemies and a variety of mid- and -final bosses there's a lot of high quality battling to do here. Four worlds may sound small, but each has nine missions - most are comprised of two battles (your character health carries over between battles, but you can change your team with the exception of Mario), with a few longer missions towards the end. We'd spend upwards of 30 minutes on one battle occasionally, and it took us around 17-18 hours to see the single player credits; that's after leaving a lot of unlocked challenge missions and more for another day. As you move through the story Beep-0 earns new exploration abilities, so you're encouraged to go back through previous worlds to take on 10 Challenges in each and also find secret areas with yet more battles and rewards. We only did some of the extras due to the quest for the end credits, but will happily spend many subsequent hours tackling these challenges in the weeks to come.

There's also quite a lot to do in local co-op if you can find a buddy to join you (though, in theory, you could also do these stages yourself). More of these extra stages become available as you clear the campaign; each player has two characters - as opposed to the team of three in solo battles - and you simply take turns as expected. You each need a controller (single Joy-Con controls are supported) but that seems to simply be the case to encourage you to find a partner. The maps are drawn from environments in the story but are generally bigger, and you can hop between players by passing control back and forth; the 'Switch' click is used for this, which is a cute touch.

On paper this is underwhelming, but in practice we had a lot of fun with these co-op missions; strategizing with a buddy and seeing it come together can be satisfying, especially when you bring the dynamism of Team Jumps and each characters' distinctive abilities into play. There are a decent number of stages - 18 - that can be played in Easy, Normal and an unlocked Hard setting, so there's a good few hours of extra play to be found ideally with a friend, or by a determined individual with two controllers to hand.

What we have here, then, is a turn-based tactical game that may surprise some in just how accomplished and polished it is. That sense of commitment from the development team carries across to presentation, too. Visually this is a handsome game, heavy on effects due to the genre not requiring a buttery smooth performance. When exploring you get delicious cinematic shots of the landscape, and there are nice touches such as short cutscenes of Rabbids larking about in the world. It looks particularly impressive on a TV, while the portable also does a decent job even though the smaller real estate and 720p resolution (which may be dynamic) has less of an impact.

Audio design is another highlight, with Grant Kirkhope producing a soundtrack that his fans will likely embrace. Often high energy and with only brief hints of Mario compositions, it adds to the silly drama rather nicely. It's another example of the passion behind the project, right down to characters and animated plant-life in the world playing along to the music.

After digesting around 20 hours of playtime with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle the best recommendation we can give is that we look forward to continuing with optional quests after seeing the credits. That said, the game has a couple of hiccups worth noting, even if some may be resolved in future updates.

Performance is generally fine, with just occasional frame dips that don't impact gameplay in any meaningful way. That said, 'action' shots for a special attack occasionally sit behind a wall, for example, and there are some visual blemishes here and there. When docked we noticed the late areas really pushed the hardware, too - across an extended session the system got very hot, with the fan cranked up to the max. We had one crash where the Switch closed the game, and a few instances where it would freeze for a couple of seconds before springing back to life, making us think it was a streaming issue. These were very rare occurrences, but some may encounter similar instances. 

It's worth knowing of these minor things, but they don't detract from what is otherwise an impressive and accomplished game. It's rather unlike any Rabbids game we've played because it's so polished and has such depth; the developers deserve a lot of credit and evidently had a genuine desire to do the Mario name - in particular - justice. It's not only a fantastic exclusive for the Switch, but it gives Nintendo gamers a unique and at-times innovative spin on a genre typically popular on PC, in particular.

Conclusion

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a must have for Switch-owning fans of turn-based tactical games. More importantly, such is the style and depth on offer that it's also ideal for those that haven't played much of the genre, for whom 'X-COM' sounds like a silly acronym from a war movie. It introduces the concept in the best possible way, and then utilises its own ideas for what becomes a smart and - at times - deliciously challenging experience.

It's perfectly acceptable to be surprised by Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, as many have been since its E3 reveal. The end result delivers on all of the potential that we could suddenly see back in June; even if you don't actually like the Rabbids, this game - and its familiar Mario cast and setting - is so good that Ubisoft's mascots are likeable. Well, almost.