While its reveal at E3 was anything but a surprise, the positive response to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was arguably unexpected. The idea of a crossover between the two IPs wasn't well received by everyone before it was shown, with this writer among the initial doubters. Yet the impact in LA was significant, as the picture emerged of a colourful, earnestly-developed project. When we spoke to Grant Kirkhope about his role in producing its soundtrack he emphasized the passion of the development team to get it right; it's hard to doubt that, and we got a sense of that in an interview with producer Xavier Manzanares, too.
Plenty of positive things were said about the E3 demo, and when we were given the opportunity to play an updated and extended build we couldn't resist; after all, we are talking about what some playfully describe as 'Mario XCOM'. It is more than that, of course, and goes its own way - we came to appreciate that after some time with the game.
Mario + Rabbids and a New Kind of Battle
The build took us through a few pre-selected areas, levels not seen in LA - you can see our video coverage below. In addition we were also able to develop a sense of how the underlying mechanics expand and inform the core gameplay, and one thing is clear - this is a strategy game with surprising and genuine depth. It's in the same genre as the likes of XCOM, but it's also unique in a number of ways.
For those that have been under a rock for the past couple of months, a quick summary on how this game works. A mix of Mushroom Kingdom characters and cosplaying Rabbids are chosen in varying combinations to form teams of three. They explore the broader world and areas, including some puzzles and funny moments, and then jump into levels of turn-based battles. Armed with guns and various abilities, they face off against enemies in enclosed battle areas, performing solo moves and team attacks; it's these battles that draw genre-based comparisons.
Yet the style of the Mario world and the chaos of the Rabbids shakes up the core formula to introduce vital strategies. For example team-mates can propel each other forwards with a Team Jump, and when setting a path for each character you can run through enemies for a physical attack - called a Dash - before taking cover and then making a conventional move. Both of these are transformative in action, as they bring a dynamism to the field and also enable smart strategic thinking. If there are two enemies near each other and one is nearly dead, for example, you can conceivably finish the weak foe off on your way to cover to have a clear shot at the second.
Anyone that plays strategy games like this - or indeed board games - will feel at home with the other core tenets of battle. There's full and half cover to find behind destructible scenery, the angle and distance of your shot determines your odds of a hit (though thankfully Ubisoft plays it straight and fair with these percentages), and beyond core attacks you have specials and abilities to utilise. Then there are the 'Mario' touches, like pipes to shift you to the other side of the battlefield, for example. Environments work against you, too; in one smart level there are Boos that go after your characters and, if you run through their space, they'll grab hold and transport your character to an inconvenient location.
After a short period learning the controls we found it clicked naturally; various mechanics will be introduced gradually through the campaign, though we skipped sections so can't judge the full 'flow' as yet. What was clear is that, underneath the smart battle system, there's a lot of depth for those that want to find it. Each character has distinct styles and abilities that determine core aspects of their performance; Rabbid Peach is a handy healer while Luigi is a long-distance expert, for example, while Mario is an 'all-rounder' as always. As your roster grows you'll be able to try characters with different styles, and then form teams to deliver on broader strategies. They also develop new abilities with progress, though the truncated manner of the demo meant we couldn't gauge how smoothly this happens.
For example, this scribe likes to match Mario - who's mandatory - with Luigi and Rabbid Peach. Luigi is a handy sniper and can even carry out overwatch from amazing distances (we'll come back to that), while the selfie-obsessed Rabbid Peach is handy in a fight but also has healing capabilities. Video man Alex liked having the actual Peach in his team, not because of a peculiar crush but because one of her weapons is a hugely powerful shotgun, though 'friendly fire' is possible...
Here are two scenarios where the mechanics combine with unique Mario + Rabbid ideas for amusing and clever results. In the aforementioned Boo level our Luigi got transported well away from the action, so we set him to the game's equivalent of overwatch (in which characters shoot at enemies within their sights between moves). As a sniper his range was excellent, and at one point a Rabbit sprung out of cover and jumped into the air - he landed a shot from a distance while they were in the middle of a jump; it was unexpected and delightful to see. Later on Peach blasted enemies with her shotgun and in the process set them on fire; as the enemy Rabbids dashed around in a panic with flaming bums they passed by our own teammates, actually setting them on fire for a small amount of damage and comical animation.
The Detail Matters in Mario + Rabbids
Occasional unexpected moments like these best showcase where this game could, if the final product comes together well, be something special. It's also important to emphasize that the madness is structured, so we can see this game appealing to both newcomers and strategy veterans. Each of the characters, for example, has an extensive skill tree; we were rather dropped into it about 'two thirds' through the campaign, so we had plenty of upgrade orb points and choices; we hope it'll be introduced gradually in the full game. Some abilities are common across characters and others are unique to their capabilities. So for example you can extend Luigi's shot-making capabilities, boost the health points that Rabbid Peach can distribute or have Mario transition from a jump assist into a stomp attack.
In addition you also deal with weapons, both main and secondary. You find some in 'exploration' segments in the overworld, and you then spend in-game earned currency on these guns. In addition to basic stats around power they have interesting effects; 'bounce' for example literally means just that, with a clean hit damaging the enemy Rabbid and also propelling them across the field and occasionally 'out of bounds'. With limited money players will likely take time to pick a weapon that best suits their style, or more likely will pick one that looks cool and has quirky effects. With each character having their own weapons to choose from, it's another layer of depth that should please genre fans interested in the detail, while less experienced players can choose the design that amuses them the most.
What we were also shown in a brief video, and experienced in our own playthrough, is how important it is to have a strategy in mind before each battle that is informed by your crew's abilities and equipment. Before the fight starts you can preview the field, and an example we were shown was how Rabbid Luigi's unique area-of-attack special was useful against hulking melee-happy enemies. Likewise in our own playtime we added abilities in the skill tree and then, 10 minutes later, had our bacon saved by one of those abilities kicking in (that Luigi snipe from a distance). Different mission objectives will likely also determine which three characters you use; examples we saw included a simple 'defeat all enemies' objective and another where we had to dash to a safe zone. There are big set-piece moments that also take the gameplay up a notch, but some details are embargoed for Ubisoft itself to reveal.
The levels we played ranged from early in the game to the latter half, and one immediately apparent point is that it isn't a walkover later on, far from it. A haunted area stage had a mix of the aforementioned Boos and troublesome enemy Rabbids, and caused quite a few to trip up and need multiple attempts. We squeaked through first time but got the lowest ranking, so if levels can be replayed there'll be incentive to go back and get the best possible ratings; this typically means keeping all of your characters active and meeting the objective in a modest number of turns.
So far we've focused on mechanics and gameplay, because there's plenty to consider, but a mention should definitely go to the presentation. Ubisoft has adopted a rather attractive art style to blend the two worlds. The Mushroom Kingdom has a slightly meatier look than the light Pixar-style visuals often adopted by Nintendo, though Mario and company have all the familiar gestures and mannerisms. Cutscenes are nicely done, and there are incidental touches to emphasize the strange Rabbid takeover of the world; when exploring - which has its own minor puzzles to solve between battles - areas of interest can be viewed with a press of A, triggering very brief scenes. Even for those that aren't necessarily Rabbids fans there are moments to raise a smile, with Boos as lampposts and Goombas looking rather lost and out of place having been usurped by corrupted Rabbids.
It's scenic and undoubtedly good looking, and Grant Kirkhope's musical score also plays its part in adding to the whimsy. Nods to the Mario compositions are as fleeting as he suggested to us in our interview, as we're very much introduced to a Mushroom Kingdom that has been transformed. In the areas we played the music and broader sound design certainly added to the experience.
Graphically this is a good-looking game, with exploration segments outside of battle boasting some impressive environments. Ubisoft goes for a relatively effects-heavy approach, which we suspect pushes the Switch hardware quite hard - our playtime was always with the docked system. It was running well in this build, but there can be occasional dips below a solid 30fps; it doesn't affect gameplay because, after all, it's mainly turn-based. In a technical level it'll certainly be among the better-looking Switch games, we suspect.
Battling Alongside a Friend
A new mode we got to sample towards the end of the day was co-op battles. There are 18 custom stages - seemingly separate and isolated from the story - for this mode (each with three difficulty sessions), in our case with two players teamed up locally with one Joy-Con each. Both players pick two characters each as opposed to the usual three, and your scribe along with video man Alex immediately plotted out combinations to best tackle the challenge. Unlike in single player Mario isn't mandatory, either.
We tried two arenas in the middle 'Normal' difficulty, and what's immediately striking is that the areas are bigger than typical solo stages. Like in the solo campaign environments there were various pipes to use and there was quite a lot of levelling and verticality, putting a focus on team jumps and so on to reach higher areas. Holding the Joy-Con sideways the 'lead' player weighs up options and decides to start moving or, if it's better strategically, to pass play over to their buddy.
It's a case of one at a time, then, with plenty of conversation to get it right (this is local play only, we believe). Initially the controls can feel a little fiddly, though button prompts are generous in the standard UI; after playing with two Joy-Cons in the Grip some adjustment was needed. We'd hope the final product will enable players to team up with a Grip and Pro Controller instead, for those of us that find the sideways Joy-Con a little restrictive.
The two stages we tried were pretty well put together, each with a goal of defeating a specific number of enemies, and it got pretty challenging in the second environment. The mode seemed ok, and is certainly functional, but the turn-based strategy genre doesn't necessarily play into the strengths of co-op. While playing in single player in these sorts of games there's immersion to be found, but sitting waiting for a co-op buddy to figure out their moves can suck the momentum away. The size of the stages we played, and the 'defeat x number of enemies' objective, makes it a gradual march forwards, lacking the tempo, smart design and instinctive flanking manoeuvres that are delightfully common in the more focused solo story levels. In the campaign you use the environment to outwit your foes using various unique mechanics, and the action feels snappy; in co-op it felt like we were simply gradually creeping forward to add up kills, XCOM style.
The co-op mode, what we saw of it, may not match the sheer personality and quality of solo play. It works, and it's easy to imagine parents and their kids having a lovely time, but aside from the occasional manic moments driven by the game's engine it lacked a little spark. A nice addition, yes, but not the part of the game we're most excited for.
Mario Looks Good With a Gun
What's clear above all else is that Ubisoft has put a lot of passion into this game, along with respect for the Mario IP. The level of quality here is, frankly, well beyond any Rabbids games we've seen before now, and gives an almost peculiar mix of whimsy and wacky humour alongside detailed and immersive strategy. It'll be something fresh and different for Switch, certainly, and this old XCOM fan can't help but feel it could be a unique spin on its genre.
Don't let the Rabbids put you off - Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is full of exciting potential.
These impressions were formed at a press event in Paris, for which Ubisoft paid our travel and expenses.