How Ubisoft's Rabbids become intertwined with Nintendo's Mushroom Kingdom, featuring Mario and friends, is unimportant. Ambivalence towards Rabbid-style toilet humor might cause you to question this dubious marriage, but there's an admirable and wholehearted commitment in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle that triumphs in creating a magical game world that is undeniably delightful, and within it, houses a deep, challenging turn-based tactical combat system.
The invasion of the dimwitted Rabbids brings out the sillier side of the Mushroom Kingdom, reminiscent of the Mario & Luigi RPG series, but with some interesting oddities. The humor is self-aware, a little more twisted, and conscious of the real world. This is likely the first time we've seen Mario's email get hacked, or heard antagonists threaten the plumber with actual death, for instance. But there's so much charm packed into every cartoony crevice of Mario + Rabbids--everything from the vibrant world, the incredibly expressive enemy animations, right down to the chuckle-worthy text descriptions of every item--that it's hard not to find something that makes you smile. But the most significant and strangest disruption to the lives of the Mario Bros. (aside from their new, creepy, Rabbid doppelganger allies) are guns, explosives, and an imperative to use them.
Those familiar with Firaxis Games' reboot of the XCOM series will know what to expect: Turn-based conflicts take place on a gridded, isometric battlefield where projectile weapons, cover, and flanking are a major focus. However, Kingdom Battle twists that design heavily by introducing abilities and options which encourage a more aggressive style of fighting, as well as situational urgencies to create a faster-paced, more exciting ebb and flow to battle compared to its influences.
Unlike other tactical games, combatants are allowed to perform movement, attacks, and special abilities in a single turn and in any order. This means using a special ability doesn't stop you from attacking during that same turn, movement doesn't need to be your first consideration, and you don't need to finish performing all actions with one character before using another. Characters also can use their movement phase to attack, by selecting enemies to "dash" into on the way to an end point, and reach out-of-range locations by moving into allies and getting a boost, a technique called 'team jump'. A variety of special abilities across characters allow you to perform actions such as increase weapon damage, scare enemies away from a location, and attack on enemy movement--a parallel to XCOM's Overwatch ability. Altogether, the flexibility of how these abilities can be used and how they can be combined, as well as the reward incentive for exceptional performance, means that you're pushed to perform elaborate team maneuvers every turn and take big, satisfying risks.
You might use Rabbid Luigi to dash through an enemy and into cover (stealing health at the same time), finish them off with a shot from his Bworb weapon, and send Mario in to use Rabbid Luigi as a springboard to execute a team jump and stomp on the head of another enemy hiding behind cover, softening them up for a finisher with Mario's hammer. Or, you could use Rabbid Mario's Magnet Dance ability to draw three enemies closer together, use his movement ability to Boom Dash through them all before returning to safety, before switching over to Luigi and activating his Steely Stare ability to attack enemies on movement. Then, you can send in an explosive Sentry drone which bounces the group of enemies up into the air, whereby Steely Stare is activated and Luigi snipes--and eliminates--each enemy like a clay pigeon, proving himself as the cold-blooded deadshot he has always been. Finding opportunities to perform complex action strings like these and having them pay off is incredibly exhilarating, and it's in these moments where Kingdom Battle is its best.
But these moments don't happen all the time, and they're not always worth the risk. Reaching these highs in battle is all the more sweeter since the combat design incorporates factors that constantly keeps you on your toes. Most cover is easily destroyed, for example, and a firing position you set yourself up in at the end of your last turn can just as easily be vapourised by the first enemy to act, leaving you completely exposed to follow-up attacks. Similarly, you could be hit by a weapon with a super effect, potentially setting you on fire and causing you to run out of cover like a maniac, or blocking your ability to perform certain actions.
Enemy Rabbids can be highly aggressive and cunning, especially in later stages. Rabbid Smashers gain free movement and can potentially hurt your team with devastating attacks if you hit them during your turn. Rabbid Shield Bucklers can only be hurt from the side or from behind, but also pack a powerful weapons that shred through destructible cover and can bounce your team around the map, making it hard to get the upper hand. You could also be the cause of your own demise, since friendly fire is a factor, and powerful characters like Peach, Rabbid Mario, and Yoshi specialise in area-of-effect damage. Escort and traversal missions, as well as the handful of boss battles, introduce additional objectives to chase. On top of that, you'll have to keep in mind the long cooldowns on secondary weapons and special abilities, as well as your party's health status, which persists within a chapter--a close victory might mean using the same team members in the next fight puts you at a disadvantage. Kingdom Battle's combat will have you agonising over every facet of every possible action during each of your turns, hoping you make it out okay enough to keep fighting, and well enough for a 'Perfect' grade to earn more coins and Power Orbs needed for upgrades.
Thankfully, agonizing is made easy because of the game's clean combat interface and the clear communication of pertinent information. At a glance, you're able to see the kinds of actions your team members still have available to perform in a turn. Full and half cover is clearly marked, and the visual design of the arenas makes it obvious what is and isn't destructible. Kingdom Battle uses a numerical percentage system to denote the chance for an attack to make contact, but unlike its clearest inspiration, XCOM, the only numbers you'll see are 0%, 50%, and 100%. This means you know what the hit outcome of your attack will be with confidence--including how much health you'll take off and whether your attack will eliminate the enemy--or you'll be completely certain that the outcome will be uncertain. There's a larger variety of chance when it comes to inflicting status effects, but at no point will you throw your hands up in frustration because Princess Peach missed a 90% probability shotgun blast to a Rabbid's stupid face.
Kingdom Battle also features an incredibly useful tactical camera view, which can be used both before and during battle. Here, the camera pulls back and gives you an opportunity to better survey the landscape freely, and get precise information on the movement, abilities, and attack ranges of your foes. The game also gives you the option to completely redistribute character skill points on a whim, and restart a skirmish at any time--both without punishment. You might find yourself fighting a losing battle due to completely unsuitable team composition, but Kingdom Battle encourages you to experiment with different strategies by restarting the mission, re-surveying the battlefield, swapping out team members, and changing their strengths in order to suit the situation. The game offers an easy mode option that boosts your team's health, but still demands the same tactical thinking. The result is that, despite its difficulty, Kingdom Battle radiates a feeling of encouragement much more than it does frustration in its mechanical design alone.
There's another layer on top of that, though. Outside of the battles, you run Mario and friends through the silly, lighthearted world of a Mushroom Kingdom that's been invaded by butt-scratching Rabbids and their slapstick antics, and spending time in this world is the perfect dose of positivity to keep you going after a tough fight. It's the seamlessness of the world which gives Kingdom Battle its greatest feeling of character and place--exploration and puzzle segments blend into battle arenas, and a small checkpoint banner is the only distinction between stages. Each world feels like a huge, tangible location as a result. Mildly challenging environmental puzzles occasionally gate the way forward, but never halt the pace of events, and mainstays of Mario platforming games, such as red rings and coin rooms, provide the odd distraction every once in awhile. There are compelling reasons to go back and revisit worlds, too. Upon the completion of an area for the first time, you'll unlock a new exploration ability and are invited to search previously inaccessible areas for chests and secret stages, as well as take on new challenge battles for additional rewards.
There were some slight technical imperfections that occurred during our playthrough. Clipping would occasionally occur during scene transitions, and framerates would sometimes drop visibly in combat during cinematic action shots, especially those with a large amount of particle effects. On rare occasions, characters and enemies would become stuck, meaning we were forced to load from checkpoints and restart battles. But the sting of these problems was quickly forgotten, washed away by the attractive world, absorbing battles, and lovely orchestral reinterpretations of classic Mario themes.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle exudes off-beat optimism that never dissolves. It's a consistent delight, no matter how challenging the road becomes, because Kingdom Battle's unique turn-based tactics system is in every way a pleasure to engage with. Coupled with the annoyingly infectious allure of Rabbids, and the always delightful, colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an implausibly engrossing formula that is positively challenging and endlessly charming.