Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Review
Rabbids have no problem fitting in with Mario and his pals, but the gameplay comes up a bit short
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle felt like the kind of announcement publishers usually reserve for April Fools’ jokes. It’s not the first time that Mario has paired up with a mascot of a third-party publisher, as Sonic and Mario have teamed up a few times for Olympic sports games, but this still feels odd. It’s like if Disney gave their stamp of approval for Mickey Mouse to do a movie with the Minions. To be upfront, I’ve never seen the appeal of the Rabbids. Originating in Rayman, as a mascot the Rabbids always felt forced, and the same could said for their over-the-top humor. Personally, I think the best Rayman games don’t feature the Rabbids at all - and are all the better for it. I provide this perspective so you’ll know what a compliment it is when I say that the union of the Rabbids and Mario is actually pretty charming. The blend of properties works far better than it has any right to in terms of aesthetic and comedy. I only wish the gameplay had been as good; suffice it to say that while the turn based combat mechanics start off as passable, the gameplay never really clicked for me.
You might wondering how Ubisoft would frame this hybrid world, and it’s about as ham-fisted as it can get. While a faceless super scientist works on a VR headset that is going to solve the energy crisis by combining items (this is demonstrated by using flowers and a lamp to create a flower-lamp… just go with it) the Rabbids appear in a giant dimension-traveling washing machine and begin causing chaos in the scientist's laboratory. A Rabbid puts on the headset, looks at another Rabbid and a Super Mario poster and - yeah - that is how we get Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.
The whole thing is a bit silly, but Ubisoft owns it and things snap along fast enough that you rarely stop to think about how weak the whole set up and subsequent narrative is. It’s like Ubisoft’s entire plot is a writer shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Because it’s Mario!” How did a desert get turned into a tundra but is still kind of a desert? It’s Mario, there’s always a desert and an ice world! Why does this haunted castle exist right next to Peach’s Castle? It’s Mario, we gotta find a place to put Boo! It’s pretty clear that development started with the level design and the plot was written to loosely string it all together - emphasis on “loosely”.
But that’s not a huge knock against Kingdom Battle. And again, it’s hard to quibble with this stuff when the cinematics make gags between the Mario characters and the Rabbids work so well. Rabbid Mario, Rabbid Peach, Rabbid Luigi, and Rabbid Yoshi are fun characters and while their whole shtick might not be as funny as Ubisoft seems to think it is, when I wasn’t chuckling at their offbeat comedy, I was usually at least smiling at it. The Rabbids breathe life into the Mushroom Kingdom; I doubt anyone would argue that Mario’s world isn’t charming, but Nintendo’s vanilla, cutesy comedy has its limits and the Rabbids are here to stretch them. The tone is still family-friendly, but the Rabbids have some wacky sensibilities and slapstick gags to shake things up.
Some of this is carried over to the gameplay, and helps the strategical combat feel more lighthearted. And I do like a lot of the little things that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle does, as enemies shake in fear when they’re about to get shot, like someone on the receiving end of their friend’s paintball gun. Or how when you’re shooting any enemy, characters in the line of fire will dramatically drop to the ground. Even Rabbid Peach’s movement animation is funny as she always trips and falls right before she reaches her destination. These little touches are smart and creative, and they help add to the world the game is building.
Said world is an homage to Nintendo’s legacy with beautiful levels that employ the colorful cast of the Mushroom Kingdom in creative ways, sometimes blending them with the Rabbids and sometimes playing it straight. Underneath all of it Grant Kirkhope created a score that beautifully blends famous Mario themes with a magical original soundtrack that’s been stuck in my head since I started playing. A veteran of Rare’s classic platformers, Kirkhope’s score is good enough to make you wish he did more Nintendo titles. The whole sound design has been carefully constructed, mimicking and recreating the sights and sounds of a Mario classic. There’s a very clear love of the character and his supporting cast on display - and you have to tip your hat to that kind of passion. The whole presentation package is something that the Nintendo faithful are going to love.
I just wish that it played as well as it looked. The game is split into two parts – one exploring the big maps, and the other are the isolated combat scenarios. The strategical shootouts are alright through the first stages, even if a little dull. You choose a team of three (Mario must always be the leader and you must always have at least one Rabbid character) and either defeat all the enemies on the map, reach a designated location or escort a character to a location. None of it is all that imaginative, but the sights and sounds help keep things fresh as you park your characters behind cover and choose who you’re going to take down. The first two worlds are pretty smooth sailing and there’s little that should give players trouble. That’s kind of the problem as you get deeper into the game.
It feels like Nintendo wants you to go back through the first two levels a few times, trying to perfect your strategies and grind your characters up a bit. I say this because the last two worlds are infuriatingly difficult that require a lot of grinding and trial-and-error attempts. The whole design of the latter half of the game is pretty bewildering to me. Excluding that this is, ostensibly, a game for a younger audience that are going to struggle with it, the difficulty spike also grinds the pacing of the campaign to a halt. You have two options to proceed; you can go back to the earlier levels and grind through them in an effort to buff up your characters, or you can switch to easy mode, which gives all characters 50% more health. The problem with the former option is that the game’s early combat is only passable, and not something you want to replay over and over.
The combat gameplay is similar to strategy games like XCOM, as you and your enemies take turns moving characters around a grid battlefield and shooting at each other. There are three phases to your turn for each character - movement, shooting, and special abilities. Characters can only move a certain amount of allotted spaces, but special attacks like a sliding strike or a team jump (where one character lifts another into a stylized jump) can allow you to expand the range. The shooting is far less complex than most strategy games of this sort, as there are only three percentiles, 100, 50, and 0. In some ways it helps make things simpler, and there’s no frustration over missing when you have an 80% chance to hit. Lastly the special abilities allow characters to shoot enemies who leave cover (like Overwatch skill from XCOM), power up teammates, or protect themselves.
The RPG elements come in after each battle, as players earn gold that can be used for improving both their weapons (all heroes have a secondary weapon that is explosive or melee) and orbs that can be used to level up characters’ special abilities. It’s here, in the core of the combat design that Kingdom Battle has some big flaws, because these special abilities aren’t a lot of fun. In fact, some of them feel totally uninspired. Half of the characters share similar abilities, making the differences between them smaller, and certain shield abilities didn’t prove all that useful. By the end of the game I was ignoring the majority of the party, hardly using certain characters like Luigi and Rabbid Mario, and had forgotten entire parts of the skill tree.
There are also attacks that don’t feel very useful. The close range ones are the biggest offenders. It’s hard to find moments when you can run next to an enemy and attack them without fear of a repercussion or leaving your character vulnerable. Princess Peach and Rabbid Mario have shotguns that destroy the cover directly in front of them, meaning you’ll often be leaving them completely vulnerable. Yoshi’s ground pound destroys everyone’s cover, so he’s always an easy target. It would be one thing if these abilities were so useful that it made you consider using them in spite of their negative effects, but that’s not the case.
Meanwhile, the enemies have loads of fun attacks - fun for them, anyways. One kind of enemy can teleport around the map and has devastating range. Another can’t be attacked at close range or it will run up to you and deliver a blow that knocks out half of your health. It can be pretty frustrating just how quickly these nasty baddies can wreck your strategy. But the AI is unpredictable. Usually they’ll attack the most vulnerable characters, but sometimes I only cleared maps because they would waste abilities or try to shoot characters who were clearly in full cover. It’s nice that the game isn’t entirely punishing, but it doesn’t feel rewarding when the only reason you clear a level is because the AI gives you a free pass.
There are also gameplay issues outside of the abilities and shooting. The biggest one is navigation. Moving around outside of combat on the 3D map feels weightless and it’s hard to direct the party. It makes it even worse that the game will occasionally wrestle the camera away from you. I never really saw a rhyme or reason to why the levels are designed like this, sometimes with a player-controlled camera, sometimes not. When the game switches to a fixed perspective it’s not to show off the scenery or help point out a puzzle - usually it’s the opposite. It may seem like a small grievance, but when you’re trying to collect coins or figure out puzzles this fixed perspective is quite frustrating.
Navigating around the battle maps is also annoying. Guiding your characters around the map with the analogue stick is, no pun intended, sticky, and if you miss the consequences can be devastating. Numerous times I was trying to direct a character to perform a team jump off another character, allowing them to more easily traverse the map, when I would accidentally send them right next to their teammate instead of selecting them, leaving them vulnerable. That’s not nearly as bad as when I would want a character to strike an enemy and move to select said enemy, but accidentally select right next to them.
Even when it’s working correctly, there’s so much going on in Kingdom Battle, it’s in desperate need of manual aiming. The automatic snap cursor aiming prevents players from being able to shoot exploding crates when enemies are sitting next to them, or to land an explosive in-between two enemies. It limits your strategies and prevents you from taking advantage of the rare enemy mistakes.
These gameplay issues are all the more aggravating during the second half of the game. Some missions would stretch out for what felt like an eternity or be multi-stage fights that you would have to begin all over again. This can turn small hiccups into painful moments as you throw away a lot of progress during battle.
The core of the game is built around these shootouts, so the flawed design really stands out. I already mentioned the puzzles that are littered throughout the game, and they’re fun, but not significant enough to really affect the overall flow of the experience. They usually take a couple of minutes to solve and are just distractions. The game really wants to you to invest your time into the arena battles and keep beating them until you’ve perfected each fight, grinding your characters up until you beat the game and all the challenges. Unfortunately, the combat isn’t nearly enough fun to warrant such an investment.
That’s also the problem with the co-op; the multiplayer is just a series of challenges that you can play locally. Each player mans their own three-character team and works cooperatively to complete challenge stages. It’s a lot of characters to have on a map, but talking through it with a friend can be a good time as you pass control back and forth. However, I didn’t experience the co-op until after finishing the campaign and by then, I’d had my fair share of Kingdom Battle’s combat. Much like the arena battles themselves, at best they are disposable distractions, and at worst they are aggravatingly difficult.
Technically, the game is pretty solid. I ran into one bug, causing the game to crash, but that was it. Again, it’s worth calling out the Nintendo Switch’s annoying controller connectivity. It’s hard enough navigating this world without having my controller connection drop unexpectedly, but that’s more of a Switch issue than Kingdom Battle, it’s just annoying that this is becoming so frequent it’s practically a feature of the console at this point.
I feel like Ubisoft has bent over backwards to prove their worth to Nintendo and its intense fan-base. The aesthetic, the comedy, the narrative, so much of this game is pleading to be loved by the Nintendo faithful, and it’s easily the strength of the game. Ubisoft isn’t faking it, as weird as the concept of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle might have felt upon announcement; the effort put into this game feels sincere, and it’s hard to manufacture that kind of genuine love. Still, as much fun as it is to take in the sights and sounds, there’s no getting around the pesky design flaws that keep this game from being great.