Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was already interesting from its many leaks, but when revealed as an XCOM: Enemy Unknown-like at this year’s E3, the gaming public lost their collective minds. On the surface, the fact that Nintendo characters were entering overwatch or hiding behind cover with the camera swinging around dramatically, was creative and unexpected enough to allay concerns over the Raving Rabbids being involved.
Wonderfully, the final game’s Rabbids are a non-issue. The eight player characters in Mario+Rabbids are split between our long-time friends (Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi) and a Rabbid cosplaying each of them respectively. As a testament to the game’s funny writing, each of the Rabbid versions is rooted in self-aware parody: for example, Rabbid Mario’s moustache is bigger, his overalls are saggier, and he hums his own theme tune when he’s not suggestively winking at the other characters or serenading them with his mandolin.
On the other hand, the optics of Mario + Rabbids go beyond proving to the English-speaking world that Rabbids are a good idea. With Mario + Rabbids, Ubisoft has presupposed that the XCOM formula can be presented to Nintendo’s global Mario audience: a whole order of magnitude greater than XCOM‘s audience. With promising early sales reports, the game seems to be hitting that mark sales-wise; and the game itself holds up—at least in its most important parts.
THE BEST: XCOM-BAT
In a fittingly Nintendo-esque approach to the tactics genre, Ubisoft has taken the grid-based tactics system, that players of XCOM or Fire Emblem will be familiar with, and made it approachable to players of all stripes—this is not the same as making it easy. Rather than the systems-upon-systems in traditional turn-based games that can result in intimidating menus driving most of the play time, the player character in Mario + Rabbids is always a blue hockey-puck character. Players with experience in the tactics genre will have no trouble getting to grips with battlefield movement, moving from square to square and highlighting enemies to attack and so on. At the same time, players who have only ever experienced the Raving Rabbids or Mario games will have an easier time grasping the concepts of directing multiple characters thanks to the centering of controls around this single character, known as Beep-O.
From there, the game sets about establishing the basics that made 2012’s XCOM so compelling. In battle, three of the eight player characters are faced with an escalating assortment of evil Rabbids, most of them armed with long-range weaponry. The player characters also have weapons, a collection of non-guns that will pacify the Rabbids without killing them, but the enemies have no such compunctions and will quickly KO a party that is left out in the open.
For this reason, cover is essential. Move a character up to a wall and she will hide behind it—full cover absorbs all incoming damage from the wall side, and half cover reduces enemies’ chance to hit to 50%. Then, as long as she has the line of sight to a Rabbid within her range, she can fire back. Enemies will take cover too, so flanking enemies is also an important tactic.
So far, so XCOM, where combat is concerned—but the tone of the standard Mario game is obviously at odds with the horror-tinged, creeping dread of a clandestine alien invasion. This distinction is reflected in every aspect of Mario + Rabbids‘s design: instead of inching through rural towns and peeking around corners, player characters are encouraged to run from one side of the map and back, leaping off each other’s backs to gain a height or distance advantage.
What’s more, rather than each character moving and acting in turn, the player has the option of moving, shooting, or activating special abilities for any character in any order. This helps alleviate the limited character selection somewhat by offering a greater variety of options during each turn. As players progress through the game’s massive 20-to-30-hour campaign, these tactics are taught through experience and occasional tutorials.
Regular players of turn-based tactics games will notice inspiration from series beyond XCOM, with only a few niggles preventing Mario + Rabbids‘s battles from standing as a true paragon of the genre. The inability to cancel and alter a move command, for example, results in a few bad moves thanks to rare but repeated technical hiccups.
The variety of objectives keeps battles fresh by not always demanding total destruction (some require reaching a predefined zone at the end of a map, for instance), but this also throws up a few less-than-desired tasks such as the always-dreaded Escort Mission. Additionally, the de-emphasis on RNG means that battles will more or less always play out the same way. These issues don’t prevent Mario + Rabbids‘s tactical combat from enchanting all but the most demanding fans, and the breadth of optional challenge maps and secrets beyond the lengthy story campaign offer plenty of value for money.
NOT THE BEST: OUTSIDE COMBAT
Were Mario + Rabbids nothing more than an exercise in combat design, its mechanics would earn it the highest praise, but without user-friendliness in polish and world design, its Nintendo-approved seal might have been in doubt.
And so, the other half of the game begins with a story: a rather silly story starting in the Rabbids’ version of our world in the near future. A girl genius (and hardcore Mario fan) has invented the SupaMerge, a Vive-like headset that can combine two objects into one. Using the Time Washing Machine, the Rabbids soon arrive and immediately begin wreaking havoc, messing with the SupaMerge and causing a dimensional vortex that sucks in the Rabbids, the SupaMerge, the girl’s Mario paraphernalia and her AI companion Beep-O inside. Through standard Rabbids logic, this creates a portal to the Mushroom Kingdom and causes widespread chaos as the Rabbids and various giant objects from the girl’s bedroom rain over everything.
The malfunctioning SupaMerge continues to fire off, merging Rabbids with anything nearby, including merging itself with one of the Rabbids. Beep-O, now in physical form, is rescued by Mario and resolves to help the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom clean up the Rabbids’ mess. As outlined above, the team meets up with other Mario characters and good Rabbids who have merged with the costumes of their characters.
The visual presentation in Mario + Rabbids complements the excellently designed combat mechanics with its high quality. Ubisoft’s version of the Mushroom Kingdom is not too dissimilar from the world glimpsed in Nintendo’s own Mario titles, although Rabbidified; drenched in toilet-humor and puns. As players use Beep-O to lead their party between combat arenas, they will be treated to many different, beautifully realized scenes across the game’s four worlds.
The Rabbids are also invoked throughout, messing with series icons such as Banzai Bill and Bowser’s Castle. Mario fans should feel appropriately motivated on their quest to clean up the mess the Rabbids have caused, and failing that, at least to see what new and creative sight lies over the next ridge.
The game’s technical hiccups, then, are the first hint of cracks in this polished exterior. Slowdown and hitching are not the worst in a turn-based game, but as mentioned above, there will be times when the game’s FPS will dip to 1 or lower which may cause players to accidentally select the wrong target. There was also a full-on crash towards the end of the final boss fight that meant having to replay the whole battle.
Of course, a massively mainstream entertainment product like Mario + Rabbids would not work as the equivalent of Metal Gear Solid‘s VR Missions, without a narrative throughline or pauses to break up combat that, admittedly, can be exhausting in the longer term. So between battles, the party will be faced with some variations on block-pushing and switch puzzles in order to progress through the world.
At first, these are a welcome diversion, but the puzzles never evolve enough to engage the imagination, as in the way of a Nintendo puzzle game. Even the more complicated puzzles in Mario + Rabbids are simply longer and more tedious than the earlier ones. Thanks to this, world exploration—particularly in worlds 3 and 4—is just not fun. If that weren’t enough to make the second half somewhat of a disappointment (outside of the combat, which stays interesting throughout), the wonder and color of the first two worlds gives way to darker and gloomier settings that, while still intriguing, lack the verve of world 1’s mysterious forests and world 2’s frozen desert.
To alleviate exploration tedium, previous turn-based Mario games have pushed toward the RPG side of the spectrum, offering funny plots and memorable characters that can overcome the world design limitations. Despite clever writing infused throughout, however, Mario + Rabbids fails at delivering a compelling narrative.
Mario games don’t require award winning story, but a game that takes 30 hours to complete still needs more to it than the average Super Mario platformer. In Mario + Rabbids the main objective of the characters is so poorly defined, and the actual antagonist so clumsily established, that the originally stated goal of cleaning up the Rabbids’ invasion of the Mushroom Kingdom is never actually achieved.
Like the recent Paper Mario games and their own crossover with Mario and Luigi, Mario + Rabbids plays conservatively with its cast of characters, but even more so with their characterisation. Apart from Princess Peach (who in this game is never kidnapped and allowed to be as badass as she likes, while still remaining her princessy self), the characters are drawn as basically as can be. Mario’s gonna Mario, Baby Bowser’s gonna Bowse, and any scripted interaction between them lacks an iota of the fun that went into designing the cosplaying Rabbids.
What is worse is that all the combat in the game prior to Baby Bowser’s midboss battle has been played against some variation of Rabbids, but Bowser clearly has to show up for the final battle and arrives, with powers heretofore unestablished, unable to explain himself because of some nonsense that occurred offscreen. Thankfully, the other bosses in Mario + Rabbids are magnificent, terrifying, funny and tricky, presented with true gravitas thanks to the game’s best quality by far: Grant Kirkhope’s original score.
Kirkhope’s score is the most fun original music this year. It mixes the cartoon playfulness of Banjo-Kazooie with the laid-back orchestral wonder of Viva Piñata, while still standing proud amongst the better turn-based-tactics soundtracks out there. Compare the progression of the mid-boss theme (above) with that of any battle soundtrack by say, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and you might swear Kirkhope had been composing tactics games for years.
There are little hints of John Williams peppered through Kirkhope’s modern orchestral palette, but the score to Mario + Rabbids also deftly mixes in the musical themes established by Koji Kondo when necessary, to create something that fits well inside the Mario world. In particular, the stage-clear music is a new but faithful rendition of the traditional tune, and Princess Peach’s Castle is loving in its evocation of Super Mario 64 while still standing on its own.
THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
Mario + Rabbids exceeds at bringing XCOM‘s squad-level tactics to the masses, has presentation rivaling Nintendo’s own work and is otherwise well put-together despite a few technical problems—glitches that can probably be fixed with a patch further down the line. Unfortunately, for all its excellent parts, Mario + Rabbids is also a very long tactics-RPG with very little to hold interest between its battles. Casual players will love its pacing but eventually grow tired of its puzzles, hopefully not before they’ve experienced the full depth of Mario+Rabbids‘ combat. With luck, Ubisoft will get to take another crack at this formula in a followup and have the opportunity to craft a true masterpiece.