LOS ANGELES – Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is the game from E3 2017 that I didn’t know I wanted until I saw it. When I first heard that Nintendo’s Mario and Ubisoft’s Rabbids would be coinhabiting a game world, I assumed it’d be yet another forgettable party game, which would hold gamers’ attention for exactly as long as it took the novelty to wear off.
I could not have been more wrong. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a turn-based tactical game with role-playing elements, more like XCOM or Valkyria Chronicles than Mario Party. Ubisoft let me go hands-on with the game, and to my surprise, it’s not only creative and unexpected – it’s also challenging, ambitious and a whole lot of fun. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild didn’t convince me to get a Switch; Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle just might.
The setup for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is bizarre, but fundamentally simple. The Rabbids have lost their minds, invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and scattered Mario’s supporting cast. Mario must team up with a ragtag group of unaffected Rabbids (who are mischievous, but not malicious) to rescue his friends and find out how to save the Rabbids from whatever’s causing them to go bad.
The whole game takes place in an isometric perspective, and consists of two main components: exploration and combat. Exploration is closer to the traditional Mario formula. You’ll take control of a robotic Rabbid named Beep-o, who leads Mario and two party members around an open-ended Mushroom Kingdom. There are lots of coins to collect, puzzles to solve and hidden treasures to find. Lots of Mario mainstays are present, such as collecting red coins in a limited period of time – although surprisingly, Mario and co. can’t jump anywhere.
The meatier part of the game is in its combat. When Mario and his party encounter enemies, Beep-o takes a backseat, and players can control the combatants directly. You need three characters in your party at any given time, but you can choose from a wide variety of Mario mainstays and Rabbids impersonating them. Each character has slightly different abilities; for example, in my session, Mario could attack enemies when they moved past his line of sight; a Luigi-Rabbid could protect himself from powerful attacks; a Princess Peach-Rabbid could heal the party.
If you’ve played a turn-based tactical game, you already know how combat works. You equip Mario and his party with various long-range weapons, then position them on a battlefield to do battle with small armies of foes. You can hide behind cover, blow up explosive boxes, plow into enemies for extra damage or leap off of allies’ backs to increase your movement range. Different weapons can stun enemies, push them back or even steal health. Considering the game’s cartoony, kid-friendly aesthetic, it has the potential to become surprisingly deep.
Another thing that surprised me was that the game is no pushover. An early boss fight against a Piranha Plant Rabbid left my characters scattered across the map and taking more damage than they could reasonably absorb. Only after restarting the battle did I learn to take my time, eliminate enemies methodically, and make full use of cover and positioning. I never thought I’d have to play a Rabbids game with a slow, methodical eye, and yet here we are.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was easily my biggest surprise of E3 – even counting the unexpected announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2. The game looks great and is a ton of fun to play, but more than that, it’s a concept that came out of nowhere and lets Mario and the Rabbids do something they’ve never done before. The game will be out in August for the Nintendo Switch.