Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle review

This irreverent XCOM-style crossover is plenty of fun, but it's not for perfectionists.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is an amazing lesson in restraint. Specifically, it's taught me what a game is like when it doesn't have any at all.

Kingdom Battle is a turn-based tactical strategy game starring Mario and Ubisoft's merchandising vehicle, the Rabbids — and I never in my life thought I'd need to write that sentence. It's also heavily influenced by the Firaxis-developed XCOM reboot. Units take cover, fire with various percentage chances to hit, and even assume the reactive "overwatch" positions to fire on moving enemies.

Unlike XCOM, this Nintendo Switch exclusive is still essentially a kids’ game. There's no permadeath, for instance — a hallmark of the significantly harder-core XCOM games. When Mario, or some unholy fusion of Rabbid and Mushroom Kingdom character, takes one too many hits, they're only dazed. Stars swirl around their heads until the battle is won or lost. The chaotic enemy Rabbids get a similar deal. "Death" just means they're beamed back through whatever portal brought them to the house that Nintendo built.

That's more-or-less the premise, by the way. The Rabbids' time machine (which they apparently have) gets fused to some Mario paraphernalia by a child's version of Doctor Brundle's telepods. Any two things the VR headset-looking device whammies get morphed into one. Sometimes that means opening a portal between realities. Mostly, it makes Rabbid versions of recognizable Nintendo characters: like Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Kong.

Rather than jump on their heads repeatedly, or challenge them to a rousing game of tennis, Mario decides the best way to rout the spreading fusion dance plague is to pick up a Mega Man-like buster cannon and straight mercing fools. Which, let's just be clear, is a buck wild vision to wrap my head around. Mario has always been a coldblooded killer, of course, but he's rarely ever relied on actual firearms. Nor did I ever think Nintendo would sign off on such a thing.

There are a lot of such moments in Kingdom Battle: from the use of the word "hellscape" to describe part of the Mushroom Kingdom, to Banzai Bill trapped in a massive pair of panties. It's not exactly Rick and Morty levels of colorful adult comedy, but it does seem like Ubisoft got Nintendo to let its hair down a bit. Then again, in Nintendo’s own flagship games, Mario can brain-jack sapient beings now. Maybe this is just our new normal.

When it comes to Kingdom Battle, more often than not, I love this lack of moderation. Luigi's overwatch stance is called "steely stare," in reference to Luigi’s murderous glare in Mario Kart 8. Rabbid Peach is exceptionally one-note — taking endless selfies after every boss fight — but the developers stretch that gag in some surprising ways. I simply can't imagine Nintendo being self-aware enough to lean into these gags in one of their own games. And, at times, they're laugh-out-loud funny.

I get the sense Ubisoft wanted to apply that same unfettered spirit to combat, as well. Because it feels like the developers were afraid of ever telling their players "no." No, you shouldn't be able to move, attack, and go into overwatch in the same turn. No, you shouldn't be able to traverse an entire map in just two turns. No, not every single shot should have a 100 percent hit chance if the target is out of cover. In Kingdom Battle, everything is a “yes.”

This isn't necessarily a problem. Potty humor aside (or maybe even because of that), Kingdom Battle is clearly geared toward younger players. I probably shouldn't have to worry about Yoshi losing too much blood to fight in the next three battles, or panicking enough to open fire on Mario. XCOM's got my back on that.

The real problem is that Kingdom Battle might not be restrained, but it is evenly distributed. Whatever Mario, Luigi, and the rest can do in a single turn, so can opposing Rabbids. The issue is that there are almost always a lot more of them than your usual squad of three — and they can be just as savage as their name implies.

Take the hit percentages, for example. Kingdom Battle has just three: zero percent, 50 percent, and a 100 percent guaranteed chance that someone's shot will hit. Full cover zeroes it out, while half cover earns you the coin flip. But if you're out of cover and in range, you're gonna get got.

On all but the largest maps, a character's range and movement range make cover all but meaningless. I'll hunker down behind a nice, comfortable brick, only for a spring-loaded Rabbid to walk across half the battlefield, launch himself off of an ally, and shoot me in the back. Or maybe he won't need to. The self- and ally-healing "Supporter" units can throw grenades which ignore cover bonuses and destroy the cover outright — all on the same turn that they negate whatever damage I managed to deal before that.

Of course, the same goes for my trio. They can double their movement range by bouncing off one another, slide tackle a foe, take a shot, and use special abilities all in one go. The only restriction is multi-turn cooldowns on certain special moves. But when there are almost twice as many enemies as allies, that's just a war of attrition to gain the upper hand.

I've heard a lot of people describe Kingdom Battle as a more like a puzzle game than a strategic one. That sounds about right. It feels like there's a "correct" turn order to most engagements. If you don't figure it out on your first attempt, it's not necessarily game over, but it does make me feel "sloppy," like whenever I got a C on school exams I thought I crushed at the time. Maybe that's because Kingdom Battle literally grades every success on how many turns it took and units you lost.

That stressed-out feeling goes double for boss battles. The super-units wheel out unpredictable powers and multiple forms that you have no way to prep for until you've fought them once. Thankfully, you can go back for better scores at any time — taking whatever upgrades and new weapons you've acquired since into the fray.

That's awfully satisfying (and yet another reason to worry about my completionist tendencies), but it doesn't fix the initial balance issues. For that, you can temporarily switch to "easy mode," which doubles your units’ health for one battle. The game doesn't even record the handicap or knock your score for it! But you know who'll always remember they had to "cheat" to get through? You. You'll remember, dammit.

I've swung back and forth on my opinion of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Hard. Its off-brand quirkiness ranges from basically amusing to genuinely hilarious. I absolutely adore Rabbid Mario — who nonchalantly leans against full cover, hands in pockets, and generally acts as if this is just another day on the job. He's Mario if Mario acted like an actual plumber, basically, and that is a tremendous joke in my book.

Even the gameplay isn't all bad (sans the sliding tile puzzles between missions in World 2, which are just as terrible as all of their kind). Squashing the math and high stakes of your typical XCOM campaign make the game's best missions a modicum as rewarding, but 10 times more relaxing. It's those missions that take the total lack of restriction and turn it against you, to brutal effect, that make the game so incongruously stressful.

I'm still giving Kingdom Battle my recommendation. Just try to make peace with the fact that you probably won't ever play perfectly. I sure haven't —  on either the making peace with it, or is the other part...

Verdict: Yes