Movie Sleuth Gaming: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle - Reviewed

Nintendo should be applauded for this game. Not because it's some masterpiece of the form, not because it’s mechanically innovative, but because it’s an important step for the future of Nintendo. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a Mario game developed by Ubisoft. Let that sink in for a moment. To the casual observer that doesn’t perhaps spend as much of an obscene time consuming industry news as I do, there isn’t much excitement, but trust me when I tell you this is a great first step towards a bright future. Nintendo has been famously cautious and protective of their brands, dobuly so for their masthead Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom pals. Allowing the flexibility of a well-loved brand to be used by companies that have their finger a bit closer to the pulse of the games industry could make for even more amazing software, and would (hopefully) do so without Nintendo losing what makes it Nintendo.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is exactly that: amazing software. Coming off of years of laughed-off rumors and raised eyebrows, we actually got the puzzling crossover of Nintendo’s Mario and Ubisoft’s Rabbids. To boot, this isn’t just some party game or mini-game collection, it’s a full-on gun-toting turn-based tactical action game akin to the XCOM series. Now, the idea of Mario with a gun was not one I was fully prepared for (nor was I prepared for Miamoto coming onto the E3 stage similarly armed) but, was pleasantly unsurprised to see the guns more like stylish Mega Man arm cannons afixed with bumble bees and fire hydrants; a kind of silly charm that I have come to expect from Nintendo.

The writing was similarly charming, maybe not to the level of the newer Paper Mario titles, but chuckles were had, both clever and dumb. Not all the jokes landed but overall I was still pleased with the sense of humor achieved. It was nice to see the writers push the limits of what kind of jokes could be made, considering how tame the past of Mario has been. They even drop the occasional swear and innuendo, and it was an unexpected treat. They weren’t dropping f-bombs, but it was just crude enough to catch me off guard, even several hours into the game.

Beginning to end, that little moron 
Rabbid Luigi was my favorite character.

Similarly to my surprise, there was a subtle but smart choice made in the gameplay that I found affecting: No ‘killing.’ Killing is a mainstay in games and I am not going to say we should stop,it is a mechanic that works and is unfortunately part of the human experience in many respects. This is not new for Nintendo, but it could have been easy to just have the rabbids die in cartoony fashion instead of their non-lethal approach. I learned something about myself in that I appreciate the lack of killing more and more as an adult, something that a young me may have passed judgement on. I’m not a parent, but hearing recently on a podcast a tale of a father that could play this game with his young son and not have to make up a complicated farse about the content was heartening. “They’re just going home” he said. And it wasn’t a lie.

They, being the rabbids, are returning to whatever strange universe where they came from in a flying time-traveling washing machine. That is a mainstay of the story, a macguffin in the form of temporal housewares. The story is what it is, it’s thin but cute and keeps you, or at least some people, playing. What I found far more compelling was the music and the world itself. I paid attention to what was happening in the narrative, but the next beautiful Grant Kirkhope musical touchstone or seeing what the next environment was considerably more compelling. And I can tell you it certainly wasn’t the backtracking or the puzzles.

In between the battles and tactical action, the overworld is riddled with secrets and block puzzles. At first I really enjoyed these excursions; the world is colorful and the exploring and puzzle solving was a great way to break up the action, but it lost its luster quickly. Some variety of overworld with player interaction was necessary for the flow of the game, and going directly from battle to battle 100% of the time would be admittedly exhausting, but there has to be a better way than just piling on more dead simple block puzzles. I had kind of assumed these type of puzzlers would go away or get more interesting over the course of the game, but even going into the final worlds it was a slog. Even returning to the older areas of the game for secrets revealed new block puzzles to go along with the extra content, and that was especially frustrating considering I wasn't particularly interested in engaging with going back in the first place.

I am over it. I no longer feel the need to track down collectables, and dislike backtracking as a concept in most video games. Sure, there are times where it's appropriate, I would never fault a game like Axiom Verge for requiring some amount of backtracking. Backtracking in that sense would be a convention of the genre. But here it seemed like a way to shoehorn in RPG-style ‘grinding’ by adding in extra battles and collectibles that reward additional orbs for the skill tree.  There are extra battles that way, but in my book not worth the extra crap to get to them most of the time. This is not inherently a bad thing, but just something I generally have not enjoyed as a busy adult, and definitely not when I find the tactical combat mechanics as compelling as I did.

Roombas talk and have ears in the mushoom kingdom.

The baseline combat mechanics aren’t particularly complicated: Players take turns, characters can move, shoot, and activate abilities; the hits are all there. I quite enjoy tactics games so I was able to pick it up quickly, but I was surprised to hear complaints regarding missing key abilities. Maybe it was just my small group, but people seemed to miss some of the basic (although not common to the genre, I admit) movement and combo mechanics. Mechanics are well explained if you actually stop and read the tutorial text, and I can’t urge people enough to actually read what games have to say. Seems like something I shouldn’t have to say, but its 2017 so I don’t know about anything anymore. Where the mechanics shined were how they complexly interacted between allies and enemies, and the second half of the game was especially satisfying when approached with thought and patience. I was admittedly concerned early on about the difficulty, but pleased with how it ramped up in the latter portions of the game. Don’t let the first world pull the wool over your eyes, Kingdom Battle is challenging

The main challenges I found in the combat were associated with the cover and status effect systems respectively. Cover is a mainstay of games like XCOM, and to flatten the luck portion of the game, cover affects accuracy in a strict 100%, 50%, or 0% system. Gone are the days of missing 90% hit shots, but the game instead supplants this with random critical hit chances with status effects. Even after learning the ins and outs of it, I still didn't love the status effects. Perhaps it is my OCD and my love of predictable outcomes, but I found it very frustrating, especially later in the game. It was often hard to count on the ability to plan particularly far into the future (something I consider key in a tactics game) because of the propensity for your characters being moved outside of your control by enemy abilities. I appreciate that most of the abilities are the same ones that you have access to as the player, but there is a thinking ahead aspect of tactics that I think got totally thrown out the door in way I found frustrating.

This was never more apparent than when I was trying to get every level ‘Perfect’. I am not a perfectionist or anything, but the game itself implements a rating system that encourages being the levels quickly and safely by awarding more coins to ‘perfect’ missions. The drive of the mechanic seems so against the random critical system so much that I found myself restarting some battles upwards of a dozen times. I didn’t need to do this, but I know I will not be the only one with this experience. My opinions on the system changed several times throughout gameplay, sometimes it felt like a fun satisfying reward for efficient play and other times I felt like it influenced my gameplay style too much and made the individual battles feel like puzzles more so than battles. I think it was a neat idea, but I almost wish it was only in the challenge mode or not revealed to the player, if only because it changed my playstyle so frequently.

I know in a lot of aspects my complains about some of the combat systems could be boiled down to “These mechanics are in the game, get good at them” but I don't think my frustration was unfounded. Despite all that, I still am really pleased with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Its both an important step into 2017 for Nintendo and an impressive fast-paced tactics game that rewards clever play without losing its charm. The Nintendo Switch continues to impress, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is another must-have title


-Justin Wicker