Despite the leaks, the Ubisoft/Nintendo crossover that is Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle caught everyone a little off-guard at E3 2017. Not because it came as a total surprise, but because of how people reacted so well to how the trailer looked and the fact it almost promised to be Super Mario XCOM – a phrase that has become fairly synonymous with the game.
We’re getting plenty of Super Mario action this year. In October, the major Switch title Super Mario Odyssey sees Nintendo’s plumber mascot going on his biggest 3D adventure yet, but in August, he’ll be on your Switch again in Mario + Rabbids in what creator Shigeru Miyamoto is calling a Super Mario game like none other.
And to be fair, what other Super Mario game sees the titular plumber wielding a gun rather than jumping his way to victory?
We weren’t at all convinced by the game’s trailer, but despite our initial reservations, our Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle preview session with Ubisoft at E3 proved that Super Mario XCOM could be incredibly successful indeed.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle sees Mario, Princess Peach and co teaming up with Ubisoft Rabbids, the Minion-like critters from Rayman. While Mario and his crew are their usual, fairly serious, selves, it's up to the Rabbids to bring a tonne of comedy to this brilliant little game. And whether it's the fact they're dressed like the Nintendo crew or that they ooze personality, including the Peach Rabbid being obsessed with selfies, there's plenty to chuckle at here.
In our E3 Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle preview session alone, we found ourselves giggling at the Rabbids far more than we probably should. As you weave through the platforming/exploration sections, you're prompted to take a look at what the Rabbids are doing in the background scenery. There was one little Rabbid fellow who'd made himself into a lamp, switching himself on and off by doing a rather fetching thigh-slap dance, the cheeky devil. Another was just floating away on a giant rubber duck. They're worth paying attention to.
Of course, the game isn't entirely about laughing at the silly Rabbid antics. The gameplay is a cross between 3D platformer, with a few puzzles thrown in for good luck as you explore the rather linear landscape, and turn-based battling, a la XCOM.
The majority of the game is about the battling, but there's some of the game that's dedicated to more Super Mario-like adventuring. It gives the illusion that there's plenty to explore in Mario + Rabbids, but this is actually a very linear game, full of dead ends and teasing pathways to a Rabbid viewing platform. It's not a criticism, per se, after all, Super Mario games have made their money from being totally linear (aside from the 3D adventures) but it can sometimes feel a little cheap.
There are a few clever ways that Mario + Rabbids incorporates classic Super Mario tropes though, including a maze centred on the timed red coins of old, but really you're here for battling.
And the battling itself feels nothing like any kind of Super Mario game that's ever existed. It's a battleground based on a grid system, where your characters take turns to move, attack and use special abilities to defeat a number of Rabbids gone bad per battle sequence. Your movement is fairly limited within this grid, but you'll soon realise that you can extend your reach by jumping on your pals or using tunnels to get a different perspective. The grid is littered with pipes, blocks and explosive crates too that you can use to hide or get a better vantage point from.
It took a while to get used to the control system in Mario + Rabbids as your movement turn isn't just about moving from A to B. You can jump on other characters to get further up the grid; go via enemy Rabbids to hit them with a dash attack; and chain together movements, dashes and tunnel pops to really move around the grid.
These movements when combined with the attacks suddenly become critical to success, particularly when you're faced with larger enemies on the grid, such as a Rabbid fused with a Fire Piranha Plant or a giant Chomp Chain. Moving in the right way and making sure your attacks hit by monitoring the percentage likelihood of a hit are all part of the process, which is far deeper that we imagined it would be.
Even in our Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom preview, we got a good look at some of the special moves that you'll get access to within the game. Special weapon upgrades are unlocked through battling and then purchased using classic Super Mario coins that you've collected as you explore or on the grid as you defeat enemies.
Mario and your Rabbid crew also get powers that can be used on a turn timer. For example, Mario dishes out additional attack to anyone within range outside of his turn, while Rabbid Peach heals anyone within her radar. They're useful additional tactics, especially when the going gets tough.
Is Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle going to be good?
We've been pleasantly surprised by just how good Mario + Rabbids is in reality. The depth to the tactical gameplay is far better than we originally imagined, and although we're not totally sold on the adventuring portions yet, the comedy brought the Rabbids makes this an intriguing game we really want to see more of.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is available exclusively on Nintendo Switch on August 29, 2017.