Friday, 23 February 2018

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Switch 

It would seem like Nintendo bring the best out of Ubisoft. You only have to look at the (criminally underrated) Zombie U to see how Ubisoft can do something other than reskin each of their major franchises into bland imitations of one another. Sometimes there’s a creative risk involved, and it pays off.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t quite the same gamble as the Wii U’s doomed launch title. Building off of the skeleton of the X-COM games, Mario + Rabbids does what Super Mario RPG did twenty years ago for J-RPGs; keep the foundation, strip out the flab, and most of all, make it colourful and fun.

Rather than bog down players with item management and base development, Mario + Rabbids focuses on the basic cover, movement and shooting in a simple turn-based combat system. Maps aren’t sprawling, in fact, many are incredibly small, pitting Mario and two allies against a handful of enemy Rabbids before moving on to the next encounter.

It’s a smart move on Ubisoft’s part. The game maintains a faster, smoother pace than a regular strategy game. Combat is about taking down the enemy quickly using your guns and a handful of special powers rather than worrying too much about hit percentages or the threat of permadeath.

The game does a good job of taking a simple concept and then slowly expanding it with each level. Early encounters in the first world are fighting basic enemies and getting to grips with the cover system. Again, this has been simplified without gutting it of all its strategic nuance. Shots in Mario + Rabbids hit with 100% accuracy should an enemy or ally be out of cover. Should they be in half cover it’s a 50/50 coin flip, whilst those behind walls and such are safe from basic gunfire at the very least.

This core loop is then expanded with new enemies and new characters. Each party member comes with their own niche and team members can be switched in and out at will. Luigi is the long range specialist; great at sniping enemies with his reaction shot ability, (which function similar to X-COM’s Overwatch mechanic) but suffers from dreadfully low health. Rabbid Mario meanwhile, is a shotgun-toting assault specialist who’s a monster in close combat, but garbage at range.

Likewise, enemies start out basic, but are gradually tweaked and expanded to force changes in your basic strategy. Smashers are hulking melee units that will get a free move every time you fire a shot at them, whilst Peek-a-Boos have the ability to teleport around the map, making flanking attacks much more difficult.

It’s here where Mario + Rabbids falters a little. Whilst the steady drip feed of new elements works across the game’s four major worlds, introducing just enough new elements to keep things entertaining and prevent a sense of staleness setting in, a few more enemy types wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Each later world reskins many older enemies but their strategies and playstyles remain the same. Likewise, the game’s character progression system is decent, it can become a little shallow by the game’s climax.

Characters can level up in three areas, with experience points being doled out at the end of each fight. Again, there’s a focus on tactical aggression and efficiency, with bonus points being awarded should you finish an encounter within a certain number of turns.

The various skills offer some flexibility in how you develop characters. However, Ubisoft play it safe here, perhaps a little too safe, afraid that maybe younger players might be scared off with too much decision-making between fights. Most upgrades fall into the “damage or health” category, with some improvements being bizarre fluff rather than serving a practical use in battle. Why would I ever want to improve Mario’s exit range from pipes when I could boost his health or have him deal more damage?

The developers are in fact very lax when it comes to the stat side of things, even allowing players to respec characters at the push of a button, along with auto-leveling them should they want to avoid this side of the game entirely.

The equipment system is similarly stripped down. Each character has a basic weapon and a secondary weapon. Typically, a character will have two or more status effect that they can choose between. Again, it’s a basic level of decision-making that focuses more on the tactile fun of fights than it does on too much menu management between them.

Mario + Rabbids is always fighting a battle between strategic depth and accessibility. It takes the core of XCOM but tries to simplify it in a way that doesn’t make it feel diluted. For the central combat, this works; there’s enough strategy there to keep things interesting without overloading the player with difficult decisions.

It’s the surrounding mechanics that can feel lot weaker. XCOM works because of the interplay between the fighting, base-building and the unique narrative that emerges through each player’s playthrough of the game. Mario + Rabbids successfully emulates that first element, but lacks the other two, replacing them with colourful puzzles, Mario and some funny writing. And it just about papers over the cracks.

This review might come off as a little critical of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I have to stress, it’s a great game, even when it feels slightly hamstrung from taking a complex strategy game and condensing it to something simpler. It has that classic Mario vibe that makes the whole experience feel like you’ve opened up a toy box.

It’s one of the best Switch releases of the year, one of the better games of the year, in fact. Provided you go in with the right expectations, this is marriage of two very different styles of games and a solid successor to Super Mario RPG.


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