You’ve just stepped out of Peach’s castle ready to embark on a new quest. You travel between worlds using magical pipes, crushing enemies and gathering coins along the way.
Sound like a typical Super Mario Bros. game? Not so fast. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle — yes, that’s really the new Ubisoft-meets-Nintendo mashup game’s name — is as strange as it is fascinating. It retains Mushroom Kingdom staples like the red coin challenge, sure. And yes, you’ll be rewarded with secret items for exploring hard-to-reach places.
But this Ubisoft-developed oddity, which launches August 29 exclusive to Nintendo’s hybrid TV-mobile Switch game console, is a crossover experiment that mixes the mustachioed plumber’s universe with that of Ubisoft’s Rabbids — those zany, mischievous critters from designer Michel Ancel‘s trippy Rayman games. (They also star in a loopy spinoff series.) And unlike the Mario franchise’s signature platform-hopping capers, Mario + Rabbids is a strategic roleplaying game that requires players masterfully maneuver their way through colorful chess-like levels, smiting enemies to reach their goal. It’s a bizarre, delightful and surprisingly difficult take on a Mario game.
At its core, Mario + Rabbids involves turn-based battles of a piece with archetypal games like X-COM: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance. After entering a clearly marked battle area, you’ll be able to examine the battlefield from a bird’s-eye view to strategize. In this mode, you can also hover over enemies to get more information about them, such as how much health they have. During your turn, you’ll have the option to move your character, launch an attack, and as the game progresses, perform a special move.
Your party can consist of a mix of classic Mario characters working alongside Rabbids cosplaying familiar faces: there’s a Rabbids Mario, for instance, as well as a Rabbids Peach. Mario is always the team leader, and at least one Rabbid must be part of your group. As in other roleplaying games that break personas into distinctive abilities, each character offers unique strengths, perks and special moves.
Where and how you choose to move each character influences variables like the effectiveness of your strike and how well you’re able to defend yourself. If an enemy is partially hidden behind cover, for example, you’ll need to move to a spot with an open view in order to successfully attack them. Likewise, you’ll want to make sure you’re adequately covered at all times as you switch locations on the map.
To broaden your options, Ubisoft gives you special skills that expand each’s stages route possibilities. From the start, you’ll be able to extend a character’s movement range by rebounding off another party member’s head. You can also tag foes as you’re running with a technique called “dash,” dishing out damage out as you scurry for your new spot. Mastering when to use these leaps and offensive hits is how you’ll win a battle.
You’ll also have the chance to upgrade these abilities and add new ones as the game progresses. (Using orbs as digital currency, you can enhance certain powers by extending their effects and reducing their cool-down times.) Combat is inevitable, but movement is so central to the experience that some scuffles must be won by advancing to a safe zone rather than knocking out adversaries.
Like the best strategy games, Mario + Rabbids invites casual players to the party, then ratchets up its challenges. It accomplishes this in part by folding in new elements and twists as the game progresses. In a more advanced spooky-themed level, for instance, several Boo ghosts appear on the battlefield. If you happen to run into one as you’re zipping to your next location, Boo will transport you to another area on the map.
That may sound like a minor inconvenience, but it can become a frustrating and fatal setback during a fight, especially in stages like the one I played in which you must reach the goal zone to win. Boo snatched me as I made my way toward a pipe that would have brought me closer to the objective, which left me isolated from my allies and susceptible to attack. Luckily, you’ll be able to use all the gold coins you’ve gathered to upgrade your weapons as your enemies become more formidable. You can buy new guns that have special abilities, like one that shoots honey and sticks your assailant in place.
Mario + Rabbids may not be as comprehensive as the turn-based strategy genre’s exemplars, but the demo was easy to absorb and tactically engaging, which should lure casual players but also gratify harder-core ones. Does Mario’s world invaded by Rabbids make for compelling fiction? I’m left wondering, but then I’m not sure story in a game that lets you head-bounce off teammates matters when the gameplay itself is this clever and entertaining.