If I had to associate a single word with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, it would, without a shred of doubt, be this: fuck.
Local press were given the opportunity to spend about four hours with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle in Ubisoft's Sydney offices the other week. It was a good chance to see just how much inspiration Ubisoft drew from Firaxis' XCOM games, and also an opportunity to see - much like Mario Odyssey - how weird Nintendo wants to get in 2017.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the preview was one word, repeated frequently throughout by everyone who played: fuck.
Mario + Rabbids is broken into worlds, like a classic Mario platformer, with each world having a mix of battles and environmental puzzles to solve along the way. As everyone saw during E3, you progress from battle or puzzle to the next by walking through a 3D world of sorts, finding coins along the way that can be used to unlock various weapons.
Battles play out in an XCOM-like fashion. You get to select a team of three characters before the battle, each of which has their own HP, movement values, attack attributes, special abilities, and more. Much like Chroma Squad, characters can use other characters to leapfrog ahead on the battlefield. Characters can also dash through enemy characters, doing a certain amount of damage, and there's actually a whole suite of movement abilities that take specific advantage of this.
The dashing mechanic at work, courtesy of Rabbids Luigi
In the initial world, you're dealing with fairly simplistic enemies, minimal amounts of abilities, and basic map layouts. It seems like Baby's First Strategy Game: cute, colourful, easy to understand. But after the first few levels, characters get access to their second set of abilities. Then their third. Then the skill tree becomes available. Multiple weapons. Multiple enemies. And then the levels become more complex. And then you realise: you can't heal between levels, unless you want to play on "Easy Mode".
And then you get introduced to Boo.
Boo, quite simply, is an arsehole. A special class of being that gets to take its turn before the "enemies", Boos will wander around and take over any friend or foe in their nearby vicinity, teleporting them somewhere at random. My first few experiences saw Boo send one of my characters back to the spawn point; another sent Mario to a relatively harmless location, allowing me to complete the level.
The first encounter with Boo was on an "escape" level, where the objective is simply to get one of your characters in the dedicated zone. That's difficult enough as is, as the amount of heals you have between characters is actually quite limited. Peach has an AoE heal that triggers whenever she vaults off a nearby ally, but that requires all of your characters to be clumped up if you want to heal everyone at once. Rabbids Peach can heal a single target, but not for a massive amount.
There's also the problem that characters can move around maps really quickly. The stage featuring Boo, for instance, featured a lot of Mario-esque pipes that characters could travel between. That makes it exceptionally easy to move from one area of the map to another, resulting in absurd AI turns like this:
That's like four segments of the map in a single hit. It's ridiculous beyond belief - but it also makes Mario + Rabbids far, far more challenging than it first seems on the surface. And that's not including the abilities that boost your ability to dash through characters, double jumping, attacks and abilities with knockback, and the RNG nightmare that is Boo.
On a practical level, the game plays exceptionally well on the Switch. I spent most of the time in docked mode, as I was recording footage and taking notes on a laptop at the same time, but the game looked and played smoothly enough in handheld mode. You can see the areas where Ubisoft has had to dial down the texture quality - the background gets particularly blocky at parts, especially during the cinematic sequences when characters are blowing someone off the side of the map. When the camera is just switching from one character to another, however, the game looks sharp enough and there weren't any noticeable frame rate drops beyond that.
The actual controls are perfectly functional, and they're good enough that it makes you wonder what XCOM would be like on the Switch if Firaxis ever decided to port it. The skill trees are well thought out too, offering a wide variety of strategies depending on what characters you want to equip, and how you want to progress:
A look at some of the character skills and weapon attributes
Part of the game's challenge is that the preview was setup in a way where media was introduced to the first world, with limited abilities, and then vaulted much further into gameplay when practically everything was unlocked. In a normal playthrough, those skills and abilities would be drip fed much slower, so players would be more accustomed to what compositions work best with what weapons, and the best way of tackling different enemies.
That aside, it was still surprising to see how layered Mario + Rabbids was. The last thing I expected was for it to provide a genuine challenge, although some (rightly so) would argue that challenge was a little arbitrary if you have to rely on random elements.
Still, it was fun. And Mario + Rabbids was surprisingly funny in parts too. If you lose with Rabbids Peach in your team, for instance, she'll be so miffed with Mario (who you have to have in your party at all times) that she storms off-screen and starts throwing away parts of her cosplay. There's plenty of in-jokes and references throughout the hub worlds and in the fights themselves too.
It all makes for a nice surprise, really. I certainly didn't expect to be swearing at Boo, and I didn't expect to be caught off-guard with Mario + Rabbids's various intricacies. It's not the same kind of challenge as XCOM's Long War mod, but it's not a complete cakewalk either.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle drops on August 29. It'll be an interesting game to play on the commute to work, and it makes me wonder: if Ubisoft can make this work, what other kinds of western turn-based games could work on the Switch?