I’m pretty sure everyone in the known universe has already given their opinion on how completely unlikely or totally inevitable Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is, so I’m just going to avoid that discussion altogether. Besides, whatever you think about the game’s existence, the fact is that it’s here and coming out soon, so we might as well give it a chance. Speaking of such chances, I got the opportunity to give it one at Nintendo’s booth during E3 2017 … and came away feeling a bit mixed, but still cautiously optimistic, about what I had just played.
I’ll get my chief concern out of the way immediately: there’s an overall polish and sheen to things here that leaves them feeling a bit … generic, if that makes sense. It might seem like an odd adjective to use given that the subjects of the game in question are a) the most famous gaming characters of all-time and b) iconic mascots from the last era of gaming that were minions before, well, Minions, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe both Ubisoft and Nintendo were playing it a bit too safe here. Granted, the game’s environments and character animations are all stellar, but there’s just this something that lends the proceedings an “off” feeling.
The best point of comparison I can think of is licensed games, especially crossovers, that use various properties without really making use of the things that make them special. For example, I also played Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at the show, which does an excellent job of translating characters from both companies into an unbelievably solid and fast fighting system … and a laughably poor job of making use of anything but their most stereotypical qualities in the “story” mode (actual dialogue spoken in that game: “Compensating for something with that spear, Lancelittle?” “Only your lack of discretion, Iron Man!”)
Another example would be last year’s Digimon World: Cyber Sleuth, which had fantastic art direction and character design by Durarara! artist Suzuhito Yasuda, but a farcically easy and shallow campaign that didn’t exactly make the best use of its central property. In short, it seems like Mario + Rabbids may know the words, but not the music. While it looks the part, I remain somewhat skeptical about its ability to capture the whimsy and magic that Nintendo has mastered in much of its solo work (see: Super Mario Odyssey). That doesn’t mean it still can’t bring a bit of fun, though, and I did enjoy enough of my time with the gameplay to remain, as I said before, cautiously optimistic.
Many comparisons to XCOM have been made about Kingdom Battle, and they’re fairly accurate, albeit given that Mario + Rabbids provides a much, much simpler form of the tactical gameplay one would see in 2K’s series. Essentially, all the basic parts are there: characters can move within a certain range and take cover behind a number of mostly-destructible objects (the most common example being Mario Brick Blocks). Once set in their position, they can select from a simple menu of moves, including using their currently-equipped weapon to attack, or a special move such as healing everyone within range of the given character. Once you’ve moved all your heroes, the enemies get their shot at you, and this repeats until all your characters are dead or you’ve met the victory condition.
When not in battle, Mario and his party explore a colorful overworld filled with coins, treasures and small puzzles (one area in the demo contained the classic “walls that rise when you get close to them,” forcing you to find the one correct path around the maze). The area I played was fairly linear, and I’m hoping things open up just a bit more in the final version.
In fact, that sort of leads me to my feelings about the game as a whole so far. While I would never judge the whole product based solely on this short demo, it does have me a bit concerned about the long-term appeal, particularly for older children and adults. The few battles I played were so simple I would have had to actively try to lose, and the mechanics — while appealingly simple at first — feel to me as though they might get stale quite quickly if there isn’t an upping of the variety and pace. Perhaps that’s what I meant when I said there’s just something “off” about all this — for a game involving Mario and the Rabbids, who both seem to have boundless energy, their collaborative title seems awfully lethargic and listless.
But again, what I played was clearly only meant to be an introductory taste to what the full version of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle will contain. Both Nintendo and Ubisoft are filled to the gills with talented developers, and I’d be shocked if the game didn’t open up in some sort of meaningful way past the opening stages. We’ll just have to wait and see, but at least the wait isn’t very long, as the game launches exclusively for Nintendo Switch on August 29.