Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Skidrow
At first blush, the premise of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle sounds like a twisted kitbash that would spring out of some bad, late-night message board conversation, only to be written off as "too weird." "It'll never happen," they'd say, as they pivot back to pitching their "Mega Man but with Wrestlers Instead of Robot Masters" idea to anyone who would listen. And that's why none of us are making video games. Ubisoft and Nintendo shared a vision and made a game that takes the characters of the Mario universe, smashes them up against the weird, underpants-fueled world of Ubisoft's Rabbids, and drops them into a turn-based strategy game that plays like a friendly version of XCOM with a lot more depth than you'd initially assume. Though the gameplay itself wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through its story, that initial premise and some terrific writing carry Kingdom Battle quite nicely.
The basic idea here is that a kid (who happens to be a big Nintendo fan) invents a set of goggles that can combine things together. Rabbids bust in and trash the place, as Rabbids are wont to do, and the goggles end up tearing a hole between this world and the Mushroom Kingdom. So the worlds, characters, and styles collide, usually in interesting ways. This leads to Rabbid versions of popular Mario characters, like "Rabbid Mario" and "Rabbid Peach" on your team, and fun enemies and bosses that probably shouldn't be spoiled here. Over the course of the story, you do what you can to right what's gone wrong and save the Mushroom Kingdom from this unwelcome blast of mashup culture.
The story's big beats are fairly standard, but there's a flourish and tone to the game that plays around with the very nature of what it means to be a Mario game. This leads to big entrances from classic characters on multiple occasions, but the writing along the way stands out, too. Not that all the writing is great, but the dialogue, most of which comes from a Roomba-like computer pal that serves as your cursor in combat, feels slightly more modern than you'd expect from a Mario game. Or, to put it another way, Rabbid Peach is obsessed with taking selfies and the game manages to make that totally work in an endearing way that feels subversive for a Nintendo game. There's even a boss fight against a singing character who lays down verses about Mario's perceived shortcomings, even touching on how he can't seem to string together more than two or three words at a time. The concept of Mario gets skewered in a way that almost had to have come from outsiders, people like you and me who have been living with the same burning questions for decades. Nintendo itself would probably never even think to ask these questions in the first place. This stuff doesn't permeate the entire game, but when it pops up, it's kind of incredible.
All of this story lives at the edges of a turn-based strategy game that, at first glance, seems like a stripped-down take on the XCOM franchise. You'll move your squad of three characters around a map, taking cover whenever possible, taking shots at enemy rabbids along the way. As you start to get into the game's skill tree, the number of things you can do on a given turn begin to expand in a way that can almost be a little intimidating at first. Maximizing each character's full potential in each turn makes the encounters feel almost like a puzzle to be solved, rather than a straight-up strategy game. Part of that comes from less reliance on dice rolls than you might expect from a game of this sort. If a target is in range and not in cover, you will hit 100% of the time. If a target is behind full cover, you will hit 0% of the time, but most of the cover is destructible if you hit it enough times. Targets behind half cover is the only time you'll bite a nail or two, because those shots are always taken at a 50% chance to hit. You can also slide tackle targets while you're on the move and still get to where you're going with no movement penalty. Mario and Luigi have overwatch-like abilities that trigger with an automatic shot any time an enemy character moves, and that shot hits every single time. Combined with critical hit abilities that give some weapons a chance to pop enemies up in the air, and you're in for a show. Landing a critical hit while both Mario and Luigi are in position to lay down more damage as an enemy flies through the air in slow motion is a sight to see. Other characters can heal, land jumping attacks, draw enemies closer to force them out of cover, and so on. There are eight playable characters in all and you can respec your points at any time, so there's a pretty good amount of flexibility there.
Less flexible, then, are the weapon selections. Each character will have two weapons at their disposal, and the weapons are first unlocked in various ways, then they must be purchased with coins. Coins are fairly easy to come by, and you'll probably get most of yours by doing well in combat. Each chapter of the story breaks down into one or more encounters, and each one of those has a set par time for the number of turns you want to try to finish under. Doing so (without also losing anyone in your party) marks that encounter as perfect, giving you the maximum number of coins at the end of the section. You'll eventually have opportunities to return to the earlier worlds and take on new challenges, giving you plenty of opportunity to grind out currency, which may end up coming in handy later in the game.
Outside of combat, the game has a lot of walking. You'll hoof it from one fight to the next, and the game peppers these connecting areas with light puzzles and a ton of unlockable music and concept art. Most of those prizes are a little underwhelming in the context of the game itself, so after seeming charming for the first world or so, these puzzle quickly become tedious challenges with little reward. It's a shame that there isn't more variety here, because the core idea is sound, but before too long these bone-simple block-pushing puzzles just feel like a bad use of time.
The combat takes a turn in the third world. Right around the time you've got a good grasp on your abilities, enemies that nullify some of your best stuff start to pop up and ruin the fun. This forces you to change things up a bit and potentially swap in some new characters. The orbs that let you purchase new abilities are good for every character, so you won't find yourself in an ability hole if you need to swap in someone new, but purchased weapons are only good for one character. So you might find yourself out of coins and unable to purchase viable weaponry for the characters you haven't been using. This ends up being frustrating, creating a situation where you may need to go back and grind out some challenge missions to get your team in order. Either way, the increase in difficulty is not unmanageable, but the teleport abilities used by later enemies make them far less fun to fight. I found most of the combat in the back half of the game to just be kind of a hassle, which ended up with me limping into the final confrontations, ready for it to all be over. It's a shame that the gameplay couldn't quite keep up with the rest of the game.
The out-of-combat drudgery and late-game enemy design are probably the only negative things about Mario + Rabbids, but they end up casting a large shadow over the experience as a whole. That's not to say that the game should have just been some friendly cakewalk from start to finish--the game's got difficulty options that ensure that anyone should be able to get through the fights with enough persistence--but the way the game changes things up near the end makes the combat feel like a chore on any setting. It's an unfortunate shift that mars the final product quite a bit. This is still a wild ride with a handful of amazing moments, but the gameplay part of it needs more variety than it has, so the whole thing ends up coming back down to earth and feeling a little disappointing by the end.