For many, Ubisoft managed to outshine other publishers back at E3 in part because of its heartfelt reveal of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, featuring both Shigeru Miyamoto and Yves Guillemot on stage. There's been a fair amount of anticipation for the XCOM-esque title since June, and now that it's here, critics appear to be quite pleased with the "unholy union," as Polygon puts it in its 8-out-of-10 review.
Mario + Rabbids is essentially a squad-based tactics game, not a genre that you'd ever really associate with either Mario or Ubisoft's Rabbids, and yet somehow it works. Not only that, but the game manages to make the tactics genre more accessible, says Polygon's Russ Frushtick.
"[A] kid-friendly tone makes Mario + Rabbids the best introduction to the squad-based tactics genre I've ever seen. Simple presentation and a clean UI help to demonstrate concepts like cover, chance-to-hit and status effects," he writes.
"Most tactics games are incredibly daunting because the player's constantly presented with new choices and failure points. Mario + Rabbids cuts most of that out, focusing instead on just core combat mechanics, minor character customization and some basic puzzle solving. There's no perma-death, no base building, nothing to distract you from figuring out the absolute core concepts of the genre."
The accessibility and the charm of the Rabbids universe merging with Mario's is certainly a selling point, but at times that can hold the game back too. The title's features "feel a little too basic for their own good," Frushtick notes, and while there are varying skill trees for all 10 playable heroes, there's not much variety in hero builds either.
A more approachable tactics game shouldn't be confused with one that's too easy, and the designers at Ubisoft did not make that mistake. In his 4.5-out-of-5 review, USgamer's Mike Williams says, "Mario + Rabbids is a bit lighter than some other strategy games, but it's by no means easy. In fact, once you get deeper into the game, it starts throwing enemies with more abilities at you and putting them together in some tough combinations. It's not punishing - there's no permadeath and reviving a character isn't hard - but you will lose some fights. For those who aren't up to the challenge, every time you enter a fight there's an Easy Mode prompt, letting you lower the difficulty at the press of a button."
"This is a legitimately great strategy experience, tailored toward the sensibilities of Nintendo and the capabilities of the Nintendo Switch"
Mike Williams, USgamer
The designers do somewhat hamper team building, however, by emphasizing the Mario and Rabbids cooperation at all times. Williams adds, "One issue that pops up here are the restrictions: Mario always has to be in your party, and one of the other characters needs to be a Rabbid. It hampers your potential squad, and hamstrings you when you only have three slots to work with."
Despite some limitations and trade-offs for accessibility, what is perhaps most praiseworthy about Mario + Rabbids, according to the critics, is that Ubisoft managed to come very close to capturing the magic of a first-party Nintendo title, which should make it a perfect fit for the Nintendo Switch.
"This is a legitimately great strategy experience, tailored toward the sensibilities of Nintendo and the capabilities of the Nintendo Switch," Williams says. "It's a charming adventure for Mario, and the Rabbids don't get in the way, even if they don't necessarily add much either. In the same way that the original Super Mario RPG showed Square Enix using Nintendo's property to create some magic, Mario + Rabbids delivers something close from Ubisoft."
The folks at GameInformer largely agree. In his 8.5-out-of-10 review of the game, Jeff Marchiafava remarks that the game's charming characters and universe allow it to try things that other tactics games wouldn't dare.
"Kingdom Battle offers strategy fans another attribute that XCOM can't match: a wacky and light-hearted tone that eschews the genre's penchant for gut-wrenching decisions, oppressive tones, and squad-wiping permadeath," he says. "This opens the door to more experimentation and risk-taking. If one of your characters gets knocked out (say, from having their butt lit on fire), you can restart the battle with no long-term repercussions."
He concludes, "I was as skeptical as anyone when I heard the words 'Mario' and 'XCOM' uttered in the same sentence, but Kingdom Battle didn't just prove me wrong - it ended up being my favorite Mario game in recent years. Nintendo and Ubisoft took a big risk working together outside their comfort zones, and that risk paid off."
With an average score on Metacritic of 85, Mario + Rabbids looks to have won over the media. We'll see in the weeks ahead how it fares in the charts. Nintendo could certainly use another ace up its sleeve to push the Switch before the onslaught for Super Mario Odyssey begins this holiday shopping season.