Remember the Mario Kart video that was doing the rounds for a while? The one where Luigi takes out Waluigi and then follows it up with a long, cold stare as he hurtles past in his kart? It's great, you should watch it. The Mario Rabbids team think so too, having named one of Luigi's abilities "Steely Stare" in honour of this defining moment for the gangly Mario brother.
In fact, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is absolutely full of nods and references to the wider world of Nintendo fandom. It's a game made by a group of people so obviously delighted to be working with a group of characters they worship and it's hard not to be swept along by the enthusiasm. Alongside a wink to his now-iconic death stare, the Mario Rabbids interpretation of Luigi, for example, also comes equipped with a rifle that's been modelled after the hoover used in Luigi's Mansion.
There's an eagerness to poke fun at Mario and his pals here which I hadn't fully anticipated. This is a partnership between the two franchises, as that title suggests, and that means the developers also had to do right by the Rabbids. I'm quite fond of these skittish little things, particularly when they're used to demonstrate the absurdity of a situation. Ubisoft hasn't shied away from that here.
One boss fight saw me fighting a Rabbid Phantom/opera singer, who spent the entire encounter mocking Mario for his inferior moustache, karting skills and limited selection of catchphrases. This is all done in song, obviously. The lyrics are knowingly crap, but it tickled me.
"Who's done me a thousand wrongs, ever since Donkey Kong?" he sings as the battle begins. "Slithering down every pipe, despite his plumb-shaped body type."
Rabbid Peach finds that line hilarious, it's worth noting.
There was a worry when the game first leaked that the Rabbids style of humour wouldn't work here, but it does. The first time Rabbid Peach meets her counterpart, she immediately sasses Princess Peach for the quality of her outfit. If you fail a mission with her in your team, she's the only character to storm off screen and then throw her cosplay back at the group in a tantrum. This stuff put a big grin on my face. The Rabbids provide Ubisoft with opportunities to make jokes that Nintendo probably wouldn't. Somewhat surprisingly, these two worlds end up complimenting each other as a result.
I first played Mario Rabbids back at E3, shortly after it was revealed to be an XCOM-inspired, tactical adventure game. I enjoyed what I played, but found the early combat a little too basic. With that in mind, Ubisoft's second demo showcased an area that was somewhere around the ľ mark and wow, does the complexity ramp up.
We're now able to build our squad of three from almost the entire roster. We're just missing Yoshi, actually, who I'm told comes equipped with a rocket launcher. This game, man.
At this stage, each character has a primary and secondary weapon, two active abilities and a substantial skill tree to dive into. Suddenly ideas like the team jump mechanic, which allows squadmates to propel each other into the air and grant additional movement distance, became much more interesting. With the right skill unlocks, Luigi can string together multiple team jumps one after another, while Mario can use them to then jump on the heads of his enemies. Whereas early on, the decisionmaking each turn had felt too limited, here it's almost overwhelming.
If you want to deal the most damage each turn, you'll want your characters to dash through enemies during their initial movement (ideally you'll land multiple dashes if using a character with the appropriate ability). Then you'll face a choice between your two weapon types, which fall into all sorts of different categories (melee, short range, long range, area of effect) and that choice largely depends on the positioning of your character and the enemies closest to them. Finally, there's the unique abilities: taunts, reaction fire, shielding, healing and team wide buffs. You can only use one of these per turn and each comes with a different cooldown timer to consider. Finally, there are real decisions to make!
My original concern that Mario Rabbids was just trying to be some kind of XCOM-lite has been addressed. There's a lot more to it than that. If you've only seen early gameplay with just a few enemies on screen and a single, unimproved ability per character, that's really not what the game is all about. By the time you reach the third or fourth world, Mario Rabbids seems like it'll provide a genuine challenge, even to those that play a lot of turn-based tactical games. That's a relief.
I've been on board with this game's setting and humour ever since I saw the first cutscene featuring Rabbid Peach, but I'm really pleased to see some depth in its combat. From what I've played of the first world, the game introduces these mechanics rather slowly, with the expectation that not everyone will be familiar with this genre. But having played a few of the late-game challenges, it doesn't seem afraid of introducing some real complexity, even if it takes a little while to get there.
Oh, and Princess Peach rocks a flame cannon! So there's that, too.