This wonky crossover is the unlikely source of a superbly designed tactical combat challenge as well as a charmingly silly adventure.
Rabbid Peach is the game character of the century. One of Ubisoft's madcap, bug-eyed mascots dressed in Princess Peach cosplay, she fuses the anarchic irreverence of the former with the queenly preening of the latter in a squat, sassy bundle of diva delight. Beat a boss and she frantically fires off selfies, attempting to catch its demise in the background. Watch her animations closely: the defiant tweaks of her wig, or the way she doesn't crouch against cover but lounges, checking her phone or skewering her foes with nonchalant side-eye. She doesn't speak a word of dialogue, but reminds me strongly of that other heroically fatuous It Girl of our time, Adventure Time's Lumpy Space Princess. She's a creature of satire, a meta-commentary on the self-referential fandom of the ridiculous game she stars in - but also an authentically hilarious badass.
Not everything in the bizarre crossover that is Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle makes such a harmonious synthesis of its two clashing franchises. In fact, almost nothing does. (Although I do have a lot of time for the way Rabbid Mario produces a mandolin and pulls off a quick trill on the victory screen - which, incidentally, made me wonder: is this the first Mario game to actually be made in Italy?) Thematically, Mario + Rabbids is a hodgepodge and a bit of a mess, but it gleefully owns up to this, and the scattershot nonsense of the raving Rabbids excuses a lot. There's quite a lot that needs excusing, such as an erratic script that veers between funny, corny and oddly literate, a needless backstory, and a cheap-looking placeholder interface that is the clearest sign that you are playing a Ubisoft game and not a Nintendo one.
Then there's the even more dissonant clash of the cute characters with the gameplay, because this is, believe it or not, a turn-based tactical combat game in the style of XCOM. It has cover and half-cover, line of sight, overwatch, chance to hit, crits and supers, skill trees, and mathematical budgets of movement and range to be spent across its grid layouts. And it has guns, lots of them. Fine, they look like chunky Nerf guns and shoot energy bolts that cause defeated heroes to get knocked out and enemies to harmlessly dissolve, but they are still guns. Luigi is a sniper. Peach, the original one, rocks an explosive shotgun. Did I mention that Luigi is a sniper?
It's just wrong, and although public opinion swung from distaste at the leaked artwork to indulgence after the game's charming E3 reveal, it's still wrong. Deliciously, damnably wrong. So wrong that it's right? I'm not sure, but somehow the developers at Ubisoft's Paris and Milan studios get away with it. Perhaps because of that anarchic Rabbids spirit, or more likely because this game, among its many other unexpected qualities, is absolutely excellent.
At this juncture I would normally include a brief plot synopsis, but I can't understand and refuse to explain why the Rabbids' arrival in the Mushroom Kingdom needs to involve some sort of augmented reality headset that combines things into other things and, possibly, a third parallel universe. Anyway, tribes of malignant Rabbid antagonists have been created, chaos reigns, Bowser Jr is making the most of it all, and Mario, Peach, Luigi, Yoshi and their Rabbid alter egos - or should that be alter ids? - set out to stop him.
This they do by exploring the four colourful worlds surrounding Peach's castle: the Ancient Garden, Sherbet Desert, Spooky Trails and Lava Pit. As might be suggested by those gauche, clunky titles, Mario + Rabbids' production values aren't uniformly up to Nintendo standards, but the mash-up of art styles is bang on: chunky and toylike, with an exaggerated depth-of-field effect that makes everything look like a living miniature. That's to say nothing of the animation, which is stuffed with exquisitely timed gags and contextual bits of business (every character has a bespoke, funny animation for ducking under an overhead shot, for example). It stands comparison with Nintendo's own best animation work, which is saying a lot.
Each zone is broken up into sections in the Mario Bros. style (1-1, 1-2 and so on) but is actually a single contiguous environment, linear but twisty and full of little loops, diversions and secrets. There are a couple of battles per section, interspersed with some mild exploration and puzzle-solving. You take a team of three heroes from your slowly expanding roster into battle, but can swap them out in between fights if defeated or low on health; everyone gets healed at the end of a section. Each turn, each hero can move, perform one attack and use one skill (a heal, a buff, a shield, overwatch) if it's not on cooldown, before your foes do the same.
Mario + Rabbids is unafraid to openly copy many elements of Firaxis' recent XCOM revival that has been such a shot in the arm for this musty old genre. If you've played those games, you will find the concepts, the visual language and the controls very familiar, if pleasantly streamlined. But it has twists of its own, especially when it comes to movement. Heroes can damage any enemies within their movement range with a melee dash attack before taking position, at no movement penalty. They can additionally perform a 'team jump' with any allies in range, springing off their heads to extend their range, get to a higher elevation or cross a gap. Some heroes' skill trees take this further: Rabbid Luigi can chain multiple dash attacks, Luigi can do a double team jump, Mario can use a team jump to land on enemies and bop them for yet more damage.
All these moves can be chained together. Add in the pipes that curl around the maps linking platforms or providing flanking shortcuts, and you have a game in which movement is extremely sophisticated and free-flowing, helps you maximise your damage, and is the most important part of your turn. Tactically, this explodes the possibilities of the game's relatively simple ruleset in a fascinating and thrilling way. Wisely, things are otherwise kept clean and simple: there's no fog of war and the role of chance is kept in check, with tight damage ranges for the weapons and chance to hit always being zero, 50 or 100 per cent depending on the level of cover. It's all about clear, predictable outcomes, which encourages even less experienced players to sink their teeth into the tactical options.
This tight yet supple battle system is enhanced further by enemy and map designs that continually mix things up, always with clear tactical implications. A brilliant example is the Smasher enemy, a hulking Rabbid with a small movement range and brutal melee attack that is relatively easy to avoid if left alone, but that rushes towards its attacker when hit. Cover is irrelevant when fighting them; it's all about staying just out of their reach, and you soon learn to manage their position, taunting and luring them around the map like a team of matadors. The Smasher is a very simple but wonderfully effective design that changes the way you think about the game as soon as it turns up.
Most battles have a simple goal - escort Toad, reach the end zone, defeat a mid-boss or eliminate all enemies - but many are enlivened by cunning map designs, with great use of elevation, or wildcards like Chomps and Boos that can foul things up for either side. Unusually for this genre of game, there are some truly ingenious boss fights that almost require a puzzle-solving approach - and Challenge levels that definitely do. Challenges are found when you go back to explore a zone you've already completed (this is also worth doing to use unlocked abilities to hunt for secret areas and collectibles). These push the game into new shapes, often giving you extremely tight turn limits to achieve a very specific goal, such as eliminating a large number of enemies in a tight space, or reaching an end zone that appears unreachable. They are clever little riddles that really test your understanding of how the game's systems fit together.
Once a zone is completed, you can also replay any sections you like to try to improve your ranking. This rewards you with satisfaction for the sake of it, but also helps you grind out a few more coins (for new weapons) and power orbs, which fill out the heroes' skill trees, powering them up and unlocking new abilities. Finally, in the Buddy Dome you will find a suite of levels especially designed for local co-op play, with two players taking control of two characters each. Collaborating effectively in a game as stacked with tactical layers as this isn't easy at all, and it will really test your communication skills, but it's exciting to play with the additional possibilities a fourth hero brings. Overall, it's a very well rounded package that will keep you playing for a while - and it's worth pointing out that this style of game is a superb fit for portable use.
On first sight of that leaked artwork, with Mario frowning and pointing his shark-nosed blaster into the camera, many wondered why Nintendo would ever have said yes to the pitch for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. It seems like such a risk. Even setting the guns and the wobbly tone aside, the Rabbids are not Sonic, and XCOM is not the Olympics. The game's director Davide Soliani says that Rabbid Peach just made Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto laugh, and it's true that character embodies a winningly silly sense of fun that permeates the game and is hard to resist. But Miyamoto will also have seen a game put together with great imagination, wit and prudence that makes its chosen genre easier to get along with while also refreshing it; that is at once simple and sophisticated; that fits clean and clever concepts together until they add up to a great deal more than the sum of their parts. And that man knows a beautifully designed video game when he sees one.