There's a Faustian bargain at the heart of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, the bizarre mash-up of some of gaming's most and least iconic characters. If you had asked me a few months ago if I would play a well-made XCOM-like strategy game starring Mario characters, I would have said: absolutely, yes, that sounds great. If you then said, "it has Rabbids in it, so is that a deal-breaker?" I would say...
Like, the Ubisoft Rabbids? Huh.
As it turns out, it is not a deal-breaker. And while the inclusion of the Rabbids is odd and honestly pretty unnecessary, if I have to put up with those little weirdos to get this game, I'm willing to do it. I've played it, and it is great, and I want more.
After all, the XCOM framework is already rock-solid and well worth copying. Ubisoft has carefully studied the iconography of the Mushroom Kingdom and overlaid a reasonable facsimile of Nintendo's own bubbly and vibrant art style. By all indications, this could have simply been Mario Tactics and it would have functioned just fine. The Rabbids are slightly toned down from their typical appearances, and not too distracting on the whole. God help me, I even chuckled a couple of times.
A simple me-too would have been fine, but Mario + Rabbids actually riffs on its inspiration in some clever ways. Mario and his compatriots, and some of the corrupted Rabbid enemies, can perform sweep kicks while running past their enemies. This adds a layer of strategy not just to the cover-shooting, but to movement itself. It may be worth closing on an enemy if you can shave off a little of the life total with a sweep kick before running back into cover. The boost jump, performed by coming in contact with another friendly, also enhances mobility options for getting units in close without wasted turns.
Then there are warp pipes, which serve as both indestructible cover and a quick teleport around the battlefield. Combined with the sweep kick, you can have a unit move in close with a pipe, kick, use another pipe to get some distance, and then fire their weapon. Finding opportunities like this provides a surprising strategic depth not afforded by simply taking cover and shooting. Keeping your distance isn't necessarily the correct decision anymore.
Each of the heroes also has their own special power with individual cooldowns. Mario's enhances his damage, while Rabbid Peach has an area-of-effect heal and Rabbid Luigi can become temporarily immune to special damage, like the explosive damage from bomb blocks that dot the battlefields.
Each character has their own equppable weapons as well, with upgrades available for purchase using the coins scattered throughout the world. These overworld segments feel more like an interactive map than a real Mario stage with limited functionality, but they have some nooks to explore. Special Red and Blue coin challenges grant loot boxes that gave me weapon upgrades, and an Ubisoft representative promised they could hold other goodies as well.
The demo culminated in a battle against a Rabbid Pirhana Plant, an imposing monster with heavy mobility and strong special attacks. It was a simple, early battle–the goal of which was to save the actual Luigi–but it provided a glimpse of how these strategic wrinkles will manifest and iterate throughout the game. This isn't likely to be as hyper-difficult as XCOM 2, but it's no cake walk either.
I love a lot about this industry, and E3 as its centerpiece, but one of the best feelings is finding a game you didn't know you wanted. Mario + Rabbids is shaping up to be that game for me this year. It's goofy and free-spirited and fun, with strategic depth and lots of character, and the portability of the Switch just sweetens the deal by allowing me to take it anywhere. Don't let the oddball premise put you off. It's genuinely one of the best surprises of the show.