Most Nintendo first party titles are crafted with accessibility in mind. Super Mario 3D World, Pokemon Sun & Moon, and Splatoon 2 each hide complex and challenging gameplay behind walls so casual players can walk leisurely through the main game. Even Fire Emblem, once accessible only to hardcore tactics fans, introduced a casual mode to open its doors to casual players. When Ubisoft developed Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a tactics game featuring Mario and Rayman’s rabbids, the development team clearly considered this Nintendo standard.
The game’s basic mechanics, moving, attacking, and activating specials, are all very easy to understand from the moment the game begins. Even as players unlock more skills, Kingdom Battle rarely feels intimidating to approach. Although difficulty spikes and frustrating UI occasionally make the journey more complicated than it needs to be, the way Ubisoft manages to blend difficulty and accessibility harkens back to the Nintendo of the 1990s.
On the surface, Kingdom Battle welcomes young and inexperienced players through its personality. The overall tone actively undercuts whatever level of nervousness players have about tactics games. Mario and the Rabbids explore four worlds in a colorful Mushroom Kingdom loaded with childish comedy. In the first hour of the game, players will find a Banzai Bill trapped in a pair of underwear just outside of Peach’s castle, Rabbids gleefully jumping on a sponge used for undisclosed jobs, and goomba’s trapped on their backs in honey. These sights may seem silly to some, but they actually go a long way towards making the game feel accessible to a broader demographic.
The paths that connect each stage are filled with easy to solve puzzles as well. These give players a constant sense of progress and accomplishment as they move from battle to battle. Hidden item boxes containing artwork, weapon blueprints, and more offer that same sense of accomplishment. Just as you’re rewarded for executing a well thought out plan in battle, you’re also rewarded simply for exploring the world.
A light-hearted and inviting musical score also adds to this casual environment. It’s hard to feel like a grueling battle is looming when Grant Kirkhope’s Banjo Kazooie styled tunes play as you advance. Each track in the early game carries a whimsical and adventurous vibe as you explore both the Rabbids-infused Mushroom Kingdom and the battlefields it contains.
All of that paint, the music, overworld, and puzzles, does a superb job of masking the fact that Kingdom Battle can be frustratingly hard. Even in combat, the game manages to feel simple while pushing players to become better at the game.
When the game begins, all Mario and his two Rabbid companions can do is move and attack. Both of these options aren’t hard to grasp, and while a few more maneuvers get added to the mix, they basically make up the entirety of the gameplay. Once every ability is unlocked, players still only have five tools they can use each turn: Main weapon, secondary weapon, movement, special skill 1 and special skill 2. As the game progresses, it challenges players to use these options in creative ways but never throws in new skills for the characters to learn. Stages instead offer different enemies and obstacles that force the heroes to use what they already have in creative ways.
Combat plays out predictably as well, as every move has one of three basic outcomes: Hit, damage enemy cover, or miss. Before a battle, players know exactly which of those to expect because hit and evade rates aren’t tied to skills. They’re based purely on location on the battlefield. If an enemy is behind full cover, the game shows a zero percent chance to hit. A player can still attack to damage their cover, but the enemy will never take damage (unless they’re hiding behind a box with a status effect symbol on it). Being behind half cover makes doing damage a 50-50 proposition, while no cover ensures a hit. Nice round numbers like that take away from the sense that combat ultimately comes down to RNG and instead puts absolute power in the player’s hand. It’s hard to understand what a 63% chance to hit really means, but 50-50? That’s something even a toddler could understand.
Players aren’t bogged down by weapon customization either. A character cannot swap out weapon types, with each character being tied to a certain weapon style. For example, Mario will always have a medium ranged blaster and a melee hammer at his disposal. He can’t switch to shotgun styled weapons, nor can he trade out the hammer for a sentry drone. Likewise, Luigi will always have a sniper type weapon and a sentry secondary.
This decision allows players to master the tools they are given, rather than get overwhelmed determining which piece of gear would maximize their power. Experimenting with different characters becomes mandatory as well, as each hero has a unique role that only they can fill. By taking away deep customization mechanics, Kingdom Battle lets players focus on what they have at their disposal rather than what they could potentially create.
However, being that customization is a staple of the tactics genre, Ubisoft allows for it in different ways. New weapons frequently become available in the shop, many with equal power but different status effects. These effects, like honey, bounce, and stone, let players fiddle with their party to get a team whose special effects work well with each other.
The skill tree is the best example of customization made accessible. The options every character has available to them are basic and easy to grasp. Mario can learn how to jump on an enemy’s head to attack, while Rabbid Luigi gets skills that weaken the enemy (aptly called “Weaken”). Players can deck out their characters however they’d like and do so haphazardly. Laboring over which skill to purchase is synonymous with turn-based tactics games, but Kingdom Battle gives you the ability to reset your skill tree entirely. The options the game gives allow for some creative character and team builds, but if players make mistakes they can always be erased.
Most impressively, despite all of these “concessions” to the inexperienced player, Kingdom Battle maintains an impressive level of difficulty that will push hardcore gamers. Every stage has a turn limit players must clear them under in order to earn a gold trophy. Stages that would be simple become very complex under these circumstances, incentivizing players to refine their thinking.
The enemy AI can be ruthless as well, punishing mistakes harshly. Leaving a character without cover always results in a beatdown, and forgetting about enemy skills will lead to a bad time. Boss battles offer a real challenge that plays out in three staged battles, each forcing you to apply the strategies you learned throughout the world.
Kingdom Battle isn’t perfect in terms of accessibility, however. The game’s tacticam is the primary culprit. In an attempt to make the UI clean and unintimidating, critical information about enemy skills gets lost in translation. Highlighting a foe shows their movement and attack range, but their specials are not well defined. The first time you run into a new enemy, you’re almost guaranteed to get hammered by skills they have that never get properly explained. For lovers of the genre, this is par for the course. Still, newcomers will easily be frustrated by cheap deaths that just couldn’t be foreseen.
Damage calculations are a bit hokey as well. As clear cut as the hit and evade rates are, it makes little sense that attack power gets randomly generated from a set range. The best tactical games reward players for seeing several turns ahead, but the damage being calculated randomly makes this tough to do. Yes, most of the time it doesn’t make battles feel unfair, but there are occasions where it makes looking too far ahead becomes nearly impossible. Hitting bonus objectives makes this even more frustrating, as some levels require you to get good RNG roles to clear the mission under the turn limit. A set damage rate would have been a better option for this game.
Still, what Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle accomplished can’t be understated. It reminds me of the old days of “Nintendo hard”, back when Nintendo games had a high difficulty level but maintained a fun-for-everyone feel. There are so many other factors that make Kingdom Battle the must own Switch game that it is, but accessibility is near the top of that list. Anyone interested in trying out a tactics game for the first time can’t go wrong with this charming cross-over.