Rabbids are one of the most aesthetically displeasing things to ever enter pop culture. Just looking at them is actively upsetting. Despite that, I’ve spent well over 30 hours with them this past week, watching them stumble around the Mushroom Kingdom and generally be irredeemable fools. That’s because far beyond being constructed and packaged as a thing that shouldn’t work, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a remarkably good game.

The gist of it (besides Mario gets a gun) is that through the magical lunacy of Ubisoft’s Raving Rabbids franchise and a loose foundation of a genius scientists developing a headset that can meld two discrete objects, the eponymous Rabbids get sent via their spacetime-rending washing machine into Mario’s homeland. This would already be bad enough, but the aforementioned headset actually gets melded with a Rabbid named Spawny, and his unfettered behavior is causing a lot of trouble for everyone.

Except Bowser Jr. He’s loving it. To that end, Mario has to team up with his usual compatriots like Yoshi and Luigi as well as Rabbid versions of them including Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Mario himself in XCOM-style battles across the Mushroom Kingdom to stop Bowser Jr. from using Spawny for his own evil ends. Mario will lead a team of three to take full and half cover, roll the dice on percentage shots, take overwatch, and much more.

That’s because this is a lot of XCOM. It’s a bit reductive but that’s the base framework that we’re working with here. As you explore different worlds of the land like a desert biome and a spooky ghost spot, you’ll come across little battlefields. You and the enemies will take turns moving around and attacking and defending.

The biggest difference, though, is that the maps are generally far smaller than anything in XCOM, and that makes a world of difference. You still have to constantly think two or three steps ahead, but the consequences for fucking up are far more immediate. Rather than see mistakes play out in the grand scheme over the next few turns, you are punished in this smaller space right on the spot. And as a necessary consequence, the punishments are usually far less dire.

To wit, taking damage is a totally viable strategy with very little in terms of lingering after effects. Healing is bountiful with Rabbid Peach and real Peach, the latter of which does a super cool thing where when she automatically does a healing blast upon landing after a team jump. Other characters have plenty of damage mitigation abilities, often times reducing incoming attacks by 90%. And there’s an entire realm of weapon effects that siphon off damage as recovered health.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

This transforms Kingdom Battle into a more aggressive and driving sort of turn-based combat than you would otherwise be expecting, especially since everyone is equipped with deadly mobility. (Mario will eventually be capable of causing 130 points of free damage.) Riding the line between dying—err, “dying”—and barely clinging on is just a fact of life, especially if you want to come far under the wire on the par number of turns for better rewards. This then lets the game itself ride the line between carefully and thoroughly considered tactics and a guns a-blazing descent into irreverent violence.

It actually becomes fairly complex, too, as various mechanics are introduced, but the game handles them all exceptionally well. The slow drip of using team members to jump huge distances, managing map-specific threats like tornados and Chain Chomps, and utilizing and defending against status effects like honey and ink is paced so you never feel overwhelmed and like you are always encountering something new.

To that end, however, the early parts of the game can be terribly easy. I got away without upgrading my weapons through the entire first world and part of the second world. But once you start recruiting more teammates and fighting with the full power of your squad, the game really starts to kick you in the ass. If it’s not just surviving, it’s about working really goddamn hard to get in under the turn par.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

Sometimes it feels like certain encounters have only one particular avenue to success (a ghost world battle with ten enemies comes to mind), but usually it’s more like you have the impetus to explore with your team composition. You will spend Battle Orbs to upgrade stats and abilities, but you can redistribute them at anytime, just as you can rebuild your active roster before any encounter. It’s neat knowing that you can and should scope out the field and build for what you find, be it a bevy of close quarters skirmishes or getting skilled up on traversal fighting.

Changing your tactics will be necessary for all the enemy types you face. Smashers, for instance, will always charge you a short distance if you attack them with a weapon, but not if you do traversal damage. Boos teleport, so your overwatch abilities will be useless. Building around health is always important, too, as Luigi’s double team jump can get him out of sticky situations quickly, but Rabbid Mario’s Bodyguard ability means you should always put him in the middle of the sticky.

Unfortunately, by the end of the game, that variety—that vital spice of life—is pretty much gone. You’ll acquire enough Battle Orbs to where your character builds will look like everyone else’s character builds. And weapons, a huge component of your success, are simply bought anew with coins rather that boosted with Battle Orbs, which means experimentation there is pretty much nonexistent.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

There are also puzzles strewn about the world, none of which are worth mentioning in particular. Well, except for some sliding block puzzles in the ice world because those are always trash and worth shaming. And some of them will include a clock, which is especially heinous because this game has some of the most confusing movement possible.

Mario is always on the team, and based on the entire history of video games, you’ll look at him as you walk around. But you should actually look at this little robot named Beep-O, the AI assistant to the genius scientist, in the lead since only its collision counts for coin accrual and button activation and map interactions. Combined with unnatural stiff locomotion and disorienting camera movement/inconvenient camera-locking, moving about the world is kind of a chore.

And you’ll definitely want to explore the world. It’s full of little touches that make it clear the developers have a deep appreciation for Mario (and Rabbids, I suppose). One of Luigi’s weapons, for instance, is his vacuum from Luigi’s Mansion. And one of his abilities is called Steely Gaze, a callback to his now legendary death stare. Also, he dabs. Basically, this is the Year of Luigi all over again.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

In spite of such fundamental failings, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle packs in plenty of charm, complexity, and panache to make it worthwhile. It’s a deep strategy game that moves fast with a complete upset of expectations on what it can do with such bubbly and butt attack-oriented characters. Yeah, pretty much zero percent of the humor lands, but it definitely says something that 30 hours and 1,200 words later, I’m about to pick it up to play it some more.

+ Captures the charm of the Mushroom Kingdom
+ Tactical in ways you wouldn’t expect
+ Freedom to rebuild your team and characters at any point
– Movement is mostly fine but also egregious
– Ugh, Rabbids

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
Release: August 29, 2017
Genre: Turn-based tactics
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Available Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Players: Single-player, multiplayer
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://mario-rabbids.com/

Tim Poon

Computer scientist turned journalist. Send tips to tim@workingmirror.com.