The blame for the 21st century’s greatest humanitarian crisis, Minions, falls squarely at the feet of Ubisoft. Years before Universal Pictures’ yellow, goggle-wearing Lovecraftian monstrosities smuggled the evils of late-stage capitalism into American homes by way of slurpee cups, misshapen backpacks and mobile phone games meant to suck away what meager resources the American worker had left after the financial crisis, (French developer/publisher) Ubisoft’s Rabbids were already chewing their way through the wallets of naive Wii owners in 2006. Universal took notes. The Rabbids’ manic screams and mediocre minigames haunt my nightmares to this very day.
Back then, the Rabbids were handcuffed to the “Rayman” brand, some classic, really good game series or something that doesn’t sell anymore. Nowadays the Rabbids have hit the big time, starring in a crossover, Mario and the Rabbids, with the Mario characters — a very rare instance in which Nintendo allows a ‘B’ franchise to hang with the big boys. This game leaked a while back and nobody was all that excited for it.
Weirdly enough, though, my cynicism for this usually-soulless series of products kind of has to end there. This is a good game, one that clearly has heart and soul packed into it. That was made clear in that famous video where director Davide Soliani became overcome with emotion at seeing living legend Shigeru Miyamoto talk about his project onstage at E3. Somehow, it seemed, Ubisoft made a Rabbids game not to exploit the characters’ marketability but because an artist actually developed passion for an idea.
That passion is immediately evident in this game’s animation. From the opening cutscene, it seems like more love is poured into each frame than usual. It’s hard to put a finger exactly on what’s changed, and using nouns like passion and love to describe in-game animations doesn’t get us far in doing so. But it just feels less soulless and grating than that of previous games like the Kinect and mobile swill Ubisoft used to churn out.
It is not hyperbolic to call this game “Duplo XCOM.” It is quite simply a watered-down version of XCOM’s famous turn-based, squad-based strategy gameplay. A team of Mario characters and Rabbids dressed up like Mario characters arrange themselves on a battlefield and take shots at baddies with cartoon-y laser guns. There’s an extremely simple cover system, which strips some of the nuance from how XCOM calculated aim values (shots hit 0 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent of the time, which kind of takes away the thrill of gambling on a risky shot). Enemy types evolve nicely, if a teensy bit slowly, over the course of the game, which forces the player to change up their strategies and keeps gameplay fresh.
There is, of course, no permadeath in “Kingdom Battle,” a hallmark feature of the XCOM series that obviously wouldn’t make sense in Nintendo’s kid-friendly universe. Instead, the game’s battles come with a rather annoying rating system, encouraging the player to complete missions with a full party remaining in order to be granted more coins for their victory. However, where XCOM is designed to actively encourage continuation after losses and toys with the players’ emotional attachments to their party members in a meaningful, effective way, there’s no reason to press on in “Kingdom Battle” after a pyrrhic victory. It’s super easy to just reload the encounter, and the weapons bought with the extra coins are so valuable that not getting them makes you feel under-equipped for future fights.
The highlights of this game are the boss battles. They’re incredibly diverse and are often good digressions from the way fights typically work. One in particular takes the form of a musical, complete with lyrics written by Grant Kirkhope, the renowned British game composer that penned the “DK Rap” we all sing along to in DK64, Melee and the opera from “Conker’s Bad Fur Day.” It’s cute.
Speaking of Kirkhope, the man puts in soundtrack work here that is beautiful, fitting, and extremely nostalgic, giving reverence to Nintendo classics while coming up with a few new classics of his own. Some of the melodies aren’t distinct enough, though — they feel a little wandering, and I left the game with merely a few earworms to hum. Let me be clear that the only reason I feel comfortable giving such an unfair criticism to a great soundtrack is that Kirkhope has the power to make every single song in a video game a memorable classic (see: both Banjo-Kazooie games). He didn’t quite do that here.
One more small criticism: Playing this game on the Switch’s Tablet Mode isn’t ideal. The proportions of the characters to the map, the hugely restrictive camera and the mediocre UI make it so the TV version is much more manageable. It’s definitely not a deal-breaker, but you’ll want to play this one at home more than you take it on the go.
Regardless, this game is still a great B-tier release and decent satiation for Nintendo fans at the end of a Summer quite starved for new Switch games, Rabbids (and Minions) be damned.
A digital review copy was provided to the Michigan Daily by Ubisoft.