Mario+Rabbids is really f****** hard. Like, really, really hard. I went into my three hours with the game expecting an XCOM-lite–a simplified strategy title for the Mario audience. It would be easy, I thought. Maybe even too simplistic and perhaps a little dull.

That was not the case. My team of Mario, Rabbid Peach, and Rabbid Luigi got wiped out on the very first level, Ancient Gardens, going out with a whimper to a group of enemy Rabbids. So much for a leisurely walk through the Mushroom Kingdom.

At this point, Kingdom Battle’s depth wasn’t clear. I had no choice of who to pick for my team, no abilities and only the most basic weapons unlocked, and therefore no grasp on what made Rabbid Luigi different from Rabbid Peach or from any other cartoon rabbit.

The second level I played, however, was from much later in the game, meaning a wider variety of both allies and enemies were involved. It was here in Spooky Trails that Mario+Rabbids revealed its depth: suddenly I had some heavy artillery in my possession, seven characters unlocked (my original team plus Peach, Luigi, Rabbid Mario, and Rabbid Yoshi), and a bunch of special abilities available for each operative. The strategy game transformed into an intricate dance; by connecting together a handful of moves to vanquish multiple enemies per turn I felt less like a trite military general, more like the puppet master of a colorful and ludicrous TV show.

Ubisoft has recreated Nintendo’s iconic characters expertly–not only in their character models and animations, but in their personalities. The Rabbid versions of Mario-kind are infused with a similar amount of charm as their Mushroom Kingdom counterparts, who behave exactly as you’d expect them to on the battlefield. (Of course Luigi is the loveable coward, who prefers to keep his distance from the conflict, sniper rifle in hand, hands trembling.)

I particularly loved Peach and her fire shotgun, a lethal close-quarters weapon that, if it doesn’t kill, leaves your enemies with a nasty burn. It’s devastating power causes enemy Rabbids to scatter around the map holding their burned behind. Combine it with her XCOM-style Overwatch ability and you have the quite ridiculous sight of Princess Peach–until now the archetypal helpless damsel in distress–blasting Rabbids out of the sky without a second thought.

This can be chained together with a number of other offensive maneuvers, such as punching through enemies, moving through pipes, jumping on Mario’s head to stomp bad guys, and drawing monsters to one spot with Rabbid Mario’s Magnet Dance ability. Movement is key, and choosing which abilities to string together is even more important. Each character has their own skill tree, in which you can invest to get more abilities or unlock new weapons. These, in turn, have their own added effects such as area damage or status ailments.

Through these trees, you’re allowed to pick your style and perform all sorts of crazy stunts. But enemies are similarly well-equipped, and their intelligent AI–which can outthink and outflank you with ease–makes keeping your team together and crawling forward a strategy on par with hitting yourself with the controller. You’re only going to get hurt.

This forces you to both plan ahead and think on your feet. You’ll have to come up with ingenious ways to inflict damage on the fly, of course, but you’ll also need to envisage killer combinations to ensure that your Rabbids don’t end up dead. It became increasingly obvious to me that team composition is crucial–and absurd. The game’s local co-op mode–which puts you and a friend in charge of a pair of fighters each–has you very seriously debating over fighter and strategy choice in the most bizarre fashion:

“I think we need Mario because he’s got the best gun.”

“Hmm, but Rabbid Peach is a great healer, and if we stick together then Peach’s area heal ability could be vital.”

“Rabbid Luigi is a great defensive player though…”

“Nope, we definitely need Luigi’s massive sniper rifle.”

Choosing between a bazooka or defensive solidity in a Mario game is engrossing and hilarious, and the co-op mode highlights that perfectly. Discussing military tactics–again, in a Mario game! Mario has a gun. Like, an actual gun that fires stuff–is even funnier when done out loud.

Kingdom Battle does have an easy mode–which both heals your squad and boosts their HP count by 50% at the start of a fight–and I’m embarrassed to say I resorted to using it on more than one occasion. And I still lost. But the game being this difficult is what sparks those hilarious debates, and the characters being this well imagined is what makes Kingdom Battle feel like more than just an XCOM clone. Directing Mario and his friends was joyous, and I now can’t wait to tell you that no, actually, Peach rules more.