While the rest of us have been lamenting the inevitable slate of delays hitting the 2022 release schedule, Davide Soliani and the folks at Ubisoft Milan and Paris have been hard at work. The 2017 surprise hit Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle smashed together Nintendo’s iconic Italian and Ubisoft’s bizarre Rabbids, in the process creating one of the Switch’s best titles. The strange blend of cartoonish franchises and rich turn-based tactical gameplay worked a charm and now, half a decade later, Soliani and the team are pushing the hybrid of their own making into fantastic new places.
I recently had the chance to play a solid chunk of the sequel, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, and found it to be as fun as the original title. Only this time, the game is forefronting player freedom and expression in surprising ways. I was fortunate enough to pick Soliani’s brain about how this new title has evolved the genre, taken surprise inspirations and is serving up maybe the most Twitter flirted rendition of Peach I’ve ever seen.
What were the key elements the team wanted to focus on when creating the sequel?
After the release of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Donkey Kong Adventure, the team wanted to expand on the game’s universe. We were all excited about the beautiful and kind reception we had with our players and the community that we started to establish since then.
We had our own goal for the game, but we also spent time speaking with our players, listening to their desire. I believe that today, Sparks of Hope Is reflecting this intersection of desires.
I believe that what is defining the game today are many things, but three elements clearly stand out: Real Time Movement, Exploration and Synergies.
It’s not easy to change something that the player appreciated so much in Kingdom Battle as the combat system, but everyone in the team wanted to bring something more, something new, to keep surprising our players. Keeping a clear foundation on the tactical aspect of the game, we wanted to give the freedom to the players to move their character inside an area of movement instead of moving BEEP-0, as a cursor. This allows the players to quickly go where they want to, check if there’s enemies in reach for an attack or vault over a cover to dash some enemies and then coming back and taking your time to think about the next move, without having to confirm the end of your movement phase. This feeling of freedom was really important to us, and I believe it’s a paradigm shift in our combat system which is giving way more possibilities compared to the previous titles of Mario + Rabbids.
The second element is the exploration. Many players in the past told me they loved the game’s environments, and they would have loved to explore them all. In Sparks of Hope, it’s finally possible and players can decide to explore the planets as they please. Do they want to keep following the critical path of the game and advancing on the game’s story or do they want to enjoy the side content more? Players’ agency was a fundamental aspect for us to inject in exploration.
Last point are the Sparks. They are the buddies of our Heroes, and they are also powerful creatures that can be evolved through the game to make them stronger and stronger. They are also a modular element as they can be equipped on any hero. This gives additional freedom to our players to create even more incredible synergies in combat, between the heroes. I’m still doing many walkthroughs of the game, and even so, I’m still finding new ways of combining those powers together to solve different battle challenges.
Super Mario Galaxy has obviously played a huge role in the tone and lore of this game, how did you come to this decision and what kind of Easter eggs can fans be on the lookout for in the game?
Sparks of Hope is set in the universe of Mario + Rabbids, so there’s no direct link with Mario Galaxy. It’s a different story with a different universe. As a team, we are always inspired by many elements of the Mario universe and we are lucky enough to be able to pick different elements out of this universe that are really inspiring us. Lumas from Mario Galaxy were definitely one of those elements.
I would love to suggest to our players who enjoy spending time to know the lore of a game, to find all the Echo Memories sparse through the game. Our Narrative team and our script writer poured their hearts on that, we hope that you will find the Echo Memories a pleasing addition.
In shifting to small open sandbox environments what things did the team consider filling the world with and what do you think this free roam offers players?
For us, the main goal was to make sure the player could always feel joy when exploring the planets. Second, we wanted to make sure they could always find something to do; small real time challenges, quests to help the villagers, combat opportunities, secrets, and a good amount of humour to glue everything together.
On top of that, we also wanted to make sure that the experience could keep offering some interest. For example, players can engage in combat with a roaming enemy and the ensuing battle will always be different.
Speaking of freedom, the ability to freely move around the battlefield with the characters, as well as the huge variety of special abilities, definitely give the impression you want this game to feel less strict than the first. How did the team come to this decision and why do you think it’s important?
Our aim was to make sure the players could enjoy freedom in their movement phase. We are always looking into how to open up the tactical genre and to renew what we are offering so this was a nice challenge for us; making sure the player could feel at home with our game, as it’s based on the foundations of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, but at the same time, surprising them with a new way of interacting with the game, an evolution that could bring new way of playing.
In Sparks of Hope it’s possible to quickly operate actions that in the previous game were more mechanical as it was requiring the players to browse and select their skills over an action console. Today you can do many things within the movement phase.
Let’s take Mario as an example. With Mario, a player can run over the battleground as they please, use Mario to team jump in real time on a teammate, stomp an enemy during the trajectory, and land close to a Bob-omb. Mario, within the same movement phase, can dash the Bob-omb and grab it and throw it against a cluster of enemies, maybe Goombas. But it could be also the other way. Mario could dash a Bob-omb, grab it, and then team jump over a teammate to go further away and once landed, finally being able to throw it against enemies that were previously too far to be damaged.
Those are just small examples of the level of freedom and synergy you can have with the free movement, and the character’s skills.
Grant Kirkhope’s soundtrack for the first game was a huge part of its magic and so far it seems as though the music for the sequel is even better. What has it been like working with such icons as Kirkhope, Coker and Shimomura?
As usual, working with Grant is a real pleasure. I’m in love with his style and he is always pushing to get the best out of his music. I also believe that in Sparks of Hope, Grant Kirkhope really reached an incredible level of quality.
He is often telling me that he believes to have written the best music of his career in Sparks of Hope.
As Sparks of Hope is a space journey through different planets, with different NPC and stories, we thought that working with such legendary composer as Yoko Shimomura and Gareth Coker would allow us to enrich our palette of emotions even more. The real challenge for us, especially for Romain Brillaud, the Audio Director, was to make sure to obtain both a diverse and homogeneous output, musically speaking, from all of them. Diverse, because it was important for us to get the most out of their legendary skills, but also homogeneous, in order to have a field rouge through the journey.
Rabbid Peach has some of my favourite dialogue in the game so far and she strikes me as very “online” with her mannerisms and language. How does the writing team go about influences for comedy in the game?
I’m so happy about your feedback and I believed the Narrative team and the script writer will be happy as well. We really wanted to depict each character psychology in the best way possible to make them really pop out, and voices as being really important to achieve this goal. For example, I’m laughing a lot while using Rabbid Mario in combat just for the things he is saying, or Luigi when he is shaking bushes or trees.
Rabbid Peach is the diva of the group, she really takes care of her audience and we believe this aspect of her is helping some players to create a bridge between them and the character, as well as other players will be more inclined to enjoy the silent mood of Edge, or goofiness of Rabbid Mario.