Pop culture cross-over events and multiverses almost feel a little long in the tooth at the moment. Games like Fortnite, which currently features *checks notes*, Spider-Gwen flinging chrome grenades at Darth Vader, have made such mammoth strides in IP cross-pollination that the concept itself has lost some of its shine. But before this deluge of absurd event marketing, Nintendo paired up with Ubisoft to release the almost unassuming Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle back in 2017. A turn-based tactics game that took characters from the Super Mario and Rabbids franchises, blending them together in an impressively approachable riff on the usually complex genre.
Now, the two gaming juggernauts have reunited for a surprising sequel that is already shaping up to outpace the original, if not outwit. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a bombastic and silly game, a colourful explosion of freeform tactical battle mechanics and considered open-world design. I was fortunate enough to experience a substantial portion of the upcoming title earlier this month, playing around four hours of both early and mid-game combat, exploration and more. What I came away with was both an appreciation for the strides made since the first game and a need to jump back into this toybox again as soon as possible.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope really wants you to have a good time. This might seem like a redundant statement for (most) games, but in building on the original, this sequel forefronts a sense of open wonder and player expression. The titular Mario and Rabbids are now in bizarre co-existence, with iconic characters from Nintendo’s flagship franchise and their respective weirdo-counterparts frolicking about in the Mushroom Kingdom. Not missing a beat from the first game, the writing and humour on display here are endearing and laugh-out-loud funny at times. The inherent goofiness of these characters living together, even before the story kicks off in earnest, is an entertaining concept.
Peace times are a rare treat in the Mushroom Kingdom however and it doesn’t take long for Sparks of Hope to introduce its great new foe, Cursa. This being from the great beyond strikes an image somewhere between Pixar and Lovecraft, a cartoonish and menacing force for Mario and his mates to tackle. Through mysterious magic known as Darkmess, Cursa has been wreaking destructive mayhem through the galaxy, causing the Sparks to seek help from our heroes. Sparks are an ungodly union between Rabbid and Lumas, each sporting their own unique style and helpful combat capabilities. So the gang piles aboard an AI-piloted spaceship and sets off into the galaxy to clean up the Darkmess and probably make some new friends along the way.
If there was a core idea that Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is playing with it is undeniably player freedom. The biggest shift from the first game is the move to small but dense sandbox environments that serve as over-worlds between battles. In the preview build I played I was able to fully explore the game’s first planet, Beacon Beach, which served as a fantastic primer for the game’s new design ethos.
You are now equipped with a quest log and map begging you to explore these fantastical environments. Red Coin challenges have made their way over from other Mario titles, making these spaces feel much more of a piece with Nintendo’s overarching plumber franchise. Elsewhere you can chat with locals to take on side-quests, collect coins that can be spent at a vendor for power-ups, and of course, engage in combat.
Taking notes from other JRPG worlds, combat in Sparks of Hope is kicked off by approaching, or being approached by, enemies in the overworld with level indicators over their heads. These encounters rip you away into small pocket dimensions themed after the aesthetics of the current planet. In these spaces, Sparks of Hope continues to evolve on its promise of player freedom with a revamped movement system and impressive range of combat options. Gone are the restrictive grids and pre-set movements of the first game, instead a fully traversable portion of the arena opens before you.
Within this space, you can run around, engage with the other characters in your squad, use warp pipes and even slide into enemies for a free hit of damage before combat proper kicks off. This shift to a looser movement system works remarkably well but did occasionally land me in annoying hot water as I would accidentally slide into enemy scopes due to the game’s maybe too slippery run animations.
Drilling deeper into the game’s systems, you’ll find a robust set of combat options thanks to the addition of the Sparks. These odd little globules all come equipped with unique powers ranging from elemental weapon coatings, defensive shields that reflect or disperse incoming damage and a variety of attack multipliers, to name a few. Each member of your team can have two Sparks equipped, inviting you to cleverly balance skills and Spark types before each battle kicks off. Alongside a generous difficulty modifier, you’re able to take a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield before your first move, noting enemy types, locations and traits.
I came away from every encounter with the strong impression that Sparks of Hope really wants you to thrive in its freeform systems. A welcome warmth for a genre typically defined by its top-heavy mechanics and difficulty. Additionally, the game has a decent skill tree with several upgrade paths for each character, notably not locking you into any choice with an easy-to-use refund button for spent skill points. Those vendors I mentioned earlier also play a part in the game’s approachability, offering you new weapons and consumable items that can drastically alter the battlefield through terrain damage and party member buffs.
During my time with the game, I was able to play several different battle styles as well as explore two of the game’s gorgeous dungeons. Battles range from outright assaults to pushing forward in a location to reach an endzone, but across all levels of complexity, the interplay between the party remained engaging. Dungeons shake up the formula even more, with overworld puzzles that incorporate pattern recognition, lite-stealth and more. The two dungeons I played weren’t exactly complex (bar one oddly confounding water puzzle), but the chance to spend time in the ambience of these colourful worlds was a delight all the same. There is a staggering amount of care put into the lore of the game and you can feel all of it while exploring open-ended environments.
I’d also be remiss to not prime you for just how joyous Sparks of Hope’s aesthetics, tone and music are. I mentioned Pixar earlier and it’s difficult to place a more suitable comparison point for the game’s vibe. This is a romp of an adventure through and through, overflowing with memorably drawn locations and characters. Watching Mario and co. throw themselves into battle and beyond radiates fun, no encounter too serious for a joke to not punctuate the tension. It helps then that the writing is as sharp as the first game so far, with mentions of “ghosting” and “serving looks” thrown around making it all feel very online in a way that works far better than it should.
Last, but most certainly not least, is the game’s score, which I think I highlighted about six times in my preview notes. Grant Kirkhope, a master of video game scores and composer of the first game’s soundtrack, returns in full force with the help of Yoko Shimomura and Gareth Coker. This frankly absurdly talented lineup has crafted something fantastic in Sparks of Hope. Stellar sound design underscores the trio’s soundtrack, a full-bodied and diverse mix of bombastic calls to adventure and quietly charming overworld beats.
Truth be told there are about a dozen other things I want to tell you about from my time with Sparks of Hope but with the game’s release right around the corner, some of those surprises will have to wait. For now, I’ve come away from my time with the game with a keen understanding of its core ethos and design goals, two things that beautifully build on what the original accomplished half a decade ago. Sparks of Hope is begging to be enjoyed and feels primed to take the end of the year by storm.