When we talk about sequels in games, there’s often an expectation to do more of the same, but better and with a decent amount of innovation or improvements. Players want to play what they loved to begin with, expanded with new ideas, mechanics, and system that broaden the overall scope of the original appeal. From this perspective, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope had its work cut out for it after Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle surprised everyone when it released in 2017 with remarkably robust turn-based combat, enthralling strategy, and a seemingly weird fusion of two worlds that was ultimately endearing and charming.
After around 25 hours with Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, it’s clear to me that Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris didn’t want to just make a sequel, they wanted to create a game that leaves an indelible mark on the genre, one that inspires others to follow in its footsteps. This is a markedly different game from its predecessor, but still retains that core appeal, where instead of following in the footsteps of something like XCOM, it forges its own path to deliver something wholly original and endlessly captivating.
Sometime after the events of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, a peaceful day in the Mushroom Kingdom is suddenly interrupted by a malevolent entity known as Cursa. Cursa’s galactic conquest is fueled by the desire to consume the energy of what are known as Sparks, an unexpected fusion between Lumas and Rabbids, and she plans to destroy all who dare to stand in her way. To save the galaxy from Cursa’s influence, the heroes of the Mushroom Kingdom team up with the Rabbids once again and set out on a journey to free those within Cursa’s grasp.
If Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle tells a story similar to that of a standard Mario game, Sparks of Hope is most comparable to the galaxy games. As you progress through the story, you’ll visit five unique planets that have all been twisted by Cursa’s power, and solving each of their plights is key to moving closer to Cursa, and saving the Sparks.
While it’s another charming adventure that’s sold by expressive and entertaining cutscenes, it falls a little short of its predecessor because of the strange decision to have Rabbids talk. It’s a change that I couldn’t warm up to after all these years, one that’s in direct contrast with the core appeal of the Rabbids. What’s even more jarring is that they still act like Rabbids, that is to say crazy and unhinged, making it even harder to get around this change. It by no means ruins the experience, and is still an enjoyable narrative to watch unfold, it just loses a little bit of the appeal in the process.
Where Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is most different, though is in its gameplay systems, stepping into more of a turn-based/real-time hybrid combat system with an emphasis on movement and build-crafting. Each turn is comprised of Movement, Free Actions, and Action Point Abilities, and making the most of all these things in any given combat encounter is pivotal to victory.
Movement boils down to moving within your character’s movement range, making use of dash attacks, and using Team Jumps to reach advantageous positions against the enemy. Gone is the restrictive grid based system of old, allowing for more free-flowing mobility to get into position for other abilities. Action Point Abilities refer to the abilities like weapon attacks, use Hero/Spark Powers and consume items, with each one consuming one of two action points.
The stuff that makes its return from Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is relatively unchanged here, and that’s because its Hero Powers and Spark Powers that change up the way you engage the enemy. Hero Powers are character-specific abilities that inform their playstyle and how you might build them. Mario’s, for example, is called Hero Sight, effectively functioning as an Overwatch ability, where he’ll shoot any enemy who moves within his line of sight, whereas Peach’s Hero Power shields nearby allies from all damage for a number of hits on the next turn. There’s a whopping nine playable heroes to choose from in your battle line-up of three, so there’s plenty of options to mix and match here.
Sparks, on the other hand, behave similarly but can be equipped and moved between heroes as you see fit. Some of them might enhance weapon attacks with an elemental effect, while others might provide some sort of passive benefit like damage reduction or life-steal. Sparks play a pivotal role in triggering Super Effects, which are essentially status ailments that are inflicted on an enemy when you exploit their weakness. Each hero can eventually have two Sparks equipped during battle, so there’s no shortage of options during each turn. You can also spend Star Bits to level up Sparks, increasing the potency of their active and passive skills.
On top of that, each character can invest in skill trees as they level up, enhancing movement capabilities, Hero Powers, weapon damage, and more. These skill trees also lend more to character identity, with each character having a clear role and game plan that compliments other Heroes and certain Sparks. Newcomer Edge, for example, is all about high-movement and hitting multiple targets hard and fast, where Rabbid Luigi focuses on weakening enemies and chaining elemental attacks through his weapon attack that bounces between targets. Every character feels valuable in the grand-scheme of things, and understanding who is suited to deal with particular enemy types/encounter designs keeps things fresh and engaging.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope gives you a near-endless toybox of options to play around with inside of battle, maybe a little too many. Take combining Mario’s upgraded Hero Sight ability, which resets it on kill, and combine that with the Glitter Spark on either Edge, or Rabbid Mario, which draws all enemies in range to that Hero’s location. For anything that isn’t annihilated by Mario as they move, Dash attacks also knock enemies up and trigger Hero Sight. Throw an elemental Spark on Mario for good measure, and you’re clearing swathes of enemies out in one fell swoop.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s ridiculously fun to build out characters and experiment with different archetypes, but there’s way more Hero/Spark combinations than the one mentioned above that are downright broken and can trivialize certain encounters. It’s nice to be rewarded for thinking outside of the box and finding unique synergies between certain Heroes and Sparks, but they can often mitigate some of the strategy, even in certain boss fights and major encounters. This is still an extremely flexible and customizable combat system, though, and I think the game is ultimately better for it.
Speaking of which, a lot of the difficulty in any given battle is informed by the type of encounter you’re engaged in. Each battle is preceded by a pre-battle screen, where you can spend any unused Skill Prisms, fine tune loadouts, and tweak the difficulty if you’re finding anything too easy or hard. You can see the general layout of the arena and what enemies you’ll be fighting, as well as any environmental objects you can use to gain an advantage. It’s a great way to get an idea of which heroes are going to work best against that group of enemies, and is a handy tool for those who get wrapped up in exploration and forget to invest resources to improve Heroes or Sparks.
There’s three main types of encounters, overworld, Darkmess Puddles, and boss fights. Overworld encounters are as you’d expect, enemies roaming the overworld that you can choose to avoid or fight. These arenas and enemy combinations are randomly generated, and can usually be dealt with very quickly, which leaves them feeling more like filler as opposed to engaging and thought-out battles. Darkmess Puddles, left behind by Cursa and her minions, are much more in-depth. Designed to take multiple turns and with unique objectives, each one brings something new to the table and make up a bulk of the battles here. Boss fights on the other hand are few and far between, but much like the first game, offer even more unique objectives and nail-biting skirmishes. Even the ones that are made easier by overpowered builds still require you to be aware of your surroundings and their unique abilities.
While battling takes up a solid chunk of the game time here, there’s also a lot to do outside of it. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope shifts to a more free-form style of exploration and level design, with optional enemy encounters, hidden secrets, collectibles, side quests and so much more. Each planet is jam-packed with worthwhile content, not only because the rewards are great, but also because they’re genuinely fun to engage with.
Some of the side quests are quite entertaining in nature, for example, a quest on the third planet, Palette Prime, where a woodsman Rabbid’s precious axe has been stolen and employs the team’s help to track down the culprit. They’re sent on a wild goose chase across Palette Prime to catch the suspect, and while the culprit is glaringly obvious for the player, it’s fun to watch the cast try to unravel it for themselves.
Completing side quests, optional activities, and puzzles will award you with Planet Medals, which can be spent on cosmetic weapon skins, Memories which serve as data entries, and the key to that planet’s Secret Zone. Each Secret Zone is a self-contained puzzle box that will award you with a Spark upon first completion, and a weapon skin on second completion if you can finish it within the allotted time.
Each planet also has a secret boss, which requires a certain amount of Sparks to be unlocked before you challenge them. More often than not, these secret bosses are more difficult than the story bosses, but award you with Gold Prisms, that can unlock a powerful 4th skill tree for each Hero, that focuses on boosting the overall efficacy and power of Sparks, which makes them well-worth the challenge. It’s the inclusion of all these overworld activities that keeps Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s pacing tight, affording players enough breathing room between mandatory battles so as to not inundate and exhaust you with endless combat.
While the Nintendo Switch’s aging hardware seems to hold back other titles, there are some developers besides Nintendo that manage to squeeze out every ounce of power that the machine has, and Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is one such title. This is a gorgeous game both in and outside of battle, with some great spectacle fights that really deliver on a sense of scale and grandeur. A lot of this can be contributed to the stellar art direction and animation design on show here, it simply oozes the kind of polish and sheen that you’d expect from a first-party Nintendo title.
Unfortunately, the Switch can struggle at times with Sparks of Hope, often buckling under the weight of hectic fights where large explosions and multiple Super Effects are being triggered at once. While it didn’t drastically effect my overall experience, especially given the turn-based nature of combat, it reared its head often enough to warrant mentioning. I did also run into a few bugs such as where characters would lock up for 10 or so seconds after selecting an ability, and I had one hard crash back the Switch home screen. While these technical hiccups were few and far between, I suspect many players will suffer similar issues until a patch can be rolled out.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is another resounding success in this whacky collaboration of two long-standing IP, one that feels much more defining and original than its predecessor. That isn’t to say Kingdom Battle fell short of expectations, but more so that Sparks of Hope is a clear and confident showcase that there’s so much untapped potential within this genre, and a lot of it has been capitalized on here. This game is a definitive labor of love from Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris, one that you owe it to yourself to play if you own a Switch, or are a fan of strategy games.
THE SWITCH VERSION WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL COPY OF THE GAME WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
While Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a markedly different game than Kingdom Battle, it's a more than worthy sequel that successfully steps into its own space within the realm of turn-based strategy. It's undoubtedly one of the best games on the Switch, and one of the best showings from Ubisoft in recent years.
A charming narrative with lovingly crafted cutscenes
A broad roster of unique heroes to play around with
A fun and endlessly flexible battle system, bolstered further by diverse build-crafting and character progression
Jam-packed with quality content
Gorgeous art direction and animation quality
Talking Rabbids is a weird decision that goes against their core identity
Build flexibility can lead to some downright broken combinations