Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was one of the earliest, best surprises on the Switch. Many of the Nintendo published titles of the system’s first year were highly anticipated, but also far more “expected” than a tactical strategy game that crossed over the most famous name in gaming with Ubisoft’s raving lapin-likes. Odd as its premise and genre may have been, it worked – just ask its 10 million players.
Last week I had the pleasure of previewing its upcoming follow-up, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, at a private media event. After three hours with the game, I’m pleased to report that this is no mere sequel, nor an attempt to recreate a past success. This is instead a natural progression of what came before. If these impressions hold, Switch owners can look forward to a game more confident in its blend of sources, more ambitious with its design, and more grand in its galactic scale when Sparks of Hope arrives in just a month’s time.
For the event, I was able to play through the game’s prologue before touching down on its first planetary destination – Beacon Beach. Unlike Kingdom Battle, the adventure isn’t taking place in a Mushroom Kingdom that’s been overrun by Rabbids. Instead, you’ll be traveling through space to unique environments made from the ground up for Sparks of Hope, paving the way for more fleshed out NPCs and visually distinct locales.
It’s an exciting prospect, but it’s hardly the only indication that this is a more vast and exploratory journey. While the first game’s environments served mostly as a means to get from one battle to another, with some light puzzles and set pieces for good measure, Sparks of Hope instead presents you with more open areas that can be roamed freely. Dotting the land are coins and more coveted collectibles, as well as side quests and characters that are there to offer up rewards, and enemies that effectively serve as RPG-style overworld enemies waiting to whisk you away to a battle.
When in combat, the most notable change is the absence of the previous game’s “grid.” There aren’t really defined “spaces” any more, nor do you stop and select actions like Dash Attacking or Team Jumps. Instead, you just do them naturally by moving to enemies and allies respectively. As a fan of strategy games I never really minded the more menu driven prompts of Kingdom Battle, but the system in Sparks of Hope is definitely smoother and more intuitive. You’ll still need to be smart about positioning and the order in which you perform certain techniques, but the flow of things is much quicker and more natural in execution.
The presentation has been bumped up too, with cleaner icons and dedicated activation cutscenes on characters’ special techniques. The game’s also received voice acting, not just for NPCs (like your guide Beep-0) but for the playable cast of Rabbids. They’ll still Bwah with the best of ‘em, and are highly expressive in cutscenes, but now Rabbid Peach shall speak freely as she fires off attacks. The real stars here are Rabbid Mario though, whose tough guy personality shines with some of the funniest combat quotes of all, and newcomer Rabbid Rosalina. While my time with her was only at the tail end of the event, her apathetic ennui makes for a great foil to the sillier returnees and more driven newcomer Edge.
That the Rabbids feel like more fleshed out characters is very much welcome. They always had personalities, but now they feel even more distinct and stand on even footing with the Mario characters. The entire crew has been refined for Sparks of Hope so that they all fill unique archetypes. This was semi-present in the first game thanks to unique weapons being available to specific characters, but is now even more emphasized and fleshed out.
Mario, for example, comes equipped with two blasters. These can be aimed at different enemies, or be used to double up on a single target. His Hero Sight ability is back as well, letting him attack any enemies that entire his range on their turn, but he’s now got the ability to fire from mid-air while performing a Team Jump. He can even Goomba stomp on landing, giving him flexibility of approach and supplementary damage that the other characters aren’t as specialized in.
Contrast that with the likes of Luigi (who has longer range with his bow-like weapon) or Rabbid Mario (who’s coming in with a pair of metal fists ideal for getting up close and personal), and everyone’s niche and specialties start to become apparent. These can be enhanced via character specific skill trees, but the combat customization really opens up thanks to the titular Sparks.
These fusions of Rabbid and Luma each bestow unique skills, and can be equipped freely to any character. During the second half of the preview, taking place in the frigid Pristine Peaks, I was able to equip every character with two Sparks each from a wider pool of options. These could offer up area of effect buffs, elemental affinities, additional Dash attack effects, defensive options, and even unique attacks like a rain of meteors. The amount of possibilities and potential experimentation within the already enhanced combat system points to this being a deeper experience than Kingdom Battle by far, and one I’m eager to get back to.
The few drawbacks present are ones I’m willing to chalk up to inexperience with the game and the nature of this hands-on. While the first portion was effectively the beginning of the game, once we were at Pristine Peaks enemies and scenarios had become much more difficult. I also had a tendency to bump into barriers while exploring, where collisions lead to a two second or so pause of movement. Maybe I was just clumsy with a new game (I kept cycling through sub-menus in ways I didn’t intend to, as another example), but even with those minor inconveniences I left more excited than I’d been before. All signs point to this being a greater game in every way than the already enjoyable Kingdom Battle, and there’s plenty more to experience beyond this early look.
We’ll have more on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope leading up to its October 20th release. In the meantime, you can pre-order your copy now to get the Megabug collection of weapon skins. A Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope Gold Edition is also available, which will include the game’s DLC Season Pass – now confirmed to feature Rayman!
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