Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle made a fantastic first impression back in 2017. Seeing Shigeru Miyamoto walk on stage with blaster, watching the games Creative Director Davide Soliani’s sincere emotions at the unveiling of his work, and then eventually playing through and reviewing the title made for quite the first summer for the Switch. Now Ubisoft and Nintendo have partied up again for that space-faring successor that is Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.
Unlike the first game, where the surprise of the crossover might’ve been the biggest hook, Sparks of Hope has the added pressure of living up to what became a great success and standing out in a much larger library for the system. I’m pleased to say that it more than succeeds in further cementing the series as a standout, eclipsing its predecessor and succeeding by embracing what worked and tuning it to near perfection.
Bwah-rsting with Personality
From its prologue, Sparks of Hope manages to make a better first impression. There’s close to no direct reference to the first game, instead opting to hit things off with a prologue at Peach’s Castle with the Rabbids already present. Soon the party’s crashed by a menacing manta ray in the sky, leading to a quick rescue operation and the discovery that a malevolent being known as Cursa is spreading concentrated “Darkmess” across the galaxy. From there it’s off to the stars via spaceship, heading to new horizons and unforeseeable dangers.
The most apparent thing from all my hours with Sparks of Hope is just how much personality it has. Though they don’t have much dialogue, the Mario characters are exceptionally expressive in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Mario and Peach share a lingering look at each other during a beach dance party, while Luigi’s lanky physique is emphasized in the way he leans while running. That said, it’s the core cast of Rabbids that manage to steal the show, with Rabbid Peach and Rabbid Mario standing out in particular when it comes to humor. Slightly more fleshed out and occasionally voiced, they maintain and enhance what made them likable co-stars in the first place.
When it comes to newcomers to the crew, the game doesn’t disappoint either. Edge may have stood out on reveal for not exactly fitting the mold of the Mario + Rabbids “rules” but she ends up a welcome addition. Rabbid Rosalina’s listlessness and Bowser’s kingly charisma round out the party well. Fans of the first game might note the absence of Yoshi and Rabbid Yoshi, and while they’re still missed in their own right I can’t disagree with who’s tagged in for Sparks of Hope.
Where no Rabbid has Gone Before
The planet-hopping nature of this follow-up let’s every environment feel distinct – they have their own problems and mini storylines, as well as NPCs that serve those. It’s night and day compared to the first game, where Bowser Jr. and Spawny more or less left mayhem in their wake across the Mushroom Kingdom, the remedying of which served as your sole motivation. Here we get to spend a little time with new and unique Rabbid characters, all of them impacted by Cursa and the Darkmess in unique ways.
This structure feels more impactful to play through, and more entertaining to experience. Not every joke hit for me, and it’s not the most layered journey, but it’s still an improvement and a welcome change – something this game does exceedingly well across the board. I could’ve done without Beep-0 chiming in so frequently, but he’s balanced out by new AI companion Jeanie, who’s not afraid to reel him in if his commentary is getting a bit much.
The new approach to exploration is another step up from Kingdom Battle. That played mostly as a sequence of battles interspersed with the occasional side track for light puzzles or coins. Now each are of Sparks of Hope invites you to seek out its challenges, rewards, and side quests.
I do feel the overworld pace is just a tad too slow for my usual taste. This was made worse by the fact that holding down the sprint button (X) didn’t feel all that intuitive. Sometimes the camera made certain tasks trickier than they needed to be thanks to always being on the controller characters as well, like grabbing Red Coins while on a timer. Despite these gripes, I still found exploration largely enjoyable, and feel that among all the change-ups present it’s the one that makes the biggest impact to the whole adventure.
A Galaxy of Possibilities
Of course, that’s only one half of the Mario + Rabbids experience. The tactical gameplay of the first game returns, but now more actionized and intuitive. The grid-based battlefields are no more, with characters instead having a more freeform range. Menu prompts are replaced by context-based cues for things like Team Jumps and Dash attacks, and swapping characters repeatedly to make the best use of positioning and those skills can make a huge difference. Initially I was concerned about some of these alterations, as I appreciated how well Kingdom Battle did with its approach to the genre. How was I going to survive without my square-based UI?!
Those trepidations gave way to jubilation in short order, as the new style not only works well within the established “mold” of M+R but gives it further depth and possibilities. Team Jumps in particular are more interesting thanks to you actively gliding with Beep-0. With some proper skill investment you’ll be able to freely float above enemies rather than choosing your landing point and watching the action take place. Mario especially can lean into this via some unique skills, letting him stomp enemies and fire from mid-air to really live up to the Jumpman name.
He’s not the only one with specialties either. Every playable character not only has a unique weapon type and a unique skill, but a skill tree that feeds into their main archetypical strengths. Rabbid Peach is a reliable healer thanks to her skill, but the unique arc of her weapon also makes her great at picking off enemies that are behind cover. Via her skills, I could spec her to specialize in those areas or do a little bit of both, and freely change things up as I liked.
Everyone’s similar in that customizable flexibility, with leveling up granting more skill points and more opportunities to embrace those more defined archetypes. It’s streets ahead of Kingdom Battle in this department, feeling more thought out and enjoyable to utilize thanks to the other present changes.
Spark of Genius
As they’re right there in the title, Sparks do a lot to push things even further in a great direction. The blend of Rabbid and Luma finds themselves separated across the galaxy and without their mama, but are more than willing to give Mario and the gang a hand. They provide an even greater degree of character and party customization, with characters able to eventually equip two each. They can broadly be classified by their functions – some grant your weapon attack or dashes elemental affinities and status effects, while others offer more unique functions, like buffs and invisibility. The more you find, the more options you have, and the more the combat really opens up.
How deep you dive into the possibilities of Sparks of Hope’s interweaving systems is up to you. I like to think I took a middle approach by being aware of all my options, but not necessarily tailoring them for each and every combat or scenario. This served me fine, and I’d adjust when needed, but even then the game’s difficulty can sneak up on you. There’s a solid pace in place to keep you from being over or under leveled, but you need to always be aware of enemy placements and options. One slip up can often lead to someone getting completely dogpiled.
There were a handful of “gimmicky” maps as well, such as one where a Bob-omb needed to be delivered to the other end of a map via activating wind tunnels. I appreciate the presence of more objectives beyond defeating all enemies or reaching a certain point, but they could be hit or miss. I did appreciate the weight that boss encounters tended to carry though, and when looked at as a whole the fun and challenges outweighed any frustration or tedium by a great deal.
Another Great Adventure
Nothing about Sparks of Hope feels unfinished. Between its five planets, nine characters and 30 Sparks there’s plenty to see and fathomless possibilities for those eager to test out its battlefield intricacies. Presentation-wise, everything is vibrant and true to both sources, and the game’s three composers do a wonderful job. It is worth noting that there’s planned DLC, including a pack that adds Rayman to the game. Kingdom Battle’s own DLC, the Donkey Kong Adventure, didn’t disappoint, and I’m hopeful this future content follows suit.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a perfect sequel – one that takes everything the first game did and does it better, all while growing in new and fulfilling ways. It’s clear that the teams behind this game care deeply about crafting an experience that’s entertaining, and have put their own sparks of earnestness into every inch. There’s still room for improvements in some areas, but if there should ever be a third entry I’m eager to see how it grows beyond this overall greatness.
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System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 20, 2022
Developer: Ubisoft Milan