When a game hits on a good idea, some developers are content to play it safe for the sequel, making a few refinements but largely stick to what worked the first time. That totally makes sense. But Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is not that kind of sequel; even though Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle surprised us all with its smart XCOM-style tactics in Nintendo clothing, this followup maintains its best ideas but reinvents itself to the point where it immediately feels very different. It’s bigger and better in nearly every way, with a more freeform and customizable take on combat and an almost completely rethought overworld that’s much less linear and absolutely packed with puzzles. The story’s all over the place and the Switch can’t always handle everything smoothly, but it’s a fantastic game that can be played as either an enjoyable cakewalk or a deep, demanding tactical challenge, all while maintaining its zany sense of humor.
Picking back up in the post-Rabbid invasion Mushroom Kingdom, things immediately get even weirder when a giant manta ray from space arrives to cause trouble. The story is actually one of Sparks of Hope’s few missteps: the original’s trans-dimensional blending of Mario characters and goofball Rabbids is completely absurd, but it kind of makes sense in its own way. This time, though, the completely unrelated enemy spreads what’s effectively Ganon’s corrupt ooze with eyeballs from Breath of the Wild everywhere, and most but not all of her minions are also Rabbids for some reason? Also we have a spaceship for traveling between literal worlds? It makes Kingdom Battle look grounded in reality by comparison, which is something I never thought I’d say about that game. I wasn’t expecting deep lore or anything, but it’s kind of a mess. It does consistently have some pretty good jokes, though, so at least I was chuckling as I was scratching my head.
That weirdness is more than made up for by the fact that all nine characters on your team are absolutely dripping with personality – none more than Rabbid Peach. With her satirical Gen Z social media diva persona and jaunty walk in the overworld, she stands out among the crew even though they all have their own entertaining quirks. Luigi has his traditional awkward leaning run, Rabbid Rosalina is determinedly lethargic, and Bowser is as much of a hulking bulldozer as you’d expect. They’re just fun to watch, and I’m still noticing new and amusing subtleties to their animations. It can go too far at times, such as how an animation plays every time you activate a character’s signature ability, but mercifully you can turn that off when you get tired of it.
Battles themselves feel different right away. I’m sure there’s still a grid underneath the maps somewhere, but Sparks of Hope does a fantastic job of hiding it and making movement in tactical battles look and feel smooth as Mario and friends run around. You’re still confined to a radius based on each character’s movement stats, but there are plenty of ways to chain actions together to extend it – most notably the team jump, where one character can bounce off of another to cross the usually small maps in one turn. That move now adds a clever touch of real-time movement to this turn-based game: heroes will hover for a few seconds, during which you have to steer them. Wasting precious time here can be the difference between landing safely or falling off a cliff and taking damage, so you have to be careful about where you plan to land. There’s also an extremely handy line that shows you the movement range of your other characters, which is invaluable for figuring out where to position them for jumps as you switch between teammates.
The big new idea, though, is the Sparks. As you play you unlock dozens of these cute little guys with names like Pyrogeddon and Toxiquake; when equipped they grant abilities from straightforward elementally charged shots, dashes, and area-of-effect weapons (they also come with passive resistances to those elements) to more interesting abilities like attracting or repelling enemies, resurrecting fallen teammates, and invisibility. Being able to mix and match two Sparks onto each hero opens up all kinds of opportunities, such as equipping Rabbid Luigi’s ricochetting frisbee weapon with a freeze effect to immobilize a long chain of enemies, or giving Bowser a reflection ability that bounces enemy attacks back at them after he absorbs a bunch of hits.
A lot of Sparks are similar to the special effects of Kingdom Battle’s weapons, but with one important difference: those usually only have a ~30% chance of occurring when you hit an enemy, which means you can’t really plan on a target catching fire or being stuck in place. Here, if you spend one of a character’s two action points to activate a Spark ability, such as an electric shot, it’s guaranteed to shock a target if it hits them. There’s still a fair amount of dice rolling, in that enemies in half cover only have a 50% chance of being hit (and of course there’s always a possibility of a critical hit,) but I feel much more in control of the outcome of a move than I did in the original.
Wringing out every bit of potential from each of your three characters every turn takes practice and an understanding of Sparks of Hope’s rules. There are dash attacks, team jumps, Spark powers, and good old-fashioned weapon attacks, and every character works a little differently – especially after a few upgrades. Luigi, for instance, is the only hero who can do two team jumps in one turn, and he can unlock an ability to earn an additional dash attack with each one. Rabbid Peach, meanwhile, can heal her teammates when she lands. None of these character-specific abilities are required outside of a handful of missions where your squad is chosen for you, so you have enormous freedom to experiment and discover who you like best. You don’t have to take Mario into combat at all this time if you don’t want to, but his uncharacteristically badass dual pistols are fantastic for spreading hurt to multiple targets, and his ability to bounce off of enemies’ heads is a fun nod to his goomba-stomping roots. And don’t worry: he’s voiced by Charles Martinet, not Chris Pratt.
The normal difficulty is usually pretty forgiving – in a lot of cases I could literally hand my controller to my seven-year-old son and he would come out on top, though there were a few battles I had to try more than once. But there are a ton of difficulty options (including the ability to turn off damage altogether) and I found that turning up the main one brought the challenge to a satisfying place where I had to be careful about my moves or risk getting thumped. Of course, there’s not a lot of consequence to losing a fight because you can simply try again, and you’re not even scored on your performance like in Kingdom Battle, so it doesn’t matter if one or two of your team goes down. But you do have persistent health, so you have to worry about starting your next battle injured if you take too much of a beating.
You can heal up your team at the start of a battle by paying coins you earn in combat and collect all over the overworld, but those are also useful for buying consumable items like healing mushrooms, movement range extenders, and ability cooldown resets (among others). Some of these can feel a bit like cheating – I’ve beaten some battles within the first turn thanks to boosting Luigi’s movement to let him reach the goal zone before the enemy even gets a chance to move – but usually they provide a much-needed shot in the arm when you have to turn the tide of a battle.
Enemy variety is a strong point: even though there’s a fair amount of tweaked and reused models (like the big brutish guys with different animals strapped to their arms) they have pretty much all of the same powers you do, from fireballs to health stealing and knockback, so you often have to adapt your strategy to counter them. Boss fights against the evil Spark Hunters aren’t quite as over-the-top and zany as in Kingdom Battle and their accompanying music never reaches the same carnivalish heights, but they’re consistently a good time. That’s driven in large part by interesting map designs that make good use of things like warp pipes, jump pads, and destructible cover to keep both you and the enemy mobile and ensure battles don’t bog down into long-range shootouts. Most are over in less than 10 minutes, which keeps the pace moving along nicely.
What gnaws at me, though, is all the loading screens. It’s expected that there’d be a brief pause when moving between worlds or entering a new area, or when starting a battle and returning to the overworld, but the fact that there’s a loading screen just to enter and exit the menu is a bridge too far. You have to jump in and out of menus a lot because nearly every battle will put you up against enemies with different vulnerabilities and resistances, so in order to exploit their weaknesses you’ll want to shuffle your team and their Sparks around. It’s only a few seconds every time, sure, but it adds up – especially if you come back to the battle and realize you’ve forgotten something and need to go back to tweak it. Other than that, Sparks of Hope performs well enough, though some of the bright and colorful worlds do cause the poor Switch to chug a bit in places.
Between battles you explore the series of semi-open world planets you visit, solving tons and tons of puzzles to clear barriers and unlock the path forward. There’s nothing groundbreaking or overly challenging here – it’s lots of finding hidden items, pushing blocks, activating switches to open paths, dashing to collect a series of coins before they disappear, using a scanner to reveal invisible bridges, and that sort of thing – but each world introduces at least one new mechanic so it doesn’t get monotonous, and it’s just a nice, charming break from the rigors of tactical combat. Also, movement feels much better than it does in Kingdom Battle because of the simple fact that Beep-O (the Roomba-like robot that guides your team) now hovers above your lead character’s head instead of leading the party himself, which makes navigating much easier.
There’s a boatload of content here – I spent more than 30 hours on my playthrough and didn’t come close to completing every puzzle, side mission, and secret zone to unlock every Spark. The puzzles do make me less enthusiastic about the idea of replaying the campaign, though, since the idea of solving them again doesn’t sound nearly as entertaining as it was the first time, but it’s not like I’ve been left unsatisfied by my first time through, and there are plenty of opportunities for fights against bad guys roaming the overworld if you want to keep playing after you’ve completed the story.
Source: IGN Video Games All