To follow up the unexpectedly good Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, where does the galaxy-brain mashup of two mascot properties funneled into an XCOM-like strategy game go next? It’s shooting for the stars, of course! The new iteration of this visually magnificent series naturally draws from Super Mario Galaxy, arguably the most wonderous and dynamic episodes of Nintendo’s original flagship franchise. It sounds like a plan for a successful launch, but let’s find out if Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope can burst through the stratosphere and take the strategy RPG genre to new frontiers. HERE WE GOOOOOOO!
Sparks of Hope, in the vein of its predecessor, is a turn-based strategy game that emphasizes tactically taking cover and firing projectiles at your enemies. The second Mario + Rabbids takes place in the aftermath of Kingdom Battle in a Mushroom Kingdom that’s already acclimated to and living in harmony with the outsider Rabbids. However, Mario and his crew now face a new extraterrestrial threat that will take them on an intergalactic journey across multiple planets to dispatch the evil that threatens the whole universe.
This sequel doesn’t stray far from the Kingdom Battle formula but makes some adjustments that boost the presentation of an already wonderfully creative game. Sparks of Hope does away with the grid in battles, adds some real-time elements to make combat more active, and expands the exploration portion to squeeze in more objectives between battles. There are also a few new characters and plenty more strategic options to play with. Sparks of Hope adds all these things while maintaining the relatively simple yet endlessly versatile cover-and-shoot gameplay.
Sparks of Hope’s developers never cease to find new ways to test you, with battle scenarios that are bigger and better versions of Kingdom Battle’s offerings. The battle system is so energetic and malleable that the variety of challenges grows like a Super Mushroom while maintaining the core gameplay and without getting too gimmicky. Then, the fun comes in finding shortcuts to cheese your way around the battlefield and efficiently blast enemies with your characters’ unique attacks. Boss battles are unique and memorable while pushing you to change typical strategies and think on your feet, including a fight with a giant Wiggler from the Mario games. While you typically get three characters in battle, that number occasionally varies to switch things up. Whether small or massive, Ubisoft always finds ways to provide challenges that are brilliant like the stars in Sparks of Hope.
The most immediately noticeable change from Kingdom Battle is that Ubisoft decided to go gridless in Sparks of Hope, promising freer movement in combat. It turns out to be a not-so-drastic shift and is a noteworthy improvement over the previous system. Not needing to count grid squares when trying to avoid getting smushed by big, nasty Rabbids helps keep battle from being overwhelming. It’s-a simple yet freeing change, and fundamentally, there’s no difference. It’s-a positive alteration that turn-based strategy RPG developers should consider.
Some real-time elements were added in Sparks of Hope that make controlling characters in battle a more active experience. In Kingdom Battle, you could have a character jump off a teammate and pick a spot for them to land, which you programmed before the action began. In Sparks of Hope, you manually control their movement until they run out of airtime, which is limited. Also, some enemies, such as Bob-ombs, can be stunned then picked up and hurled at other enemies. You have a window of time before they blow up in your face. Thus, Sparks of Hope infuses spontaneous light action into its primarily turn-based gameplay. If turn-based games make you sleepy, these kinetic additions should give you reason to stay awake.
This is Ubisoft we’re talking about, and now, they’ve set Mario + Rabbids in an open world like they are primarily known for. Each planet you travel to in Sparks of Hope is its own world, with an expansive map featuring numerous side activities to keep you as busy as you want to be. Don’t mistake it; this is still a strategy RPG, and the main thing you do is wage large-scale battles. But between the main story fights, there are plenty of other activities to get into. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed, though. You won’t need a legend to decipher the markings covering up your map. The map screen in Sparks of Hope is more of a visual way to keep track of the sidequests available to you than a massive checklist and strikes a nice balance of offering options without feeling overwhelming. The small details of the typical open world are nice additions to make the Mario + Rabbids universe feel more lived in. Most planets have inhabitants whose houses you can enter to
steal claim their treasures, and you may notice woodland creatures skittering about.
Primarily, sidequests are merely more battles in case you want to challenge yourself beyond the main story. Occasionally, you may be forced to defeat a challenge with only two party members or find special bosses, like maybe a giant Goomba. Among those is yet another new addition: roaming enemies. If you encounter them, you fall into a quick battle that is likely to last just a turn or two. These encounters aren’t as numerous as other RPGs, so they don’t break up exploration too much, but they make for a nice change of pace from the typical massive setpieces in the main story. Though I instinctively groaned when tasked with defeating three Goombas, at least those battles were fun enough that they didn’t feel like busywork. There are also some Mario-esque puzzles that you must push through between quests, which are hit-or-miss as far as being enjoyable to navigate.
By the way, there is a story. At some point, Rabbids and Lumas — the star-shaped creatures from Super Mario Galaxy — combined to form hybrid beings, dubbed sparks (wah hah!). Meanwhile, a giant, evil tentacle named Cursa is trying to retrieve these sparks to harvest their energy so it can (what else?) take over the galaxy. To trap the sparks, Cursa spreads Darkmess, a noxious, black sludge that tends to sap the energy of the planets it covers. Realizing the destruction of the universe could be an unwelcome inconvenience, the Mario crew takes it upon themselves to go planet hopping to clean up the Darkmess, restore the sunshine to the inhabitants, and let the sparks fly free.
The sparks you rescue happen to have special powers (!), and you can attach them to your characters, who in turn get to use those powers in battle. As all your characters are unique, you can devise endless combinations to boost your crew. The sparks also happen to be much cuter than the Rabbids, and it’s-a easy to see plushies of them in Ubisoft and Nintendo’s future.
Your characters all have some personality, and their mannerisms tend to be humorous, but by now, you should get that there’s no deep melodrama brewing here. Beep-O, the Roomba with ears who serves as the group’s leader, got a sassy upgrade since Kingdom Battle, and Rabbid Mario’s propensity to shout goofy macho phrases like “whoa, momma!” made me want to always include him in my party. The new characters also have excellent introductions. Everything about the sleepy, indifferent Rabbid Rosalina made me laugh. Fans of more traditional RPGs also should get a chuckle out of the spiky-haired, morally ambiguous Edge, who wields a blade that looks like it could cut down a Bahamut or two. Your party members each feel unique to utilize in battle, too, and I was able to find uses for all of them. Even though it took me a while before I found a situation where I wanted the support-heavy Rabbid Luigi in my party, I worked him in effectively a few times and even learned to appreciate his ricochet attacks.
Unfortunately, Sparks of Hope is under the assumption that you’re not here for the story. Of course, the battles are the main attraction, and it’s-a not as if Bowser ever had complex motivations all those times he captured the princess. Although no one plays the mainline Mario games for their story, those who have played Mario RPGs past, especially some of the Paper Mario games, know inspired writers can turn out some cleverly poignant moments with these characters. All that to say, Sparks of Hope chooses not to plumb any of those emotional depths. While it’s-a hardly a deal-breaker, you can also see how more could have been done.
Visual flair is present in some of the environments. There are some peaks, like the aforementioned Wiggler fight and in some of the planets, especially the autumn-tinged Palette Prime. Sparks of Hope is adequate but not amazing visually, though its cartoonish style is vastly brighter and more colorful than the typical strategy RPG. Musically, it’s-a tremendous that the inimitable Yoko Shimomura worked on this score with more recent game soundtrack luminaries Grant Kirkhope and Gareth Coker. But, while the music is impressive, it would have fit better thematically in a more traditional fantasy game. Koji Kondo’s themes are so iconic, so catchy, and so synonymous with the Mario characters and games that it’s-a not easy to depart from his influence. The quality of the voice acting varies, with Rabbid Mario and Rabbid Rosalina being the standouts. I could listen to them say ridiculous things all day.
In the areas where it counts, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope — and Kingdom Battle along with it — represent a bright and colorful departure from everything strategy RPGs tend to be while still offering relentlessly creative challenges in a package that’s straight-up fun. Sparks of Hope builds on everything Kingdom Battle did right and devises new entertaining challenges to shoot your way through. Though it took me about 25 hours to complete the main story with a healthy number of sidequests, the game told me I’d only completed 67% of it. This is easily the greatest Western RPG series that adapts a Japanese property about an Italian plumber. Whether you’re a hardcore strategy RPG fan or a newbie to the genre, Sparks of Hope should make anyone shout “YAHOOOOO!”