Gaming’s most unlikely mash-up, between the worlds of Super Mario and XCOM style strategy, works even better than before in this new sequel.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope is a very strange game. Not only does it feature Mario dual-wielding a pair of guns and Princess Peach secreting a shotgun in her umbrella but the game itself is a turn-based strategy heavily inspired by XCOM. How director Davide Soliani talked Nintendo into making such a game we don’t know (although we did try to ask him) but he’s clearly onto something, as 10 million sales later the sequel to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is better than ever.
Turn-based strategy games used to be perceived as so nerdy that even other games fans looked down at them, but in the last 10 years they’ve enjoyed a surge in popularity that has evolved beyond just indie titles. That doesn’t mean a Nintendo take on the formula was inevitable though and indeed this isn’t really their game, as it is developed and published by Ubisoft.
Ordinarily, Nintendo would never give another company this level of control over their most prized characters, but from the first moments its clear why they’ve made an exception in this case. Technically, Sparks Of Hope may be third party but, surprisingly, it manages to match Nintendo’s best titles in terms of presentation and imagination, and even exceed some of their lesser ones.
The only problem with Mario + Rabbids is that there are Rabbids in it, the obnoxious proto-Minions who originally started as foils for Rayman (who will be appearing in this game as post-launch DLC). What’s impressive about Sparks Of Hope though is that it makes a real effort to improve on every aspect of the original, including making the Rabbids themselves more palatable and, sensibly, keeping the story to a minimum.
For reasons the game never bothers to explain (the original’s plot was pure nonsense) there are Rabbid versions of Mario, Peach, and Luigi that now have a limited amount of dialogue, which makes them much more endearing than when they were just talking gibberish. An evil new threat called Cursa, whose twist you will see coming a mile off, is trying to take over the universe and so you must travel to multiple planets in order to combat a goopy infestation called Darkmess.
Your main opponents are various Rabbid enemies but new for the sequel are mind-controlled versions of Mushroom Kingdom opponents such as Goombas and Bob-ombs. Battles take place in relatively small arenas, which feature a minor randomised element, and are filled with useful, but usually destructible, cover. The game is turn-based, so you can only move a short distance and fire once per turn, but there’s a lot of leeway to that, including the fact that where you move is no longer determined by a grid on the floor.
Although they’re often more traditional role-playing titles, there have been plenty of turn-based strategies without a grid before now, but they tend to be less precise than their more ordered alternatives. In Sparks Of Hope though the control system works flawlessly well, with no confusion as to what you’re aiming at or where you’re positioned in relationship to everyone else.
The controls to move around in combat are exactly the same as when exploring the open world areas (including the fact there’s no jump), which makes the whole game extremely accessible for non-genre fans, even those that found Kingdom Battle too much. Battles occur in separate areas – not as part of the planets you’re exploring – which feels disconcerting at first but makes sense in terms of the number and variety of arenas this makes possible.
The exploration is very good too, even if the only setting for the puzzles tends to be either trivially easy or laboriously long. There are secrets and sub quests hiding around every corner, many of which lead to interestingly unique battles or even animated cut scenes. Although there are some exceptions, most battles generally only task you with defeating every enemy or, less frequently, with getting to a goal or lasting a set number of turns.
The strategies you use to achieve this are entirely up to you, with each of the characters having their own specialised weapons and abilities. Luigi has a bow and arrow that functions like a sniper rifle, while Rabbid Peach can group heal, and Bowser, who is introduced halfway through the game, can summon clockwork Rabbid mechakoopas.
You can’t change any of their weapons but there is a unique skill tree for each which can introduce some important new abilities and lift initial restrictions. You’re also able to equip everyone with up to two ‘Sparks’, a Rabbid-ised version of the Lumas from Super Mario Galaxy. These work as various types of perks and buffs, adding a range of elemental effects to weapons or unique new special moves like area of effect attacks or the ability to push enemies towards or away from you.
Kingdom Battle was criticised in some quarters for being too shallow, in large part because only a few characters have an overwatch ability (the chance to interrupt the enemies’ turn) and even they work on a timer. Both Rabbids games also lack the strategy layer of XCOM, but in terms of battle tactics and variety they’re not lightweights at all.
There are difficult fights even as early as the first world, as you have to make sure characters are in cover at the end of every round and that you’re saving special abilities until the right moment and to use against a suitable foe. Eventually you start to get Sparks that can launch enemies into the air when you fire at them, ready to be taken down by an ally nearby on overwatch. Others can be infected by ooze that does damage over time or you can shoot enemies off the side of a stage with a gust of wind.
Prioritising targets, focusing on larger opponents or those that might be buffing their own allies, trying to funnel enemies into the path of explosive barrels or narrower parts of the map where they can be easily manged… the combat in Sparks Of Hope is deep and highly flexible. Some of the survival battles towards the end almost take on an Into The Breach style puzzle element as you try to work out how to survive impossible odds with the resources at hand.
Sparks Of Hope is a great strategy game but it’s also a great Nintendo spin-off too, with each of the new Mushroom Kingdom enemies having their own unique abilities, so that Goombas attack in swarms or, if they’re wearing tin hats, can only be defeated by throwing them out of bounds. Some of the boss battles are fantastically well orchestrated, with either a new gameplay twist, such as having to shoot off Darkmess growths from a giant Wiggler (aka caterpillar) chasing after the train you’re on, to an extra tough enemy you can barely damage but have to coax into setting off explosive traps.
Sparks Of Hope is wonderfully imaginative and inventive, even if the Rabbid element and insipid dialogue makes it a degree or two less charming than it could’ve been. The graphics alone almost make up for this, in what is one of the best looking games on the Switch, both technically and artistically. Compared to shiftless, low-tech embarrassments like Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Sparks Of Hope feels like it’s on a completely different system.
In terms of flaws, there’s very little to mention, beyond the fact that you get most of the characters added to your roster straight away and the game does almost nothing to encourage you to use different ones, even though they’re all so unique. Also, there are level requirements for every mission and while you don’t need to level grind outside of just doing side quests, you will notice the speed of your progress start to slow down towards the end.
Sparks Of Hope is a massive adventure, with dozens of hours of content, all of which are thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly varied. This is one of the strangest ideas for a crossover ever but what’s most impressive is that as a sequel it’s not just trying to outdo the last game but introduce things that have never been done in strategy games before, or at least never this well.
This is not only arguably the best Nintendo Switch exclusive of the year, but the best thing Ubisoft has done for much longer than that. We don’t know what’s next but if it’s Zelda in a business management system or Metroid as a point ‘n’ click adventure we’re not going to question it, because a good game is a good game.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope review summary
In Short: One of the best strategy games to ever appear on a console, with some genuine gameplay innovation and authentic Nintendo magic.
Pros: The core combat is excellent, with plenty of depth and options but extremely accessible controls. Great world design and graphics, with lots of optional secrets and tons of content.
Cons: Rabbids. The game’s not very good at encouraging you to vary your use of characters and the puzzles aren’t that interesting.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris, plus Ubisoft Pune, Ubisoft Chengdu, and Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: 20th October 2022
Age Rating: 7
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