Mario + Rabbids was a delightfully well-assembled surprise back in 2017, bringing the most unlikeliest alliance of Super Mario Bros. characters together with Ubisoft and the Rayman universe’s raving Rabbids. It was quite a good game, built like an XCOM cover-based tactical strategy affair. Now that the shock of seeing Rabbids and Mario together has worn off, Ubisoft is out to surprise us in new ways with the sequel, Sparks of Hope. And while the initial shock may be gone, the new tricks up Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s sleeve have me convinced that this is going to be every bit as fun and moreso than its predecessor.
A new threat emerges… alongside new allies
For this new adventure, Mario + Rabbids heads for the cosmos with new enemies and allies making appearances. The Rabbids and Mushroom Kingdom are living in happy coexistence when a sudden dark and corrupted cosmic force known as Cursa makes an appearance, hunting after creatures known as Sparks. Where Mario + Rabbids has featured many a Rabbid that took on traits of Super Mario Bros. characters, the Sparks are Rabbids that have been combined with Rosalina’s Lumas, giving them each immense power and different elemental properties.
Cursa wants to capture these Sparks and harness their power to some evil end, and deploys her minions, known as Spark Hunters to track them down. Of course, that begs the question, where is Rosalina and why isn’t she keeping this from happening to Lumas? Well, I didn’t get that far, but what I do know is that it becomes a race for Mario and friends to help the Sparks and stop Cursa’s corrupted influence wherever they can. During my time with the game, I got to see new characters come into play too, such as the mysterious and steely Blade, who is an original Rabbid character with a cold demeaner and a cool sword. I actually got to use her in my fights and it leaves me interested to see if further original characters will join our pack. Of course, the familiar suspects return too, including Mario, Peach, Luigi, and their Rabbid counterparts, just to name a few.
Of course, you don’t have to go right after your objective either. My time with Sparks of Hope was split between two locations, and in both I got to explore sort of at my leisure. There were main objectives and story battles to pursue, but there were also all sorts of side quests and extra activities to check out as well. These “levels” provide extra ways to power up. Some are even overleveled and will likely demand you come back when you’ve gotten stronger if you want to gain the rewards they hide.
Going off the grid
The biggest thing I got to see during my play of this early version of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope was the evolution of strategic features for this second entry. Movement has been hugely upgraded for this game. For one, Mario + Rabbids does away with the grid like movement and lets players free-roam within their range of movement. Cover and movement near obstacles felt good too. No longer do characters snap so magnetically into place causing frustration. Now you can position your characters with a lot more personal control.
More than that, the action point system has been removed. Now, character turns are split between free actions and action point actions. Free actions include movement, dash attacks, and team jumps (more on these last two later). Meanwhile, action point actions are limited to two moves and include basic attacks and use of Spark Effects, Hero Actions, and items.
Dashing allows players to dive through opponents for a physical attack. If you have multiple opponents in a line, you can dash through all of them at once. Moreover, some opponents like Bob-ombs can be knocked on their back, and then picked up and thrown for fun effect. Team jumping lets you extend a character's move range too by bringing two characters together and letting one toss the other into the air to glide for a little bit and reach otherwise unreachable areas. Use of these free actions is a big deal because you can get a lot done in positioning and attacks before you even do a proper attack.
The action point actions are also diverse. As you go through the game, you’ll collect Sparks. Each has an element and effect associated with it. For instance, a Lightning Spark might empower your Dash attack to do electrical damage, sparking to nearby untouched enemies. A Fire Spark can be used to give your weapons fire damage, which will ignite enemies and cause them to run around in a panic and light other enemies on fire if touched. The sparks are diverse and you can equip up to two per character. Moreover, they can be leveled up alongside your heroes to gain stronger effects.
Of course, your heroes can also be diversified immensely too. Each has four skill trees that can be leveled up to increase movement range, attack damage and range, better team jumps, and more. You can make Mario a critical hitting powerhouse or make Peach’s Barrier Hero Ability affect a wider range. How you specialize them is up to you.
All of this comes together to make some awesome synergies too. I really enjoyed discovering on the fly how various abilities could be used together for major tactical advantages. For instance, Mario has a Hero ability called Hero Sight that lets him shoot any enemies that move within his attack range. I used Rabbid Peach and the Lightning Spark to knock enemies into the air from behind their cover, which counted as movement to Mario’s Hero Sight. He shot those foes out of the air like a skeet shoot and it was a delightful discovery I’ll likely make use of regularly. Sparks of Hope was full of this kind of experimentation and discovery. Just beware: enemies can use elements too and really mess you up with things like fire and lightning if you get caught off guard.
The Spark of something extraordinary
I have been looking forward to Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope for a long time and the sheer display of improvements and altogether new options was a sight to behold. I love the use and leveling of Sparks alongside the main heroes, and I like how the story is shaping up as well. More than anything, I like the improvements to movement both inside and outside of battle. Being able to explore worlds and discover secrets makes this feel closer to a proper Mario game, or maybe Mario RPG. Meanwhile, the freeform movement in battle, mixed with synergies of attacks, elements from Spark effects, and Hero Abilities made combat feel like a big step up from Kingdom Battle. All in all, I was happy with what I saw, and I can’t wait to dig in fully when the game arrives in October.
This is based on a Nintendo Switch preview build of the game at a private event for which travel and lodgings were supplied. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope comes out on Nintendo Switch on October 20, 2022.