Maybe one of the biggest surprises to come out of 2017 was Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Nintendo and Ubisoft’s collaboration brought Rayman’s Raving Rabbids together with Mario, Luigi, and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom in a fun and cheerful turn-based strategy. It was so fun it won the Shacknews Biggest Surprise Award for that year. Flash forward five years, Ubisoft and Nintendo are seeing if lightning strikes (or perhaps “sparks”) twice. Sparks of Hope is the much anticipated sequel in the budding Mario + Rabbids series, and it brings a brand new adventure, a wealth of fun gameplay, and exploration upgrades to the table.
Save the Sparks! Save the Universe!
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope picks up after the events of Kingdom Battle’s story. Mario, Princess Peach, Luigi, Toad, and other Mushroom Kingdom regulars are living peacefully with the Rabbids, including cosplaying critters Peach Rabbid, Mario Rabbid, and Luigi Rabbid. The peace is broken when a star creature runs into Mario from the sky while trying to escape a space manta ray. The ray corrupts everything it touches with tendrils and goop made of evil energy, and Mario and company fight it back only to have a run in with a deadly galactic being known as Cursa.
After a narrow escape via spaceship, Mario, the Rabbids, and friends determine that the star creature they ran into is a Spark – a being made from Rosalina’s Lumas and Rabbids combined. Cursa is hunting for these Sparks for their immense power and corrupting the galaxy in the process with the nasty oozing energy known as Darkmess. With Rosalina seemingly out of the picture, Mario and friends decide to go travel to various planets affected by Cursa's Darkmess. That includes helping the Sparks and gaining their power. That power lets Mario and company jump through portals that will get them closer to battling Cursa head-on. Along the way they even gather new party members, including the mysterious blade master Rabbid, Edge; the lazy Rosalina Rabbid; and even big bad Bowser himself.
I really like the story of Sparks of Hope. It’s full of charm, funny moments, and lighthearted adventure, even if it is a bit kiddy-ish at times. It was still fun to pursue Cursa alongside the Rabbids and their antics, and the Sparks add a ton of flavor to the game in both story and gameplay (more on that later). Ultimately, it actually feels like the jump between Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy in terms of just how expanded and cool everything is and the way in which many things have been improved.
Guiding this fun story is a stellar soundtrack. Crafted by the leading talents of Grant Kirkhope (Donkey Kong Country/Banjo Kazooie), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest), and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has quite the fun and sweeping orchestral score that brings the intensity when it needs to, but also keeps the lighthearted nature of Mario intact. I really enjoyed even the regular battle themes that would occur during random encounters, let alone the special tracks that would play for boss fights and cinematics.
Going off the grid in a big way
Gameplay in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has been improved over the first game in a lot of big ways. In my preview, I took a lot of interest in the ways that Sparks of Hope has ditched the grid mapped battlefield to allow for more freeform movement. However, that’s only the foundation for everything that has been improved upon. In combat, players still have their Dash attack (a slide tackle that does low damage, but acts as an additional physical attack), weapon attacks, Hero Abilities, and items. However, joining them are a few new tricks, such as Team Jump and Gliding, Spark usage, and Super Effects.
Perhaps most important are the Sparks. As you go through the game and do main and side quests, you’ll collect Sparks with different abilities that can be equipped to your characters. Each Spark has an element and a special ability it can imbue your characters with. For instance, the Turbocharge Spark makes your team’s attacks 30 percent stronger when activated. Meanwhile, the Toxiquake Spark unleashes a shockwave that damages and poisons nearby foes. Just as well, there are Sparks that provide either your weapon attack or your dash attack with an element, or serve further unique purposes. Every Spark you collect helps to increase the variety of damage and abilities you can use in battle and the fact that some are optional makes searching high and low for them fun and valuable.
The characters are just as fun in their own variety, too. Every one of them fits a niche that adds something cool and different to your team composition. Ultimately, you can use three characters for your squad for most of the game and choosing the right characters for a fight can be important. Mario still uses twin blasters and can attack two targets at once, or one target for big damage. Meanwhile, Rabbid Mario uses twin fists up close, and does big damage in short range, but also has hearty HP to help him survive where other characters would be overwhelmed.
You can also improve these characters with revised skill trees that really bring a lot out of them. For instance, Rabbid Luigi uses a disc that can bank off enemies. By upgrading him, you can make his frisbee ricochet further and able to hit more targets before bouncing back to him. If you happen to imbue him with a weapon attack Spark, you can do a lot of damage to a large array of spread-out enemies in short order. Sparks of Hope also gives you the option to experiment to your heart’s content. If you don’t like how things are going, you can refund the Skill Prisms you’ve earned for the Skill Tree and respec your characters for free. This allows for a lot of fun trial and error to figure out what works best for you. You can even tweak the difficulty in battles at any point if it's proving too easy or too difficult.
Finally, Sparks of Hope has really upgraded its adventure factor by allowing you to explore and pursue all sorts of side quests and activities this time around. You can easily just head to the next main quest objective and battle, but a ton of secrets, extra narrative, and rewards await if you wander around planets searching for Darkmess to fight, locals to assist, and puzzles to solve. You can get additional story bits, weapon skins, and even new Sparks you otherwise wouldn’t collect on the main path. That makes it kind of a big deal to explore the nooks and crannies of each planet and it doesn’t feel at all like a waste of time. Heck, speaking of time, you can even speed up enemy phases in battle to speed up encounters. I really appreciated this feature and those who are impatient and want to move things along probably will too.
As much as I loved Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, I can’t say it’s a perfectly polished experience. The game plays well in both Docked and Handheld Mode, but this game definitely felt like it was pushing the Nintendo Switch to its limits. There were a few cinematics where I noticed a lot of frame rate drop. It wasn’t disgustingly bad, but it was noticeable. Frame rates would also take a hit when I wandered around areas of the worlds where there was a lot going on. I even saw some cosmetic entities like birds pop in and out of existence. The game is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous for a Switch game, but that may be part of why the Switch is chugging so hard to keep everything in Sparks of Hope running. Nevertheless, while it’s noticeable, it never actually affected the game where gameplay was concerned.
A brilliant Spark
It’s been around five years since Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle floored us with its impressive amalgam of both franchises. This many years later, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope takes what Kingdom Battle did and improves on it in almost every way. It's not just baby’s first XCOM anymore. This game brings meaningful evolution to the original’s formula to create a truly unique tactical RPG experience. Between removing the movement grid, adding more strategic options, new characters, new abilities, and expanding and revising the roster in an enjoyable story, Sparks of Hope feels like another exceptional collaboration between Ubisoft and Nintendo.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch digital copy supplied by the publisher. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope comes out on the Nintendo Switch on October 20, 2022.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope
- Sparks provide fun variety to combat
- Combat is improved by removal of grid
- Story and exploration are fun and rewarding
- Plenty of side quests in addition to main quest
- Excellent soundtrack
- Solid play in both Docked and Handheld
- Can speed up battles anytime if you want
- Free character skill respec allows a lot of experimentation
- Frame rate suffers in busy cinematics & exploration
- Story is very much for a younger audience and may not grab everyone
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: Mushroom Kingdom tactics evolved
Glad to see it's getting all around great reviews. https://opencritic.com/game/13347/mario-rabbids-sparks-of-hope
I'm going to lose my wife for a week or so. She's not much of a gamer but loved the first one & the Donkey Kong DLC.
I bounced on it thought because I didn't like the overland puzzles. Felt like the stupid circuits mini-game in Spider-man but worse since no way to skip them.