The combination of Mario + Rabbids is a strange one. It’s something you probably couldn’t have imagined ten years ago, when the moustachioed plumber was languishing towards the end of the peak Wii era, and the Rabbids were little more than an annoyance to most. Then Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle on Nintendo Switch happened, and suddenly, it felt like a perfect fit, like the blabbermouth bunnies had quietly inhabited the Mushroom Kingdom this whole time.
Now, after the massive success of Kingdom Battle, the unlikely team are back to face a galactic threat in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. I can’t reveal too much of the exposition here, but what I can say is that from the start, I was gripped by the mild-chuckle to hilarity-inducing dialogue, something you don’t usually expect from a Mario game, but an aspect that serves as a palette cleanser between the levels that test your tactical ability. Besides the extra helping of humour though, it’s pretty standard fare to set our heroes up on their mission, and you find yourself in the heat of battle before you can say “Wahoo!”.
The roster of Mario favourites and Rabbids returns from the first title, which provides not only freedom of playstyle while matching up to three battlers from the varied field, but also creates an ensemble cast dynamic that is missing from other Mario games. I have a habit of teaming Mario and Rabbid Mario up with Rabbid Peach, a healer, so I can get into the action while the long-eared princess keeps the team in the green, but there’s scope across the party members to really customise your play style.
The meat and potatoes of Sparks of Hope, just like Kingdom Battle, is in those tactical battles, but this time around, they’ve seen a few improvements that make them feel more in touch with the spirit of Mario (you know, that elusive thing developers have been chasing for over thirty years now?). Ubisoft deserves praise for this believable Mario environment, with the colours and shapes of the universe bringing character and building a world like Nintendo has since the moustachioed plumber first popped out of his pipe way back when.
Explorable areas in Sparks of Hope also see an improvement compared to Kingdom Battle, with Mario’s galactic quest supplemented by interesting locations throughout the universe. I was anticipating what I can only call “serious Mario Galaxy vibes”, and while they’re definitely there in the new Rabbid Lumas, star bits, and much more, I picked up a surprising amount of Super Mario Sunshine in the world design, especially when entering worlds filled with darkmess, the evil intergalactic goo left behind by Sparks of Hope’s planetary antagonist.
During my short time playing, I spent a little time in two explorable areas across the Mario + Rabbids universe, and I have to say I enjoyed these sections a little more than I thought I would. Though they’re ultimately relatively linear paths to the same destination, these hub worlds feel much more alive than those of Kingdom Battle, and my only issue with one of the two was a reliance on a specific gimmick – I won’t get into it here – to allow for progression through the level. This might also have something to do with me not listening to the instructions properly though, as I was too busy chuckling along to the dialogue, so I still feel I need to spend a little more time in the game world finding new locations, to see how this feels over the course of an entire playthrough.
So, exploring the far-flung regions of the Mushroom Kingdom universe is a little more fun than you might expect, but there’s one element of the whole exploration experience that feels a little off kilter besides the occasional gimmicky moment. Mario can’t jump. It makes sense for him not to, it’s not a platformer, and these explorable areas are more like hub worlds, but still, Jumpman is glued to the ground, and it feels a little foreign when he can still slide on the worn denim of his dungarees until he’s red in the face. It feels especially weird when the in-battle jumping mechanic is a lot of fun to use, with its floating descent giving you options where to land and most effect the fight, and it feels like this feature would have lent itself to more in-depth exploration. Still, I know you’re here to make Mario shoot his pew-pew laser pistols and not perform his patented triple jump, so I’ll move on.
In battle, your characters have a limited amount of actions compared to their options, with special skills, regular attacks, dashes, and jumps all in use to help Mario and the gang get from one side of the field to the other while dispatching any dastardly bob-ombs or riled up enemy Rabbids. This range of options, matched with the new area of free movement in each and every level, allows for a freedom of tactical expression I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, something that makes even Fire Emblem: Three Houses, one of the most acclaimed tactical titles on Switch, feel rigid and archaic.
The tactical battles of Sparks of Hope are influenced not only by the decisions you make in the heat of the moment, but also by the equipped Luma Rabbids to your party members (each can have two), which you can level up to improve, as well as the level up abilities of each party member. As you can probably assume, I poured the little time I had into making Rabbid Peach a stocky healer who can take a bruising, but there’s plenty of scope to get a bit wild with it, and I plan to perfect a sharp-shooting Luigi just as soon as I can.
The Luma Rabbids effects, each with their own element of sorts, introduce possible combos that make the tactical battles of Sparks of Hope feel significantly more high octane than those in the first game. For instance, one of the Luma Rabbid abilities can draw in a number of opponents, and when equipped to melee master Rabbid Mario, you can pull a bunch of Rabbids into your orbit before laying them all out with a flurry of blows. I’ll let you find your own combos on launch, but you should look for them, especially with what I’m about to talk about next.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is not a walk in the park. The combination of varied level design, a bunch of opponents with different powers and areas of effect, as well as the high health levels of even battlefield grunts make it so you have to think about every move in a tactical battler that is just as unforgiving as any other title from the genre, including infamously difficult titles like Into the Breach or The Banner Saga. It’s still Mario though, so to make things a little more accessible for younger audiences, there’s an easy mode, as well as a restart function that seamlessly puts you back at the beginning of the battle.
Boss battles are worth mentioning as, oh boy, are they good. The big fight I got to experience was a three-stage tussle, with the boss rising from the ashes not once, but twice to try and stage a comeback. This adds to the difficulty with something that I love, but some of you might find hard, in resource management, as to get the job done well, you may have to dip into your collection of items for a healing mushroom or the special medallion item that reinvigorates your Luma Rabbids for a second crack of the whip in one turn. Still, I could feel my blood pressure rising with each round of the boss battle, leading into a chaotic crescendo of raving Rabbids doing battle while Mario made a beeline to the big bad.
Basically, the core tactical gameplay is great, and there’s no massive faults, or even little annoyances, that I can think of that weren’t a result of my own playing. You should sort of expect that though, Kingdom Battles was a fantastic tactical title, and the battlefield mechanics have only seen improvements in the sequel, with the questionable gimmicks left to exploration. Still, for me, it’s the downright hilarity of the short time I spent with Mario and the Rabbids that sticks out the most. The Nintendo Switch era has been a stellar time for tactical games, but Sparks of Hope manages to pull its head above all others by sticking on a pair of bunny ears and making you laugh, and in this, it feels like the blockbuster comedy the genre needed.
So, from first impressions at least, it seems that Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope takes the best ideas from the first game and ties a rocket to them, blasting the gang out into the final frontier of space for a second adventure with more tactical nuance and plenty more laughs. Our full review lands closer to the time of the Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope release date, so be sure to check back for our take on a full trip all around the (Rabbid) universe.