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. The new adventure kicks off as all Mario titles do, with our moustachioed protagonist embracing the return to normality in the Mushroom Kingdom following the events of the last adventure. Then, inevitably, trouble arrives. This time it’s in the form of Cursa, a giant space oddity of a character who uses the power of the Sparks – also known as Luma Rabbids – to enhance their evil powers across the solar system. Before you know it, you’re off on an adventure to save the Sparks and hunt down Cursa, with multiple explorable planets between you and the big bad.
Right from the off, Sparks of Hope is determined to make you have fun. The new voice acting from the Rabbids makes the already hilarious dialogue shine even brighter, with the little critters considerably less annoying than I remember them being in their Wii party games. This jovial spirit matched with worldbuilding that holds its tongue firmly in its cheek and a core plot that feels present but never overbearing makes for a consistently enjoyable distraction from the meat and potatoes of the core tactical gameplay. Not that you need distracting, but I’ll touch back on that later.
You learn pretty early on that the Rabbids are the stars of the show, and with Mushroom Kingdom’s finest already having their core roster pretty set with over 25 years of games and loose lore out there, the Rabbid characters are still finding their feet, and they’re much more vocal about it. The interactions between the crew are well written, and new companions help to create a dynamic befitting of Mario’s epic quest through space, with the ensemble cast offering plenty of opportunity for cartoon gags and cheesy wordplay. Imagine Looney Tunes infused with gags aimed at Millenials and those with a place in their heart for clever puns. Beep-O still does a lot of the heavily lifting set-up-wise, but with a new robot friend to help out, the punchlines are even greater.
The overworlds you find yourself boldly going to in the Sparks of Hope’s universe are a collection of vivid explorable areas, limited only by the peculiar fact that Mario can’t jump. This strange limitation feels particularly out of place for a character commonly referred to as Jumpman, someone famous for their spectacular triple jumps, but I can say that the longer you spend in Sparks of Hope, the more natural it feels, especially if you sub out Mario as party leader for one of the Rabbid crew. These overworlds are what I think are the most divisive aspect of the shared Sparks of Hope experience, and while checking every last corner is worthwhile in terms of grabbing all the collectables, whether it’s actually that much fun to do is very much up for debate.
You enter each new planet to help dispel the “darkmess”, the lingering effect of Cursa’s evil power throughout the universe that manifests in black oozing tentacles with big yellow eyes. This is where things get interesting in terms of design. I arrived anticipating what I can only describe as Mario Galaxy-vibes, but despite the intergalactic setting, it was the spirit of Mario Sunshine that somehow lives on through the visual style of Sparks of Hope. The same goes for the individual planets, instead of the collections of tiny planets floating like in Galaxy, these areas feel like the static explorable levels of Super Mario Sunshine, with secrets to find, locals to meet, and collectables to collect. That’s not a bad thing, though it does slightly detract from the intended space-age feel, it also makes Ubisoft’s title feel very much like a believable Mario world, even if it is playing it a little safe.
Of course, the big draw is still the tactical turn-based strategy gameplay, and I’m eager to report that this might be another highlight for the genre in terms of pure mechanics. With free movement around the battlefield, a new jumping mechanic that make getting across the field of play a big part of your attacking plan, a roster that allows different playstyles through the gang’s different choices in weaponry, and the Sparks powerups providing effect boosts or battlefield support, there’s a million ways to take it to Cursa and their space-age stooges.
The Sparks powerups in particular add an extra edge to Sparks of Hope’s turn-based battles, with their effects either damaging the opponent or disrupting the battlefield in your favour. Better still, there’s some inherent combos between individual characters’ special abilities and certain Sparks effects. For instance, I spent a good leg of my intergalactic journey with Luigi, the sharpshooting sniper, coupled with Screech, a Spark with the ability to make local enemies disperse.
The further away Luigi is from a character, the more damage he deals, so I could start a loop of scaring them off with Screech, before letting loose with the sniper for a critical hit. Even though Sparks of Hope makes you aware of its potential for exciting combos, finding them yourself through experimentation and guesswork is much more fun than it might sound and adds a creative flair often missing from other games in the genre.
Just like the first Mario + Rabbids outing, there’s a variety of enemies to take down in every mission, this time with their own weaknesses and resistances. You can get away with some trial and error in the first portion of the game, but by the time you’re halfway through your adventure you need to get to grips with how your enemies move, what they’re weak to, and how much their area of movement affects your own positioning to be sure you aren’t caught off guard in a single turn. Sparks of Hope is surprisingly unforgiving, with no option to turn back time except for a hard reset to the start of the battle, making Fire Emblem: Three Houses and Into The Breach look tame in comparison, and yes, I found this out the hard way.
There’s a difficulty option this time around, so if things get too tough you can opt for an easier version, but the challenge of medium difficulty seems perfectly matched to the average enjoyer of tactical turn-based battles providing you can deal with a couple of defeats to learn your lessons. Either way, don’t expect a walk through the park just because the Rabbids are out in force.
While the battle mechanics themselves are almost pristine, I have some issues with the pacing of the battles you face throughout your adventure. After clearing most of the storyline, I felt that some of the early boss brawls – particularly the battle against Midnite on the second planet – set things up for similarly tough challenges that never really materialise until much later on. This one three-stage battle feels so epic in scale that those that come immediately after feel like a bit of a downgrade, and it takes a while for things to pick back up again in full effect. Fortunately, things do start to feel planetary in scale again by the crux of the narrative, and just like the beginning of the universe, the end of this quest has a big bang too.
Outside of the slight disappointment with the mid-game big boss battles, most of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s missions are a delight, with themed tactical battles, overworld puzzles, and the standard red, green, and blue coin quests making a return for Mario’s new adventure. For each of these quests you complete, you earn a token specific to the planet where the quest is based, and you can trade these in at the shop for weapon skins or lore books. The lore books aren’t my cup of tea, and honestly, I think the game might be better served with an alternative collectable that doesn’t feel like required reading, but the weapon skins are pretty nifty, and it’s good to know there’s plenty of worldbuilding there for those that fall in love with the Mario + Rabbids extended universe.
In terms of performance, the core turn-based battle experience is as seamless as it was back in Kingdom Battle, with no stutter, lag, or noticeable bugs. Unfortunately, I did experience some slowdown in a couple of cutscenes when playing in handheld mode, as well as a handful of moments in the explorable overworld when the game couldn’t quite keep up, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to the developer and assume this will be ironed out early on, and even if it isn’t, it hardly affects the play in a profound way.
The thing I keep finding myself coming back to in Sparks of Hope is how much this game wants to keep you grinning from ear to ear while you pursue Cursa’s evil throughout the universe. In a gaming marketplace quickly becoming saturated with turn-based tactical titles, Sparks of Hope is a sci-fi comedy blockbuster, Nintendo’s playable equivalent of Space Jam, standing out in a genre which often applauds itself on its mature subject matter.
Sparks of Hope might be the first comedy blockbuster of its genre, which like all good comedy blockbusters – I’m talking Step Brothers, Dumb and Dumber, or Pineapple Express – doesn’t just rely on its cast of icons, but spits out material from the start to finish that would still land if it were coming from an obscure or unknown IP rather than some of the biggest icons in gaming.
So, all in all, Sparks of Hope delivers what it’s supposed to and more. Is it a killer turn-based tactical title? Yes. Is it that classic Nintendo mix of easy-to-pick-up but challenging-to-master? Yes. Is it perhaps the funniest game I’ve played this side of Bugsnax? You sure bet it is, from the first laugh to the last, this game keeps you engaged and either on the edge of your seat through its innovative battling mechanics, or falling off it in hysterics. All of that matched with a Mario world that pops with colour at every opportunity makes for an unforgettable intergalactic adventure and a high point for the genre that both Ubisoft and Nintendo can look back on with pride as the series continues to dazzle and surprise.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review
Mario + Rabbids return is a ridiculous rocket-powered romp through a hybrid IP universe featuring the best of Mario world design alongside hilarious Rabbids hijinks. While the pacing meanders a little in the middle, and exploring feels a little weird with feet glued to this floor, Sparks of Hope is a masterclass in making turn-based battles feel fresher than ever, and should be praised as a comedy blockbuster of the tactical genre.