Title: Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope
Release Date: October 20, 2022
Reviewed On: Switch
Genre: Tactical RPG
Involving the core Mario cast with the worlds of the Rabbids and tactical combat still occasionally feels like an unreal reality. However, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle graced the Switch in 2017, and it has since grown an ever-growing positive reputation for being a genuinely well-designed collaborative adventure.
Now, fans have been eagerly awaiting the equally unexpected sequel, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, hoping for another home run from Ubisoft and Nintendo. And, after playing through it myself, I can confidently proclaim that Sparks of Hope manages to instill that magic the first title provided, except with drastic gameplay overhauls that grant this sequel a robust sense of identity.
Firstly, it’s worth establishing that Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a direct sequel, but it can also be enjoyed standalone. Narratives are present throughout both titles, though they aren’t necessarily their strong suits. After enjoying some peace following their recent adventure, Mario and his friends of human, Rabbit, and T0ad-kind, end up attacked by an entity known as Cursa. This being is harming the galaxy with the spread of Darkmess (not Darkness), corrupting planets, and aiming to rob the energy of creatures called Sparks for its own ends. So naturally, the heroes end up on a quest across numerous planets to stop Cursa’s reign once and for all.
Throughout the title, players enact two primary umbrellas of gameplay; exploration, and combat. Regarding the former, each of the worlds is compact but relatively dense, with several side paths and optional objectives to accomplish. From solving puzzles to completing coin challenges, minigames, and other similar tasks, there’s a decent degree of variety to help make each activity feel distinct. Further, the dialogue is cheesy and charming, chiefly during select sidequests with particularly eccentric characters.
Rewards tend to comprise either generic coins as currency for consumable items or planet-specific coins that buy finite products. For instance, aside from weapon skins and lore entries, the most significant purchases players can make are for keys leading to special zones. These areas are puzzle-centric, granting more involved brain teasers than what the rest of the game provides. There’s a fulfilling gameplay loop to embrace here alone, even if there’s a lack of challenge.
Combat deserves the most mention, though, because it plays inherently differently than its predecessor. Unlike Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which had tile-based bouts, Sparks of Hope abolished that design choice, instead electing for unrestricted movement in a limited range per turn. As a result, players are far less constrained when forming strategies, especially when coupled with team jumping that allows units to fly across the field for a set period of time.
Additionally, each character has their own unique skill and weapon type and can also equip upgradeable creatures called Sparks that supply various benefits, such as instilling attacks with an element. Knowing which Sparks to equip depending on circumstance is paramount to success, and since a good chunk of them are obtained via side content, the game cleverly encourages you to do as much as you can so your toolkit can be as expansive as possible. The cast has skill trees that give noteworthy passive benefits as well, and are absolutely worth keeping an eye on whenever levels are gained.
As one who found the first entry’s combat simply decent, the sequel is impressively more compelling. It was never overbearing in its newfound ambition, yet still open enough to grant player choice with meaningful impact. Also, due to how different this approach in the tactics design is, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a better version of what has come before, and moreso a renewed vision. I have to make it abundantly clear here that while I did play through Kingdom Battle, I’m a novice in tactics games, as my experience is rather limited. So, for that reason, I’m unsure as to how challenging this title will be for genre veterans.
However, as a relative beginner, I found the default difficulty settings an appropriate level for all encounters. Some side content and a few story bosses took considerable time to contend with, but I was never in a position where I felt like I had to change the gameplay settings. And speaking of, Sparks of Hope is quite welcoming, with players able to adjust enemy difficulty, health restoration following level-ups, and even straight-up invulnerability. Regardless of one’s perspective on challenge, greater accessibility is always welcome since it opens up the medium to vaster crowds.
The objectives for winning battles alter, such as defeating all enemies, slaying specific types of foes, or reaching a part of the map. Regarding the lattermost objective, I had a pretty extraordinary experience. Status ailments can be initiated from special skills granted by Sparks. At one point, I used a fire elemental shot against a group of enemies near a part of the map I was supposed to reach. Unless resistant, fire attacks cause impacted units to burn and run around the map, ending up on a random spot. The enemy I attacked ran around in a burning frenzy and ended up running into one of my units who was nearby, also causing them to run around. Then, by a stroke of luck, my unit ran straight into the nearby portion of the map I had to reach to win the battle. Even the seemingly most minor gameplay choice can have a profound and memorable impact.
Unfortunately, a noticeable flaw with Sparks of Hope is its performance. When exploring, the frame rate can chug, especially on the second planet and usually while docked. The frame drops were never game-ruining by any means; they just arrived in waves and made a few instances of walking around needlessly cumbersome. Further, and more significantly, there are glitches during the actual battles. I have no idea how common this will be for everyone, but in fights, my units’ skill animations would occasionally prevent any UI from appearing, thereby preventing any progression. I’d have to reset the application and the fight I was in by extension, so I got understandably frustrated at points. Hopefully, this is an exceedingly rare dilemma that I simply happened to be unlucky to receive. Still, it did negatively impact my experience more than expected.
Moreover, while the two AI companions by your side, Beep-0 and Jeanie, are fully voiced, and excellently too, I should add, various characters you’ll meet will start off their lines with a few voiced words before stopping entirely. It’s a bit offputting and makes several scenes awkward to sit through when there are fully-voiced characters in the same scene. I don’t believe anyone would expect the Mario characters to speak entirely, but the new story characters should’ve been given the same treatment as Beep-0 and Jeanie. One last facet I should bring attention to is the soundtrack. For those unaware, legendary composers Grant Kirkhope, Gareth Coker, and Yoko Shimomura helmed this title’s songs, and man, it really shows. There’s identifiable whimsy and tension characteristic of these composers’ works that carries over to this soundtrack, easily making it one of gaming’s best recent musical outings. The first battle theme will definitely catch people by surprise.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a delightful tactical adventure hampered by performance faults and sporadic, standout glitches during fights. Of course, everyone’s perceptions and experiences with these issues will vary, yet they did undeniably harm my time. Though on the other hand, I also can’t deny how this entry has made me more interested in the tactics genre as a whole, thanks to its splendid sense of progression and genuinely thought-provoking battles. The stellar soundtrack and satisfactory exploration also enhance the overall package. If you weren’t much of a fan of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Sparks of Hope might be up your alley due to its change in combat design. Years ago, I never thought I’d be able to tolerate the Rabbids or even like them to an extent. Life sure does work in mysterious ways.
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