Mario, Rabbids, and tactics mix well once again
The first Mario + Rabbids crossover was an interesting, surprising mix of ideas that you wouldn’t presume would work together. But while Kingdom Battle laid out the groundwork, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope feels like it’s expanding the ideas and making something a bit more its own. And it’s all the better for it.
It doesn’t take long to get into the actual battles in Sparks of Hope. While the crew is lounging about at Peach’s Castle, they’re suddenly thrust into an interstellar conflict. The evil Cursa is vying for control of the galaxy. Meanwhile, Lumas are being turned Rabbid, making them into Sparks that need Mario and crew’s help.
Mario, Luigi, and Peach all rejoin the starting roster, alongside their Rabbid counterparts. Down the line, more characters are recruitable, including Bowser and Rabbid Rosalina. All of the characters have new weapons that feel much more distinct than those in the previous game. The Rabbids also talk a lot more, making vocal quips during fights and chipping in during plot moments, and it’s honestly a very welcome addition. Rabbid Mario cracks me up every time he chimes in.
A fresh approach
In battle, the difference between Sparks of Hope and its predecessor becomes much more apparent. The grid-based, XCOM-style approach to combat has been replaced with an action-oriented, circular free-movement system. With each turn, characters can roam around within their potential area of movement. They can dash, use special abilities, and team jump off each other; their position only locks in place once they’ve fired a weapon.
Though it took me a few battles to get the hang of it, I’ve grown pretty fond of this system. It doesn’t just break Sparks of Hope a little further from other tactics games but makes fights feel a bit more active.
These new options extend out to upgrades, as the whole team can invest their Skill Prisms into different branches of a skill tree. A base option just focuses on health, but others dive into movement, special abilities, and weapon upgrades.
There’s a lot of room for “builds” here, as the way I upgrade my own version of Luigi or Rabbid Mario might differ from other players, depending on what they want out of the character. Some might prefer emphasizing a character’s ability to dash, adding more dashes per turn and putting effects on them. Or maybe they’ll veer into the weapon upgrades, making Rabbid Luigi’s frisbee disc weapon bounce and hit more targets.
Further customization is possible by equipping Sparks to your roster. One Spark might make your attacks proc Burn for a turn. Mix that with Rabbid Luigi’s bouncing disc, and now you can flush a bunch of enemies from cover all at once. Another Spark can make a character untargetable for a few turns, or unleash a toxic Ooze explosion in an area.
Listing all of these systems out at once can be a bit daunting, and Ubisoft has thankfully done a good job of gradually introducing concepts. Early battles in an area will often act as introductions to an idea, while later fights utilize them to create compelling combat puzzles. One level teaches the player about stone faces that can blow gusts of wind, sending anyone in their path tumbling. Then, a later level will construct a puzzle that requires getting a special objective from one side of the map to the other, primarily using these stone faces.
I’ve been really impressed at how, even when Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope can seem straightforward, it pushes the player into interesting tactical situations. The synergy between all the systems—weapons, upgrades, customization through Sparks and skills—is what hums at the center of Sparks of Hope, and it’s only emphasized by how much faster and more active the combat is.
A spark of something new
There have been so many levels where I’ve made risky dashes for an objective. Many times where I’ve read a map, took a look at the enemies and their characteristics, planned accordingly, and breezed through without a problem. And so many times when my plans fell apart, and I’ve had to adapt.
While the battles can certainly get tough, they’re just the right amount of challenge. They push and punish, but I’ve only had to outright restart a battle a few times; most of the time, even losing a team member felt salvageable if I played right.
It helps that each character doesn’t just feel distinct in the different paths they can take, but in the way they operate on the field. Luigi is an incredible sniper who can carry the crew early on, annihilating high-health foes. But when it comes to groups, his Rabbid counterpart functions a bit better, bouncing discs around and weakening enemies in a large area to mitigate damage.
Sparks even make the reliance on a healer a little less burdensome. In my time playing Kingdom Battle, I often felt forced to bring Rabbid Peach along for some healing. But different Sparks offer options for recovering health, letting the team be a little more diverse. And other characters offer alternatives, like Princess Peach’s protecting shields.
Boss battles bring it all together, offering some tough, multi-stage brawls that can drag out and test your tactical abilities. The fights themselves are excellent but add in the incredible score from Yoko Shimomura, Grant Kirkhope, and Gareth Coker, and these climactic fights get a dramatic flair that works great.
Even outside of battles, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has expanded the scope wider. Each major planet has a bunch of optional content to explore, from special event battles and secret zones to full side-quests for extra Sparks that often have their own storyline and quirk. There are a lot of ways Sparks of Hope keeps you pressing forward for more to do, and so far, most of it has been solid.
Still more to uncover
That said, there are a few odd hitches here or there. Performance is good in battles but struggles a bit when it comes to overworld areas like the snow planet. I’ve noticed a few times where weapons are blocked by invisible barriers or characters struggle to see a target from behind cover. And the mini-map navigation can be extremely finicky, especially when trying to latch onto a flag for fast travel. Those are all nitpicks though, and nothing that’s frustrated my overall time with the game too much.
I’m still working my way through the full Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope campaign, and I’m intrigued to see how things stay fresh after the first three major areas. So far, I’ve been very impressed with how much variety and customization there is. I haven’t really settled into a core team, instead feeling like there are good use cases for just about everyone in the squad.
There’s still a bit more to see of this game, but Sparks of Hope has me locked in. Where Kingdom Battle felt like a surprise, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope feels like this Ubisoft team locking in their own brand of tactics. In a year bubbling over with tactics games, Sparks of Hope is putting out an experience that feels fun, challenging, and consistently engaging to keep blasting through.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]