We definitely played Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. For hours, in fact – reviewed it and everything.
But even so, we still had to check to make sure that it definitely happened. Nintendo handing over the keys to its world-famous mascot is rare enough, but that it let Ubisoft give the plumber a gun in its wacky take on the turn-based strategy game raised our eyebrows so high at the time that they almost flew off our forehead.
But Kingdom Battle did happen, and it was kind of brilliant. Teaming up the Mushroom Kingdom residents with Ubisoft’s exceptionally weird Rabbids gave the game the feeling of an unhinged Saturday morning cartoon, while the colourful visuals belied a deceptively deep strategy game that really ramped up the difficulty in the later levels.
A sequel, then, always looked likely, and Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is here to relaunch one of the most unexpected crossover events in the history of gaming. With a brand new outer-space setting, revamped combat system and a generous chunk of side content, Ubisoft’s Milan and Paris-based developments teams definitely weren’t resting on their laurels, but do all the changes result in a better game?
Hello Darkmess my old friend (no typo)
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope picks up after the events of the last game (don’t worry if you haven’t played it), with Mario, Princess Peach and the Rabbids going about their business in peace in the Mushroom Kingdom. Inevitably this doesn’t last, and things look pretty bad when a rampaging and apparently not particularly friendly entity named Cursa begins to consume the energy of the Sparks, hybrid creatures that are a fusion of Rabbids and Lumas, the latter of which longtime Mario fans will recognise from the Super Mario Galaxy series.
With Cursa covering the galaxy with a matter called Darkmess, it falls upon the Mario brothers, Peach and their chaotic long-eared allies to save the Sparks and stop the mysterious antagonist, beginning an interplanetary adventure under the guidance of a flying robot called Beep-O, which returns for the sequel.
From the moment you start the game, Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope feels bigger and more epic than its predecessor. You travel between planets, the settings of which can be anything from sparkling beaches to icy mountains and autumnal villages that feel like they belong in a fairytale, in a spaceship, and the increasingly large levels can be freely roamed between battles.
The Rabbids, meanwhile, previously only capable of speaking gibberish and screaming, are now proper characters that wear leather jackets and actually talk. The animations are super slick. The orchestral score is incredible. And the story, while naturally absurd, will amuse Mario and Rabbids aficionados alike. Sparks of Hope is very clearly a Ubisoft game made by Nintendo fans, and although the presence of fully voiced Rabbids that wouldn’t look or sound out of place in a Final Fantasy game is very odd, it’s hard not to be a bit charmed by it all.
Like its predecessor, the real meat of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope lies in its strategic battles, but the sequel makes some fairly bold changes to the first game’s lauded beginner-friendly spin on an often intimidatingly hardcore genre. Battles are still a turn-based affair, but the rigid grid system is gone.
You now take direct control of characters as they move freely around their area of movement during a turn, and can spend as long as you like scoping out the battlefield for the best position to take. You’re allowed to dash into enemies to knock off some of their health without it eating into your allocated action points for that turn, and you can jump off allies in order to expand your area of movement.
Once you fire a weapon you can’t move again, so using cover effectively is still just as important here, but the merging of a turn-based strategy system with intuitive real-time elements just makes Sparks of Hope even more approachable for newcomers and ensures battles always feel snappy.
Plenty of depth
But don’t mistake the game for baby’s first XCOM. It might be easy to get to grips with, but there’s plenty of depth to Sparks of Hope’s combat. Each character has their own unique weapons, abilities and traits that you’ll need to learn in order to form an effective team. Mario is unsurprisingly a good all-rounder who can eventually take advantage of his famous butt-stomping prowess to pound enemies in mid-air before floating to cover.
Luigi is a long-range specialist whose Steely Stare ability allows you to snipe enemies from a distance when they move into the open. Choose Rabbid Mario if you want to fight up close, or Princess Peach to keep everyone in the team protected. Trigger your actions at the right time and heroes can also combine for devastating two-pronged assaults that look amazing in slow-motion.
As you progress through the campaign new playable heroes are introduced, but for the first few planets at least (or right up until the arrival of a well-known serial kidnapper) we tended to stick with our favoured trio of Mario, Luigi and the Rabbid, Edge, unlocked fairly early on, who can throw her Speedway Blade like a boomerang capable of dealing damage to multiple targets. The game will occasionally make it necessary to switch up your lineup, but we were breezing through all comers with this combination for several hours.
Like before, each character has a skill tree that allows you to upgrade them as you progress. You’ll need to think carefully about how to spend upgrade points; do you want to give Mario a good spread of base stats, or pile everything into his specialist skill set? Luckily, these skill points can be refunded at any time if you want to remould a character for a specific battle you’re struggling with.
Just needs a Spark
The other major component of battles is the addition of Sparks, which join you on your quest as you liberate them from Cursa and become upgradeable abilities. These smiley star creatures might look friendly, but they’re formidable weapons.
With Electroid, you can electrify your ammunition to deal a shock effect to enemies upon impact. Pyrogeddon lets you summon a shower of flaming meteors that set fire to everything they touch, including your own cover, while Ethering can turn you invisible for two turns – very handy when you find yourself outnumbered. Sparks also offer passive effects that can reduce damage from certain attacks.
When you start a battle it’s crucial to examine the enemy team to identify elemental weaknesses or resistance so you can take advantage with your Sparks. This does mean a lot of slightly tedious menu-hopping as Sparks can’t be reassigned in real-time, and the load times are just a fraction too long for our liking.
But in the late game you’ll need everything at your disposal to emerge victorious, and the Sparks’ ability to reshape the battlefield in one turn add a layer of slapstick chaos that gives the game even more life.
Fight like a boss
Enemy types vary throughout the game, starting simple and fairly stupid, but pretty quickly you’ll be given a lot more to think about. Lones Wolves are marksmen with a special ability that allows them to pick you out as soon as you move within their radar, while Smashers, the large Rabbids who crush you with the enormous slabs they carry around the battlefield, are back.
Goombas pop up a lot in battles too. You can dash through entire lines of them in one go, flipping them upside down before tossing them into oblivion, which is enormously satisfying, but leave too many alive and they can really chip away at your health.
At the end of each planet you’ll fight a boss, which can be maddeningly tricky multi-stage affairs, but the game does a good job of gradually introducing new enemy types and making sure you know how to deal with them so you never enter a battle feeling totally overwhelmed by what’s in front of you. And if you are struggling, there are three difficulty settings that you’re free to flip between at any point.
Money, money, money
When you’re not in battles, you’re free to explore each planet on foot with your party, and the game is packed with side content to keep completionists happy. As well as optional battles, there are basic puzzles to solve, minigames, timed challenges and hidden “Epic” enemies that are gated by how many Sparks you’ve unlocked.
Completing side quests earns you Planet Coins, which can be used to purchase keys to special areas, new skins for your weapons and potions that let you instantly level up a Spark. Some Sparks can only be unlocked by completing side quests, so they’re definitely worth your time. Not all of the activities are especially interesting or inspired, and it’s very weird controlling a version of Mario who can’t jump, but considering how long some battles can last, you’ve potentially got weeks, if not months’ worth of game to keep you entertained. And that’s before the multiple DLC packs planned for the next few years. We’re already looking forward to seeing how Mario and Rayman get on.
Another incentive for fully exploring each planet is accumulating as many coins as possible. They can be spent on items, but you’ll also want a decent reserve because healing your team before a battle does not come cheap, and you’ll need to do it a lot.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope verdict
Nintendo’s well-known philosophy on sequels is that you shouldn’t make one if there isn’t a good enough reason to do so. Ubisoft’s Milan and Paris studios clearly took this to heart, as Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has the courage to make some pretty big changes to the first game that risked messing with a winning formula. Instead, we think the free movement in combat improves the experience, while the Sparks can make battles spectacular and hilariously unpredictable affairs.
Each hero in the game really feels unique, and as a result every battle can feel totally different once you have the full set in tow – even if we did tend to stick to our faves most of the time. And while a lot of the side stuff feels like filler, there’s always something else to do if you need to give your brain a break from all the strategising. Given how long some battles can go on for, we were grateful for the odd bit of mindless coin-hoovering.
Like the first game, difficulty spikes are sudden and very occasionally the game can feel unfair, especially as it’s not always clear how far enemies are able to move in a turn. But most of the time failure is down to squad mismanagement and not thinking a move through. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a great entry point into the tactics genre, but it trusts you enough to challenge you.
This might not be a Nintendo game in name, but the second Mario + Rabbids entry is anything but a lazy mistreatment of its most cherished hero. You might never truly warm to those Rabbids, but Mario’s in good hands.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope improves upon its predecessor and is a great entry into the turn-based strategy genre
A combat system that’s easy to grasp but has plenty of depth
Real-time elements improve the experience
Sparks make for some brilliant moments
Occasional frame rate drops
Loading times can annoy
Battles can on a bit
The Rabbids might talk now, but they still get too much screen time