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Nintendo has always had very strong characters, but all of their greatest adventures were built inside of the House of M. In fact, prior attempts to deliver games with Nintendo’s prized characters were often met with disastrous results; I’m looking at you Phillips CD-I. So when Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was first revealed, it was a very strange sight. We saw the immortal Shigeru Miyamoto take the stage with head of Ubisoft Yves Guillemot, both holding what looked like blasters, announcing a game development partnership between the two studios.
What we ended up with, though, helped clean the stain that the CD-I left in Nintendo’s legacy as Ubisoft delivered a very solid tactics game featuring Nintendo’s most prolific characters. The game’s combat was fun, the characters were charming, and, although the overall adventure was somewhat formulaic, it ended up being one of Ubisoft’s best games of the year. It was good enough, in fact, that a sequel was green lit, which brings us here, today. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is the follow-up to Kingdom Battle and is an attempt to grow the universe and build on the solid foundation laid in Kingdom Battle.
Shoot for the Stars
The game takes place in close proximity to the aftermath of the first game, with the Rabbids being nicely integrated into the Mushroom Kingdom until the inevitable tragedy strikes. A mysterious and malevolent entity known as Cursa invades the kingdom and threatens the entire galaxy. Cursa is on a mission to drain all planets of their Sparks, which are the results of the Lumas from Mario Galaxy fusing with Rabbids after the events of Kingdom Battle.
In an effort to stop her and save the galaxy, the whole gang from Kingdom Battle gives chase in their very own spaceship. Throughout the game you will travel to various planets to rid them of Cursa’s dark Influence and save the Sparks that inhabit them. Each planet is a very significant upgrade from the locales in the first game as they are very visually and thematically distinct. This time around, though, you take control over Mario himself, or any other hero you desire. This small change made a big difference to me as, outside of battles in the first game, you were never really given control of these characters.
Each planet is full of characters to interact with and potentially add to your roster of heroes, puzzles to solve, dungeons to delve (yes, dungeons), and secrets to uncover. Perhaps most importantly, though, they are full 3D spaces that you can explore. The spaces are fun to explore and reminded me very much of the openness of Mario Odyssey, whereas the first game’s linear paths felt like they had more in common with Mario Party. This is also a big game; after completing the main story in around 25 hours, there was still a ton of stuff to do. There are even some places designed for you to come back to once you have gained more power. Yes, there is a world map filled with icons, but I never once felt the fatigue a lot of players feel when playing other Ubisoft titles.
The Mario Odyssey parallels run even deeper, though, as each planet has its own bite-sized story to tell, along with their own currency. These planetary stories are not going to win any awards, but it is nice to see lore collectibles, more dialogue and narration, and a greater emphasis on cut scenes to deliver a story carrot that I enjoyed chasing. However, I will say that having your two AI companions fully voice acted with pretty great performances makes the lack of voice acting with everyone else stand out like a sore thumb. The Mushroom Kingdom is full of incredible characters, and the world of Rabbids is growing on me fast, so having these characters fully realized with voice acting would have done a lot to help immerse me in the world and its story.
A planet’s main quest, as well as side quests and activities, all award a unique planetary currency. This currency can be redeemed for consumable items to help you in battle, cosmetics, or provide access to secret levels that contain even more rewards. Of course, on top of all of this, you will be gaining XP and unlocking new Sparks to power up your crew of heroes.
As you gain XP, level up, and collect Sparks, your roster of heroes will not only grow in strength but also start to fill out their own combat niche. Returning from Kingdom Battle is the character talent trees that you will progress through, although this time around the characters are far more unique. Each offers somewhat of a specialized role in combat and can be built in different ways depending on how you decide to build them. Gone from the game are the purchasable weapon upgrades from Kingdom Battle, and characters will instead gain attack power through levelling up or talents. Gold coins are now spent on healing your party between battles or purchasing consumables that can come in real handy during battle.
Replacing the static weapon upgrades from Kingdom Battle, though, are the titular Sparks. They provide both passive buffs and new active abilities for whomever you assign them to, and they make a massive difference in each encounter. Some Sparks can be used to complement a Hero’s play style or help heroes carve out a second niche. For instance, equipping the Glitter Spark to Rabbid Mario allows him to perform a massive AOE taunt that groups up enemies in a ball for his big damage melee cleave. This is a strategy that I used quite often. Or, perhaps, you can equip a single target-focused character like Luigi with the Pyrogeddon Spark to give him some serious AoE damage. Many Sparks also have elemental affinities tied to them, and since they can be conveniently swapped in and out between battles, they add a big layer of strategy to each encounter. Nearly all enemies have elemental strengths and weaknesses, so equipping Sparks with offensive abilities that enemies are weak to, as well as defensive passives for what they are strong against, becomes a big part of your strategy.
The Sparks can be used in many ways and add a lot of depth to how you decide to build your characters and how you explore the game’s world. They are unlocked through main story progression, but many are unlocked through exploration and side content. Since more Sparks means more strategic options in combat, the game offers a compelling and rewarding reason to explore its worlds. Often times each planet will also have a Spark that gets embedded into your BEEP-O robot companion that will offer ways to unlock previously inaccessible paths. In a very classic Zelda way, these new tools are vital to finding and solving some of the game’s hidden secrets and puzzles.
Ultimate Tactical Freedom
I gushed a lot about the leaps this game takes above the already solid game that came before it in terms of its exploration and RPG mechanics, but there is no leap Sparks of Hope takes that is greater than the combat. The freedom provided in this system quite honestly leads to perhaps the best tactics combat I have ever experienced. Combat starts with some pre-battle strategizing where you have an opportunity to scout the map and see what obstacles, objectives, and enemies lie in your path. This gives you a chance to equip your party with appropriate Sparks or even swap around your talents if you want to get some serious synergies.
Once battle begins you will quickly experience the game’s most defining feature, which is the ability to freely move around. A common staple in tactics games is that you essentially play on a grid and can select a point in that grid, within a specified distance, and move to it before performing an action. This is how Kingdom Battle played and is how most tactics games operate. Being able to freely move around may sound like a small change, but, in practice, it fundamentally changes how you think about each encounter and the different strategies you can invoke, as well as the overall feel of the combat. Even though it is still turn-based, the free movement really makes the action feel so much more kinetic. Running towards an ally, jumping off of their head, and then quickly having Mario shoot his dual blasters at an enemy while in mid-air just felt so good to pull off every time I did it. Even small things, like being able to vault over half walls instead of having to path around them, just further add to the freedom this game gives you in its combat.
It also greatly enhances some of the stand out mechanics from Kingdom Battle, as well. In Kingdom Battle one of the major mechanics introduced early was the ability to slide into enemies who were along your path for bonus damage, or the aforementioned jumping off of their heads to expand your range of movement. The problem was that, if you moved an ally to a spot on the grid that would give you the most range for your team bounce, that ally would be stuck in that spot and often out of cover and vulnerable. With this new system you can, for instance, have Luigi move towards danger in order to let Mario team bounce further into the thick of it, and then safely return Luigi to the back lines where his bow and arrow sniper game play is more effective. I can not stress enough how much the ability to incorporate a strategic play for one character, without hindering the strategy you have for the other team members, increased my overall enjoyment with Sparks of Hope’s combat encounters.
Both individual strategy and team strategy are extra important in this game because of how much more defined each character is in their combat role. The first game did offer some distinction between characters, but there were also a lot of shared abilities and specials that were not as fleshed out. For instance, in Kingdom Battle I relied heavily on the over-watch abilities that both Mario and Luigi possessed, where they would automatically attack enemies that moved in their vicinity. This is a strategy I quickly relied on in the early levels of Rabbids as well. However, that changed thanks to some of the side quests that force you out of your comfort zone by pre-determining the heroes you will go into battle with. After being forced to use everyone in one way or another, I quickly learned how beneficial their kits could be for specific situations. Ultimately, roster composition became an important part of my pre-battle strategy, alongside deciding which Sparks to use and talents to equip. The layers of strategy that go into each encounter fit together like a glove, which is exactly what I’m looking for in a game like this.
Like Kingdom Battles, the objective of each encounter is not always just simply defeating all the enemies and you’re done. Back from the previous game are the survive battles, where you just need to be alive at the end of a round timer, or encounters where you just need to reach the end of the map to win. Like seemingly every other aspect of the game, Sparks of Hope makes some big improvements here as well. The game offers some pretty interesting encounters where you need to rely on using interactive elements of each battleground to be effective. This could be sliding into a bob-omb and picking it up, then walking over to a group of enemies for some big damage, or flipping switches that activate wind turbines to blow enemies into disadvantageous positions. The game’s several boss encounters also have a mechanic that you must work around which made them a lot more memorable.
Outside of boss battles, though, there is significantly more variety in terms of the enemies you will be fighting against here vs Kingdom Battles, not just in terms of their aesthetics, but also in terms of what they can do and how you must counter it. While there is some repetition in the combat arenas you will fight in, the enemy variety allows for some pretty consistently unique enemy compositions, making each encounter a lot less samey. I played this game on the “Demanding” difficulty, and I would encourage you to perhaps play one level above what you normally opt for as figuring out the different enemies strength and weaknesses and how to counter them was a really fun experience. It felt very rewarding to solve this combat-puzzle and unleash devastation.
Shimmer and Shine
Visually, the game is a large improvement over the original. Each world offers a very distinct and detailed look. The art style is extremely bright and colourful, really shining on the improved Switch OLED screen. Ubisoft built the first game on pre-release hardware, and the amount of time they had to work with retail hardware and perfect their art style is very evident. Another area that is vastly improved over the original game is the animations, specifically combat animations. Everything from basic attacks to special moves have received a serious overhaul on the animation and sound front. From the heavy impact of Peach’s umbrella shotgun to the insanely cool pistol twirl and stare down from Mario’s Hero Sight ability, these animations never got old.
However, it’s worth noting that I did experience some performance issues, specifically while playing in docked mode. As mentioned, the worlds you explore have a significantly increased level of detail in them, and, while playing on a TV, there were very apparent and frequent frame drops. While it far from ruined the experience for me, it was definitely something I felt often while playing. In battles, though, everything ran smoothly, and, while playing in handheld mode, I did not notice any major issues whatsoever in both battles and exploration.
Finally, the game follows up Kingdom Battle’s great original soundtrack by bringing back the first game’s composer, Grant Kirkhope. This time around, though, he is joined by the renowned Gareth Coker, known for Ori and Halo Infinite, as well as Yoko Shimomura, who is known for her work on the Kingdom Hearts series, as well as Super Mario RPG. This trio of composers has created some truly great music, here. Part of the reason I opted to explore as much as I did was because the majority of my playtime was done with a decent set of headphones, and I simply wanted to hear more of the music.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is one of the somewhat rare cases where a sequel expands and improves on every single element of the game that came before it, instead of delivering simply more of the same. Some technical issues and the lack of a fully voiced cast aside, this game absolutely stands among the best in a year full of great Nintendo releases. The understanding of what made Kingdom Battle great is shown by the teams at Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris, and their clear expertise on how to enhance each and every aspect of it, while also making great additions, positions Sparks of Hope as one of the best video game sequels of all time.