I’ve been keeping an eye on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope for some time now. Neither Nintendo nor Ubisoft has been shy about showing it off, yet despite having played the original title, I was still curious as to why it seemed so different to my eye. Having now played 3-4 hours of it, I finally feel I have a good handle on what Sparks of Hope does differently, and it seems a bigger and better adventure in so many ways.
Where Kingdom Battle felt like a great, unique idea, that was ultimately a Mario-take on the XCOM/tactics genre, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope feels more like the culmination of all the ideas that might have been left on the table for a first game. New characters? Check. Skill trees return, but now there’s levelling up, companion characters that can change your entire loadout, and a lot more to keep track of. Mini-open areas to explore and take on side quests, red coin challenges, and a whole lot more? You’re probably getting the picture by now, but this is a far larger, deeper experience than the original title, and even sitting down for four hours with it, I just wanted more.
Part of that is because Sparks of Hope hasn’t forgotten how difficult Kingdom Battle could be, nor how sometimes it could suddenly spike and hand you a brown paper bag with your ass in it. I played two sections of the game, including starting from the beginning, and the difficulty felt just right there. A natural progression that introduces the story, the characters, even how to move around the world, before throwing in the titular “Sparks” which might just be the most interesting thing in this new game.
Each “Spark” is basically a Rabbid version of a Luma from Super Mario Galaxy. In fact, less than an hour into Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope I was left very intrigued by how much of that seminal title was going to be in here. There’s a lot to take in, but to level up the “Sparks” (which, again, are Rabbid Lumas) you even feed them Star Bits you find around the environments and from defeating enemies or smashing cover up in battle.
As well as being a Luma, each Spark is elemental. A fire-based Spark that looks like a hungry Luma will be frightened and run away from you into trouble, resulting in a boss fight. Succeed in that battle and the Spark will join you. At first each member of your party can only equip one Spark, but by the second island you’re able to equip two per party-member. As you can probably guess, if you have a lighting based Spark, it will add either a lightning based attack, or some form of buff to you, or your attack itself. Likewise for fire Sparks, Ice, etc; you get the picture. There are even Sparks that offer protective qualities, and this is all on top of the skills each party member already has, which themselves are upgradable with a special currency you get when you level up.
Each character in the party is also an RPG-archetype. Rabbid Mario is a brawler, while Rabbid Peach is a healer. Luigi is a sniper, Mario is the all-rounder. Each of their skills are relevant to their class, and each can be upgraded from the skill trees. Party loadout and composition matters, and I mean really matters. I can’t really imagine going into a battle without Rabbid Peach’s healing ability, unless it’s a combat section I’d chosen to initiate, and knew I was over-levelled, simply wanting to try out some new ideas. Enemies are scannable thanks to Beep-O returning, and have weaknesses and strengths.
And therein lies the difficulty. At first you’ll be using the non-skill-point abilities like slide to take enemies like Goombas out 3-at-a-time, then team-jumping to gain even more distance on your turn, dominating by getting in their faces with strength-based party members. But by the second island, you’ll be seeing portals that spawn enemies, adding to your troubles, and facing bosses who teleport each turn, and have multiple phases.
I’m willing to put my experience down to the fact it wasn’t my save, and I hadn’t experienced the progression in a linear fashion. I like to play games in my way, which is to say that I do every side-quests I can on the way through the story, levelling up, etc. I’d also say that due to the complexity involved in the loadouts on offer, I would understand the systems better had I played through myself, so to speak. But that said, the three-phase boss fight did me in. With constantly spawning enemies, a boss who can warp, and a cut-scene after each phase with her coming back with the same arena (albeit shifted around a bit), it did feel a little too much.
Before every other fight you can heal up by spending coins, here, you get your fainted members back, but on 1HP, which means before you even think about getting involved in the phase, you need to heal up. There was no way to replenish items, and it essentially felt like the same fight three times in a row. Like I say, I’m willing to predict this’ll be less of an issue playing linearly through myself, but until that battle, the entire game had been a hoot, but this particular boss battle just wasn’t fun.
There’s also no way around it: you’ll need to retrain your brain if you played Kingdom Battle. The freeform movement on offer means that enemies too can travel great distances, and with them happily hiding around corners, you’ll need to be constantly on your guard. Sparks of Hope is an experience you need to take your time with: spec out the area, be sure you aren’t going to get ganked by three enemies on one turn, because even on regular difficulty (you can change it mid-game) this one isn’t messing about.
That said, the exploration outside of fights is interesting and engaging. You can stealth past enemies, collect items, and solve puzzles. There’s some wonderful, colourful characters present in Sparks of Hope that I can’t wait to get to know better. And you know what, despite my age, I smirked a lot and even stifled a chuckle in a room full of media and developers. The world needs silly, perhaps now more than ever.
It feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Sparks of Hope has to offer. A deep, enriching experience, that offers a challenge, and some laughs, it feels far bigger and better than the first effort. Dense mechanically, intriguing from a narrative perspective, and something that I’ll want to master, I can’t wait to play more. And I got through it without even mentioning the fact there appears to be some MetroidVania aspects present, via powers that let you unblock paths that I reckon you can return to older levels and explore. Whoops.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is coming to Nintendo Switch on October 20th, 2022.