From what I’ve gathered, most people weren’t expecting Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle to be good. If you told me that XCOM lite starring Mario characters and Rabbids dressed up as Mario characters would not only be playable, but would be one of the best reviewed Switch games of 2017, I would have said, “What the hell is a Rabbid?”
Honestly, beyond reading Ray Carsillo’s review of the original game on our website and knowing that Nintendo would probably not license its beloved characters to a third-party publisher if it didn’t have the utmost confidence that the resulting product would be a quality one, I had almost zero expectations for Kingdom Battle’s sequel, Mario + Rabbid Sparks of Hope, going into this review. I feel like this game will have two main types of players: those for whom Sparks of Hope is one of their most anticipated releases of the year, and those who’ve heard pretty good things about the original and just want a fun game on the Switch.
I fall squarely into the latter category, so if you’re expecting me to compare and contrast all of the finer points that distinguish Sparks of Hope from its predecessor, then click off of this review right now. I can’t give diehard Kingdom Battle fans—surely you’re out there—what they want. What I can say, however, is that Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is an incredibly approachable and fun introduction to the XCOM-style strategy subgenre, with some iterative gameplay mechanics and luscious art design that help it stand out from the rest.
As far as stories go, Sparks of Hope is standard Mario fare with a few more plot moments and a lot more dialogue. Mario, Luigi, Peach, and their respective Rabbid doppelgangers are all hanging out in the Mushroom Kingdom when a Spark—a half-Rabbid, half-Luma hybrid—falls from space like an asteroid and beans Mario right in the breadbasket. Following the Spark is a giant flying manta ray covered in “dark mess,” under the control of an evil creature named Cursa that wants to take over the entire galaxy. Of course, it’s up to Mario and friends to once again save the universe.
I don’t know why I expected more story from Sparks of Hope, but there really isn’t much. A new Rabbid character, Edge, brings some amount of personal stakes to the proceedings by having some sort of connection to Cursa’s Rabbid underlings, the Spark Hunters. That plot thread never really goes anywhere though, so you end up simply jumping from one planet to another, chasing Cursa and fixing the messes left in its wake, with little drama along the way.
Given the game’s generous length, I could have gone for a little more emotional motivation, but thankfully, its excellent gameplay provided more than enough reason to keep playing. Like its predecessor, Sparks of Hope is a turn-based strategy game in which characters can use cover and the terrain to get a tactical advantage in the vein of XCOM. However, unlike that notoriously punishing and luck-based series, Sparks of Hope makes you feel like you have a little more control over how battles play out—with just a dash of RNG to keep things interesting. Instead of a sliding scale of percentages indicating your chances for a successful attack, Sparks of Hope gives you 100%, 50%, or 0% odds for hitting your target. You can also see exactly which enemies are on the battlefield and where, as there’s no “fog of war” blocking your view. Even when new enemies spawn in during a fight, the game will show you where they’re spawning and give you a turn to plan accordingly. All told, it makes for a more readable, digestible strategy experience—and, yes, an easier one, too, at least on the standard difficulty.
But just because Sparks of Hope might be “easier” doesn’t mean it’s less rewarding or lacking in depth. On the contrary, its nine characters (one more than what Kingdom Battle had) all have their strengths, weaknesses, and quirks that make finding your favorite combination for the game’s three-character teams a nearly impossible task, mostly because they’re all so fun to use. Each of the characters feels unique, if not as archetypes for the strategy genre then at least to one another, filling different roles. Mario once again acts as the all-arounder with an average attack distance and Dual Slinger weapons with average damage. Meanwhile, Rabbid Mario is an up-close brawler whose gauntlet-like Dukes can one-shot a lot of the more standard enemies.
It’s not just the weapons that set characters apart. More than that, it’s their specific techniques that tell you exactly what type of role they’re meant to play. Mario’s Hero Sight and Luigi’s Steely Stare will both attack enemies who wade into their field of vision (like XCOM’s Overwatch), making them obvious damage-dealers. Rabbid Peach’s Heal and regular Peach’s Team Barrier, on the other hand, make them clear support characters. Other characters like Rabbid Luigi and Rabbid Rosalina have techniques that let them debuff characters. As I understand it, Kingdom Battle forced you to make Mario a full-time member of your three-character team, which is fortunately not the case in Sparks of Hope. Except for a handful of missions that force you to use specific characters, you can now fully mix and match whichever three characters you want for any given battle.
You can upgrade each character’s weapons, techniques, health, and movement in skill trees that, while short on options, can significantly increase a character’s usability. Sometimes, that includes adding elemental damage to an attack. Other times, it’s more specific, like giving Mario the ability to shoot from the air after performing a team jump. On top of all that, you can also assign Sparks you find and rescue throughout the game to your characters, giving them an extra action or skill that they can utilize in battle. While most Sparks I unlocked dealt elemental damage, some performed more standout skills. One turned a character invisible for a couple of turns, while another drew enemies closer to the character. As you might imagine, both of these Sparks made the up-close brawler Rabbid Mario a threat in combat.
Another way that Sparks of Hope apparently innovates on Kingdom Battle’s combat is in its movement system. Instead of gluing the characters down to a grid, players can now freely move their characters within a certain range—which you can expand in the skill tree—on the battlefield. You can move them around as much as you want up until the point that you actually have them fire their weapons. After that, your character becomes stuck in place, so making sure they’re behind cover before doing so is usually a good idea. Each turn, characters have two action points they can spend before their turn is over, but as long as you don’t spend either action point on shooting, you can still move them around even after you’ve expended both. It just feels great to play a strategy game that doesn’t immediately punish you for simply moving your character to the wrong square.
This new movement system opens up a ton of strategic possibilities in ways that you might not initially expect. If an enemy is within your range, you can slide tackle them for a free bit of damage before you actually attack them with a skill or weapon. You can also use your teammates as launching pads for team jumps, which will let you float in the sky for a few seconds with the help of a robot friend. You can even upgrade certain characters to stay in the air longer or use multiple team jumps per turn. Between team jumps and jump pads that you will occasionally find on certain battlefields, as well as the extra movement space you get from utilizing pipes, you can sometimes move a character from one end of the play area to another in a single turn. It’s hard to overstate just how much of an impact this has on the amount of strategies you can come up with and the way you will approach combat. Occasionally, you might trigger an event you didn’t mean to, like accidentally wasting a team jump because you were trying to enter the pipe right next to your ally, but those moments are rare and almost always down to rushing your turn for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Combat is only half of Sparks of Hope. The other half involves exploring the game’s five main planets, and that’s where it stumbles a little. While the planets aren’t that large, they generally require a lot of puzzle-solving to get through them. The puzzles themselves aren’t that objectionable, and some can even be fun, but interacting with the environments is just cumbersome enough that it hampers the game’s pacing. Likewise, even moving around these areas can feel like steering a boat at times. What’s worse, if your character is sprinting and runs into a wall or another solid object, they will actually fall down and get stunned for a couple of seconds. It’s funny the first time, but quickly gets old after a few dozen more.
Sparks of Hope’s approach to exploration enhances the game’s sense of adventure, and makes side quests and other secondary objectives possible, but those also seem to needlessly pad the game’s length, which is already pretty long for just the main story. What saves the game’s more exploratory moments is its wonderful art design, which is full of color, small details, and Rabbids doing Rabbid things. They bring each area to life in a way that feels akin to a Disney ride—there’s always something exciting to look at. The game’s lively score also helps to enhance the feeling that you’re on the adventure alongside your team.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn’t have. Given the last game’s reputation, I should have expected a surprisingly engaging twist on the XCOM formula with a whole lot of personality to boot. Still, the buzz that Kingdom Battle got did not prepare me for what could very well end up being one of my favorites games this year. While I’ve always enjoyed strategy games, Sparks of Hope’s more straightforward and streamlined approach really grabbed me, as did the in-depth team compositions. The only problem is that now, if a third game in this improbable series gets the greenlight, my expectations will be much, much higher.
Even if you haven’t played the first game in the series, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a great introduction to a certain type of strategy game, iterating on a now-familiar formula with a readable, predictable approach to combat and some fun innovations in character movement. It knows where to streamline without sacrificing depth, all while starring mascots that fans know and love. Its exploration elements might slow the pace a bit too much, but you won’t mind too much thanks to the gorgeous art direction.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|