2017’s Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proved it wrong by offering a well-crafted strategy game that successfully blends two very different franchises. Its sequel, Sparks of Hope, should now live up to the excitement of the fans instead of clearing their doubts. Ubisoft Milan accomplishes this feat by returning to the drawing board, reworking its templates, and creating a more streamlined, dynamic experience that maintains strategic depth. The core combat remains strong, but Ubisoft shrugged off the rest of the offering to create an entirely attractive package.
Sparks of Hope plays the same way as the previous game; You’ll engage in tactical turn-based battles as a squad of Mario Icon and his rabid doppelgngers. However, the grid-based movement is gone. Instead, you move your three-man team freely like you would in a standard third-person game. The game still limits you to a character’s range of motion, but the position feels more natural and kinetic, expanding your offensive flexibility.
An optimal turn using a single hero often looks like this: I run towards an enemy and slide into them for damage. I then go to a nearby colleague to do a team jump, which requires me to travel by air. I hover over a high vantage point, activate hero action like Peach’s damage-negative shield, and move on again. After finding new cover, I use my primary attack to detonate another enemy before being forced to end my turn. I love how the looser structure allows me to squeeze more action out of a turn, and the combat feels more exciting as a result. A series of moves, such as launching targets into range of Mario’s automatic counterattacks, add to this satisfaction.
The plethora of colorful stages sometimes include real-time elements that put this freedom to good use. A winter phase consists of timed gusts of wind that blow players off the course. I avoid this by just driving past at the right time instead of following a rigid turn order. An enemy explodes when killed, so I quickly run through its blast radius again in real time. Sparks of Hope also often mixes up their objectives to keep the action from getting too static. I enjoy battling a giant wiggler aboard a moving train or breaking dams with bombs to restore an area’s water flow.
A decently diverse enemy roster and detailed arenas mean that battles are thoughtful affairs where your position and offensive order of operations matter. Sparks of Hope presents enough of a challenge that poor planning can wipe out a punished team. This time, though, you’ve got the help of Sparks: a hybrid of Rabbids and Lumas from Super Mario Galaxy. Equipping heroes with these critters provides a variety of powers and perks, such as adding elemental traits to their attacks (such as fire and ice). Other sparks disrupt enemy structures by repelling or attracting enemies. One of my favorites is to temporarily make a character invisible. The most powerful sparks strike widely, like a fiery meteor shower. Feeding Star Bites to Sparks raises their level, allowing you to improve your favorite’s abilities.
Since each hero can carry two sparks, they feel more versatile as individuals result in a more well-rounded team. I love that I can get weak Rabbid Luigi handle enemies from shock and frost attacks on my own. I appreciate how enemy weaknesses forced me to constantly switch sparks and prevent me from sticking decently with the same loadout or team.
It’s also great that party building allows for any combination of heroes, removing Kingdom Battle’s restriction of using only Mario and at least one rabbit. Since heroes have inherent characteristics – Luigi is a long-lasting sniper, Rabid Peach acts as a healer, and Rabid Mario increases physical damage, for example – assembling squads seems more interesting. Because I can mix things better. Heroes also have skill trees, which substantially improve or enhance existing moves, which you can honing at any time, providing additional flexibility in what talents they bring to each fight.
Three newcomers join the fray: Bowser, the rabid Rosalina, and Edge, a mysterious tough-as-nails rabbit. They feel like nice additions for the most part. Edge is my favorite, thanks to the high damage he does by throwing his curved blade to clear away target lines. Bowser and his Bo-Zuka rocket launcher make him a punishing tank that can wipe out groups and cover terrain. Rabbid Rosalina’s lackluster personality is amusing, but I often struggle to find a place for her. She combines debilitating effects that stop or outright stop enemies in their tracks, but her machine-gun-like doll doesn’t feel like it meets any special needs.
Expanded overworld exploration adds more engagement outside the battlefield. Multiple themed planets, like tropical beach or mechanic’s junkyard, are full of sidequests, puzzles and mysteries. I like that I don’t have to complete quests to progress. You’re largely free to mainline the critical path, and you’ll remain fairly level-headed. But if you do, you’ll miss out on earning planet coins (the native currency that unlocks special keys, weapon skins, and more), useful combat items like POW blocks, and more sparks. Tasks include helping a DJ find his missing record, solving a series of intriguing puzzles for an avid explorer, or chasing and catching fish in a timed minigame. These missions are not the deepest, and I wish there was more variety; Expect to complete the same “kill X-amount of X-enemy type” tasks on each world. But they are quite enjoyable and can be a welcome break from the constant struggle.
What I enjoy the most is upgrading my robot companion, Beep-0, with new abilities used to unlock inaccessible areas. Along the way, I received a sonic pulse to shatter weak walls and move blocks and a special light that illuminates invisible paths and treasures. These abilities give the world of Sparks of Hope a light Metroid feel, in which I regularly revisit destinations to unlock new areas. Solving environmental puzzles is also fun, offering enough challenges without feeling tedious.
A fascinating though uneven tale about preventing a cosmic darkness from consuming the galaxy completes this delightful package. Like the best sequels, Mario + Rabbids emerges as a better game in every way, with smart tweaks and fun additions based on Sparks of Hope Kingdom Battle.