2017 was an outstanding year of gaming for Nintendo fans. The launch year of the Switch saw the release of some of the most beloved titles on the platform to this day, including The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey. Another game that belongs on that list is Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, the biggest surprise of that year. Combining the Mario cast with the Minion-like Rabbids, the turn-based tactics game developed by Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris was widely praised for its quirky tone and surprisingly deep combat. The gameplay was so respected, in fact, that Kingdom Battle won “Best strategy game” at the Game Awards over XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, and XCOM is the undisputed king of the tactics genre.
The sequel to Kingdom Battle doesn’t rest on the laurels of its predecessor. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope makes a lot of changes to an already-successful formula, which makes the game feel both more epic and more inviting to new players. It takes a while to get going, especially for anyone versed in the tactics genre, but, once it starts to challenge the player, Sparks of Hope turns into one of the most entertaining games of 2022.
The most obvious advancement from Kingdom Battle to Sparks of Hopes is the sense of scale. In Kingdom Battle, Mario and friends travel down a predetermined path from battle to battle, with the occasional side mission thrown in. Sparks of Hope, meanwhile, boasts large open environments, taking cues from the open world format found in other Ubisoft titles.
The heroes jaunt off to 6 different worlds over the course of the game, and all but the final destination, Cursa’s Stronghold, are full of activities outside the main quest. Those activities include racing to collect blue and green coins, solving simple but satisfying environmental puzzles, and participating in bite-sized tactics challenges. They’re nice divergences from the large scale tactics battles that comprise the main campaign. Participating in missions earns you coins and boosts your heroes’ rankings, which nets you points to spend on the heroes’ skill trees. You’re also rewarded with Planet coins, which can be used to purchase rare items and collectibles. Completing all of a world’s side quests grants you a Planet Key, which opens a vault containing a new Spark and unique weapon skin. There’s no shortage of activities to keep you occupied and items to unlock if you’re really enjoying your time with the game and want to extend the length of your playthrough.
I was surprised by how much more the story and setting of Sparks of Hope focused on the Rabbids over Mario. The planets you visit, for example, contain paintings that hint at the Rabbids’ past and one of the game’s main collectibles is Echo memories, which impart Rabbids lore, two words I never expected to put next to each other. There’s no equivalent for the Mario side of things.
The game’s storyline revolves around the Sparks, hybrids of Rabbids and the Lumas featured in Super Mario Galaxy, but that’s the only really notable connection to other Mario’s history. The big villain, Cursa, is a brand-new character, as is the story’s central character Edge, a Rabbid with zero connection to the Mushroom Kingdom. The series is called Mario + Rabbids, but it seems like a safe bet to assume that most people are more interested in the former than the latter. The almost single-minded focus on Rabbids is disconcerting, even a little disappointing. Sparks of Hope feels the most Mario-like during battles containing huge set pieces. The giant Angry Wiggler you fight off on Terra Flora, for example, was a highlight of my playthrough, but those sorts of moments are few and far between
The combat in Sparks of Hope is a smart evolution of the already impressive tactics gameplay introduced in Kingdom Battle. Like most tactics titles, the 2017 game limited character movement according to a square grid. Sparks gives you direct control of the heroes, allowing you to move more dynamically. The new style is slightly less precise than the original, but it makes gameplay feel less confined and is more inviting to new players.
Sparks of Hope also adds several brand-new ingredients to the gameplay, the most significant being the Sparks you collect throughout your journey. They provide an active power and passive bonus, and up to two can be equipped to each hero. While their usefulness is uneven, with a handful of the Sparks clearly superior to the rest, their addition really accentuates the gameplay. As long as I kept experimenting and swapping my Sparks between heroes, no two battles ever felt quite the same, giving the game a variety that was lacking in Kingdom Battle.
The heroes’ skill trees further opens up possibilities, allowing you to improve your heroes’ stats and unlock new abilities. Whenever you acquire a Skill Prism, every member of your team gains a new point for their skill tree, so you don’t have to worry about how to ration them. Plus, the points can be re-dispersed at any time, letting you experiment with different builds until you land on the one that best suits your play style. Acquiring a new Skill Prisms was always a joy; I was always happy for the opportunity to pour through the character settings and think through how I wanted to upgrade my heroes.
The Mario + Rabbids titles series feels like the Pokémon of tactics games due to how it gently introduces players to the turn-based genre. Sparks of Hope is certainly the first game I’d recommend to anyone interested in venturing into the genre since, unlike titles like XCOM or Into the Breach, it doesn’t punish you for making mistakes. That prevents players from growing frustrated and allows them to become accustomed to the gameplay at their own pace. If a player isn’t interested in tactics at all and just wants to experience an amusing storyline starring the Mario cast and the Rabbids, Sparks of Hope offers an invincibility mode that allows players to focus solely on story and exploration. But I hope everyone at least gives the tactics combat a try, since it’s the highlight of the game.
Apart from invincibility mode, Sparks of Hope offers three difficulty settings: Relaxing, Average, and High. Optionality is good, but if a game is going to offer multiple difficulty modes, the high difficulty should actually feel… difficult. Even on High, the game offers next to no challenge early on for even semi-experienced tactics players. I’m not particularly great at tactics games, but still found the first 2-3 worlds to be an absolute breeze, despite never using items that give you advantages mid-battle. While I enjoyed exploring the different planets and the game’s whimsical animation sequences, the lack of difficulty grew frustrating.
The game takes a welcome turn towards the end of the third planet, Palette Prime, finally presenting enough of a challenge that it required me to think through my moves and encouraged me to play creatively. The early hours were a slog, once I reached World 4 I couldn’t put the game down. The bite-sized tactics battles never posed a real challenge, so I took those as opportunities to experiment with different heroes and Sparks. That way, when I reached more challenging encounters, I was familiar with every piece in my toolbox. That prepared me for battles that felt demanding enough to test my skills but never so taxing that I was tempted to give up.
The combination of open environments, variety in side missions, and the addition of new gameplay mechanics make Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope a more grandiose and satisfying experience than the already impressive Kingdom Battle. Once the difficulty is properly calibrated to your skill level, the gameplay is sharp, and the developers thoughtfully incorporated the new elements of Sparks of Hope into its design to both keep the combat well-balanced and encourage creativity from its players. The lack of challenge hampers the opening hours of Sparks of Hope, but if you can endure a slow start, you’re in for something special.
Review code provided by Ubisoft.