As a video game sequel, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope had a lot of hope riding on it. This is the curse of sequels – they aren’t just expected to be good, they’re expected to be better. To improve on past gameplay systems, to expand a game’s world, to give each character time to breathe, and introduce new, intriguing concepts with aplomb. If making a sequel is difficult, Sparks of Hope certainly doesn’t show it. Rather, it exceeds all expectations, eclipsing its predecessor – 2017’s Kingdom Battle – bringing the surprising franchise to uncanny new heights.
When I previewed Sparks of Hope in September, I noted the series had no reason to be so good. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle‘s announcement seemingly came out of nowhere, and was immediately shunned by fans. The Rabbids, at the time, were largely seen as the annoying mascots of Ubisoft – the original Minions – loud, obnoxious, and not worthy of time. Kingdom Battle did much to rehabilitate this image, reintroducing the Rabbids with more measured slapstick humour, with Mario and his friends helping to ground them. Despite all odds, Kingdom Battle game wasn’t just good – it was fantastic.
In Sparks of Hope, the oddball series has risen far above its potential with glittering new worlds, clever tweaks to combat, and an adventure as colourful as it is spectacular. This is a bigger, stronger sequel – one not content to thrive on the surprise and novelty of its predecessor.
Described as a ‘spiritual’ sequel rather than a direct one, it takes everything that worked in Kingdom Battle, and transforms it to an impressive degree.
The worlds are more vast in this adventure – littered with more surprises, more sidequests, hidden secrets, and easter eggs. You can still blast through the critical path, hopping through different worlds and conquering combat-based challenges as you go. But you can also stop to smell the nearby roses – and find hidden objects between their thorns.
While your primary goal is to defeat the villainous Cursa, destroy Darkmess energy, rescue trapped Sparks, and restore peace to the universe, the silly hijinks along the way keep the game’s action light, friendly, and compelling. You could be fighting back against countless waves of enemies, building an uncomfortably muscled Rabbid sculpture in the snow, or taking a brief sojourn to knock fish out of an icy lake. The narrative levity is needed as the Sparks of Hope tale grows darker, and the influence of Cursa grows.
Thankfully, as the darkness advances – so too does Mario, and his band of merry pals. Like Kingdom Battle before it, Sparks of Hope utilises a turn-based combat system to deal with enemies. These generally take place throughout your romps in each Darkmess-infected world – with encounters taking place in a combat arena separate to the world, filled with cover, enemies, and obstacles.
If you’re familiar with Kingdom Battle, or even with tactical games like XCOM or Gears Tactics, you’ll recognise the flow of gameplay. You, alongside a team of heroes, are tasked with a particular goal on a battlefield – either defeating a set number of enemies, or reaching a certain area on the map. You have several options during a character’s turn – moving, firing a weapon, unleashing an equippable ‘Spark’ ability, utilising your character’s innate special ability, or using an item.
While much ado has been made of Sparks of Hope and its rejigged combat system, the only real difference returning players will spot is that movement is no longer tied to a grid. You’re still limited in each individual character’s range, but you can essentially roam freely to plan and execute tactics, stopping only when you execute a weapon-based attack. This creates a free-flowing momentum that makes action feel more dynamic – but it doesn’t irreversibly change the tactical combat strategy. You still need to plan well, assess your movement capacity, and ensure you’re using team jumps and dashes to maximise traversal and damage on your turn.
Also new to Sparks of Hope are the titular Sparks, friendly beings you discover as part of the narrative, which can enhance your attacks on the battlefield. Some have leeching abilities, others can create slime puddles, add splash damage to your weapons, or even reflect enemy moves back at them. They’re a valuable part of your arsenal, and work delightfully well in the flow of combat.
Not everything in the game is a breeze, however – and there are certainly moments you’ll need to stretch your grey matter and focus on surviving a deadlier battlefield. The game’s boss fights, for example, are particularly vicious, and may require multiple playthroughs to fully understand.
In Sparks of Hope, the scope of these fights is dramatic, with custom arenas and mechanics for each major boss encounter. One of the boss fights introduces an octagonal ring, and a body-slamming opponent that requires great finesse to put away. It’s not just a matter of blasting your guns – you’ll need to analyse your surroundings, and how best to defeat them without sacrificing your chosen heroes.
As the game progresses, these fights twist further – with clever tactics needed for nearly every boss in the game. Even if you master the flow of regular combat easily, these boss fights still put up a meaty challenge. They also make for some of the prettiest locations in an already gorgeous game.
Where Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle largely focussed on grassy terrains and the regent locales of the Mushroom Kingdom, Sparks of Hope goes further, into a galactic universe where beauty thrives. Each map feels brilliant and vibrant, brought to life in bright splashes of colour.
In Beacon Beach, the sun shines brightly on an ocean landscape. On Palette Prime, twisting vines curl around an idyllic, gothic garden setting. Pristine Peaks, while icy and barren, is still a delight to travel, with each snowflake and icy peak glimmering.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a game that feels alive – in every corner of its world. In every quick-thinking, fast-paced battle. This is a story buoyed by slapstick antics, a real sense of humour, and a fuzzy feeling of joy. While the game may be a close cousin of Kingdom Battle, it goes much further, with larger, more vibrant worlds to explore, more complex combat tactics, and a real sense of ambition that’ll bring players from sweeping high peaks to shadowy, gnarled gardens.
Sparks of Hope has a real sense of twinkling charm – one that could pull a smile from even the most hardened heart. There’s a vivacious, beating heart at the centre of this adventure, and it makes every new world, and every new fight a veritable joy to complete. You can walk away from Sparks of Hope wonderfully satisfied, but you’ll never really leave it behind.
Five Stars: ★★★★★
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 20 October 2022