The franchise proves again that courage and absurd ideas have a place in mainstream gaming; and though projects of the kind may be doubted or mocked at first, if love and competence join forces to make them materialize in style, audiences are sure to give in and happily flock to these games
It was such an outrageous and unexpected idea that hardly anyone could believe it actually existed. That was the general reaction to the rumors regarding a possible partnership between Mario and the Rabbids in what was, then, meant to be one of the Nintendo Switch’s biggest upcoming releases. As prevalent as that story was, doubting it was nothing but natural. Skepticism towards unconfirmed news is, after all, a reasonable approach, and any veteran player ought to know that the media outlets operating in the gaming industry have given propulsion to many rumblings that ended up being nothing but false stories; such an event is, in fact, pretty much a weekly occurrence. Plus, since Nintendo itself is pretty well-known for being rather protective of their major franchises, it made no sense that they would allow their biggest mascot to be joined by brainless screaming extraterrestrial rabbits that were the target of a lot of flak coming from gaming aficionados scattered around the world. No, this was a story that was too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
Yet, for once, it should have, because a few months after the rumors started circulating in late 2016, Nintendo would announce Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle with all the fanfare of a major release. And proving that gamers, like most human beings, are quite prone to jumping to conclusions too quickly, the title was very far from the disaster many claimed it would turn out to be in the very small chance that the project actually existed. Helmed by Davide Soliani, an Ubisoft designer who had the guts to walk into Nintendo’s office to pitch the insane concept, the game attracted many not just because of its level of polish, but also due to its intriguing gameplay, as it chose to bring the Mushroom Kingdom gang into the realm of turn-based strategy by giving characters from the Mario universe weapons so they could shoot down their foes.
To say the product was a success might be underselling its impact: reviewers loved it; players praised it for its originality; and, in what was quite an achievement for a game from such a niche genre, more than seven million copies flew off the shelves. At that point, what was once supposed to either be a stupid rumor or a despised project had become a bona fide hit, to the degree that a sequel was not a possibility, but a probability, and five years later the arrival of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope confirms that the unlikely match might be joining other long-running spin-off franchises starring the plumber.
Here, the adventure seems to begin soon after the mess of the first game is cleaned up. The Rabbids, who had been thrown into the Mushroom Kingdom via an interdimensional vortex, are no longer corrupted and many of them peacefully live within the grounds of Peach’s Castle. The tranquility, though, does not last very long, because four Sparks – creatures which are a previously unseen mixture of Rabbids with the Lumas of Super Mario Galaxy – appear as they flee from a giant manta ray that oozes a dark substance. The heroes jump in to help and succeed initially, but then an even larger enemy appears in the shape of an enormous hooded figure. Unable to stop its attack, Mario and his peers seem doomed but they are saved by the arrival of a ship. In it, they get a summary of the situation. The entity that almost overwhelmed them is named Cursa, and although her origins are unknown, one matter is certain: she is spreading darkness across the galaxy, having possibly attacked even Rosalina’s Comet Observatory in the process. Needless to say, the gang vows to reach the enemy’s lair and clean the mess along the way.
As it happened in the original, it is not exactly a brilliant setup; it just serves the purpose of getting it all started. But given Mario + Rabbids is a franchise that flirts with some RPG elements, Ubisoft does try its hand at giving more muscle to the narrative. Each of the five planets that are visited by the party has its own backstory, which is in turn somehow related to its current troubles; moreover, the central plot itself gains further development as the finish line approaches. In a way, it is a strategy that is not too different from the one adopted by other Mario games that touch upon the RPG genre. However, it has to be said that Sparks of Hope does not quite hit the high writing marks of Super Mario RPG, Mario & Luigi, and – especially – Paper Mario. The individual stories of the planets are nice, but not remarkable; and the same applies to the overarching script. Moreover, the game’s absurd humor simply does not land all that well.
In gameplay, however, Sparks of Hope shines rather brightly. On that front, the title can be divided into two general areas: exploration and battling. And it is in the former that players who are familiar with the prequel will feel the biggest degree of change. In Kingdom Battle, complaints that the exploration felt undercooked and tacked-on were not uncommon, and the reason for that stemmed from how the arenas where battles happened were an integral part of the worlds. Due to that, instead of being free to craft genuinely interesting environments, designers had to worry about interspersing landscapes made for turn-based shooting with environments that featured exploration conundrums. It goes without saying that the result came off as the stitching together of two parts that neither gel nor benefit one another.
In Sparks of Hope, that problem is solved by having battles take place in an alternate dimension, as Mario and his crew will be pulled into the masses of darkness that mark the points where combats take place. Consequently, developers were able to focus their energy on creating areas that are fun to explore. This results in a pair of positive traits. Firstly, the varied environments are a sight to behold; one that is perhaps made even more gorgeous by a lush orchestrated soundtrack written by legendary composers Yoko Shimomura and Grant Kirkhope. Each planet is thematically unique and built within enclosed an landscape that somewhat recalls the detailed graphical work that went into the worlds of 3-D platformers from the past, as they posses – in a limited space – notable geographical features, hidden corners, and sub-areas, which are all given their own unique visual touches. Secondly, and walking hand-in-hand with those structural qualities, the worlds offer a great blend of openness, restrictions, and secrets.
Because, yes, all planets have a critical path that has the heroes encountering spots covered in darkness, going into them to do battle, and opening the way to a major goal. But there is far more to the experience than that. For starters, the main goal of all planets usually involves going into an indoors structure that at times feels like part The Legend of Zelda dungeon and part classic RPG cave; on the second world, for instance, that place is an abandoned mansion in which players must navigate an enemy-infested maze as well as corridors with fake doors in order to advance to the next battle. This alone makes the exploration component of Sparks of Hope stand on a whole new level in comparison to the one of its predecessor, as the term full-fledged can be used to describe it without any caveats.
Additionally, the extra content becomes far more meaningful. Each world has literally more than a dozen sidequests involving optional battles, with some of them forcing players to use specific combinations of characters; puzzle rooms; collection missions; the elimination of a certain number of enemies that freely roam specific areas of the planet; and even optional bosses that easily rank as the toughest baddies in the game. All in all, when they come together, these pieces turn the exploration side of Sparks of Hope into a true adventure game, and they also open the way to significantly increase the amount of content the title carries, for while simply tackling the main quest should take about twenty hours, aiming for full completion should at least double that time.
As meaningful as the exploration may be this time around, though, battles still rule the day in this second installment of Mario + Rabbids. After all, this remains at heart a franchise of tactical turn-based combat. The basic premise is the same: players, usually limited to three characters of their choice, and the CPU will take turns moving their pieces in the arena while trying to simultaneously stay protected behind the various destructible covers scattered around the place and looking for the best angle to gun the enemy down. As a whole, a couple of rules tower over the proceedings. To begin with, all characters can only perform two skill-related actions per turn; as such, if Mario takes a shot and consumes an item, he will not be able to use any of his secondary abilities. Furthermore, after blasting away with their main weapon, heroes cannot be moved anymore during that turn.
It is basic enough for anyone to grasp, and the game welcomes all sorts of audiences by offering three levels of difficulty that can be changed on the fly. However, it nearly goes without saying, there are a lot of moving variables below the surface, forcing players to think strategically, to make critical choices, and to wisely customize their team’s members. And although deeply considering some of these elements may not be necessary in the easy and normal difficulties, especially early on and for veteran gamers, both hard mode and the second half of the quest should frequently push all kinds of players into very accurate calculations.
The first of those variables is movement, and here its importance as well as power seem mightier than ever. Sure, Kingdom Battle already did wonders in that regard: players could deal minor damage to foes by performing dashes, a blow that does not count towards the two-action limitation of every turn; they could get two characters into the same square and have one launch the other high into the air via a Team Jump, hence allowing the propelled party member to reach locations much further away from their original area of action; and they could travel through pipes, drop down from ledges, and trigger jump pads to surprise the enemy. Yet, Sparks of Hope ups the ante by implementing a major shift: it looks away from grid-based arenas and embraces full free movement.
It might sound like not that big of a deal, because ultimately, what happens is that instead of being limited to moving through a certain number of squares per turn, characters are now chained to a circle whose radius is determined by their stats. But the novelty goes beyond it, because by taking advantage of the total liberty within the circle, players can wreak havoc on the enemy or execute clever maneuvers. They can, for example, dash an enemy to deal minor damage; get close to another to unleash a special skill, like summoning a meteor shower; then enter a pipe, meet a fellow hero, execute a Team Jump to reach a high ledge, find cover, and then snipe another unsuspecting foe; all of that within the turn of a single character. Needless to say, other possible combinations exist, and by using them – be it when they are absolutely necessary or when they are simply one option among many – players will unlock a special kind of creative satisfaction.
A massive part of the strategic component also stems from actions that leak out of the battlefield. The most obvious of the bunch is party composition. In total, as they navigate through the quest of Sparks of Hope, players will acquire a whopping nine party members; and, with a few exceptions, most battles will mandate that three of them be brought into the fray. As such, from the get go, an analysis has to be made regarding what type of challenge the battlefield presents and what characters are better suited to overcome it, because the options are quite varied. And even if some players are likely to settle on a specific combination of heroes that they will ride with until the end, not only is there plenty of fun to be found in experimentation, there are also some notable battles along the way that will ask – either in mandatory fashion or in strategic quirks – for specific skills.
Mario, for instance, is the standard all-around character, with a main weapon that is not too strong but that delivers two shots that can be aimed at different targets. Peach uses her umbrella to attack, scattering bullets that cover a very wide area, but her main trait lies in her secondary ability, which shields her and anyone standing nearby from a specific number of shots in a turn. Luigi is sniper that hits harder the further away he is from his victim, Bowser likes explosives, Rabbid Peach excels as a healer, Rabbid Mario is an offensive beast, Rabbid Luigi employs a frisbee that has the ability to bounce on multiple enemies, Rabbid Rosalina can use her nonchalance to make foes lose interest in attacking, and newcomer Edge has a blade that packs quite a punch. Those are just a few of the cast’s defining traits, but they are already enough to show strategic alternatives are not lacking.
Individually, there is also some customization involved with the party members themselves. In traditional RPG fashion, each hero has their own skill tree, with one point to be spent being gained for every level that is earned. By using it, players can enhance stats such as health, attack, and movement range; improve certain aspects of the character’s weapons and skills, such as reducing the number of cooldown turns for certain abilities; increase the amount of Team Jumps or dashes the hero can use in a turn; and more. Sadly, however, on what qualifies as a step-down from what Kingdom Battle offered, there are two key aspects of every character that cannot be changed: their primary and secondary weapons. In Kingdom Battle, there were limitations; Mario, for example, needed to have a Blaster as his main gun and a melee tool as his peripheral attack, but one was free to pick which ones they would be. Here, however, these are locked in place: Peach will always use her umbrella and her shielding skill; Luigi will invariably employ his sniper bow and his Hero Sight ability, which will let him shoot anyone that moves inside his field of vision; and so forth.
The game counters those chains with the titular Sparks. In total, there are thirty of these Rabbid and Luma hybrids to be saved from darkness, with many of them being tied to sidequests, and each one comes with a passive and an active skill, which can be made more powerful since the creatures themselves can be leveled up if fed with enough Star Bits. All in all, Sparks are a relatively varied bunch. There are those that provide immunity to certain negative elemental statuses while, when being triggered, imbuing the character’s main weapon with that same element; there are those that summon enemies to fight alongside players; some conjure storms that affect specific areas; and others provide some healing, generate protective shields, and more. Every character can equip two Sparks, meaning that besides having twice as many skills as they did in Kingdom Battle, half of each hero’s arsenal is completely customizable. As such, even if one might fairly complain about weapons being locked, it is hard to say Sparks of Hope tones down the customization department.
Given this is a tactical game, these pieces involved in battling would, of course, not amount to much if combats themselves lacked the sharpness in design to create intriguing scenarios. Fortunately, though, in this regard, Sparks of Hope hits the mark, despite a few stumbles. Particularly along the critical path, battles tend to be excellent. There is plenty of enemy variety, and the cast is augmented as players move to new planets. Battle goals also differ quite a bit, with Sparks of Hope bringing back established objectives such as killing enemies (be all of them, those of a certain type, or a specified amount), surviving for a set number of turns, beating a boss, or reaching a specific area, while adding a few new twists of its own, like using bombs to destroy gates, protecting targets, and blowing up objects. And in many of these cases, the design of the arenas can be downright brilliant.
However, especially when the battles involved in sidequests are brought to the table, some fatigue is visible. There are indeed optional encounters that are true gems, especially those that involve using a specific pairing of characters, which can be very brutal challenges. Yet, given Sparks of Hope has so many combats, far more than Kingdom Battle ever hoped to contain, the feeling some of these arenas were not as carefully put together as they should have been is nigh impossible to avoid. Because rather than coming off like unique settings, they may emerge like quickly arranged combinations of foes, covers, ledges, and pipes. Nowhere is this notion more evident than in the battles that are triggered by foes that roam the overworld. Although these are optional, allowing players to flee without any cost before the battle begins, they are both part of some sidequests and an annoyance to deal with while one is out exploring certain areas, raising the question of whether they should be there in the first place.
Still, even if it falters in tone, suffers in plot, and punctually loses itself in putting quantity above quality in battles, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a worthy sequel to one of the Nintendo Switch’s most unexpectedly engaging titles. And it would not be exaggerated to claim it surpasses the original in pretty much every regard. The exploration that felt tacked on is now complete as well as fulfilling; the world is a sight to behold; the music is lushly enchanting; the scope of the quest feels absolutely huge, with a meaty critical path of epic proportions and optional content that occasionally falters but that ultimately delivers more often than it does not; the role-playing elements power an incredible degree of customization; and its battle system remains an interesting mixture of strategic thinking and movement-based antics that are extremely satisfying to pull off. Given all of that, this crazy pet project of Davide Soliani once again proves again that courage and absurd ideas have a place in mainstream gaming; and though projects of the kind may be doubted or mocked at first, if love and competence join forces to make them materialize in style, audiences are sure to give in and happily flock to these games.