2017's Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proved naysayers wrong by offering a well-crafted tactics game that successfully blends two very disparate franchises. Its sequel, Sparks of Hope, now must live up to fan excitement rather than dispel their doubt. Ubisoft Milan accomplishes this feat by returning to the drawing board, reworking its template, and creating a more streamlined, dynamic experience that maintains strategic depth. The core combat remains strong, but Ubisoft fleshed out the rest of the offerings to create a more wholly engaging package.
Sparks of Hope plays identically to the last game; you’ll engage in tactical turn-based battles as a squad of Mario icons and their Rabbid doppelgängers. However, the grid-based movement is gone. Instead, you freely move your three-member team as you would in a standard third-person game. The game still restricts you to a character’s movement range, but positioning feels more natural and kinetic, expanding your offensive flexibility.
An optimal turn using a single hero often looks like this: I sprint toward a foe and slide into them for damage. I then retreat to a nearby ally to perform a team jump launching me airborne. I hover to a higher vantage point, activate a hero action such as Peach’s damage-negating shield, and move again. After finding new cover, I use my primary attack to blast another enemy before I’m finally forced to end my turn. I love how the looser framework allows me to squeeze more actions from a turn, and combat feels more exciting as a result. Chaining moves, such as launching targets into the range of, say, Mario’s automatic counterattack, adds to this satisfaction.
The plethora of colorful stages sometimes incorporates real-time elements that put this freedom to good use. One winter stage features timed wind gusts that blow players off the course. I avoid this by simply running past at the right times rather than adhering to a rigid turn order. One enemy explodes when killed, so I quickly flee its blast radius, again in real-time. Sparks of Hope also mixes up its objectives often enough to keep the action from getting too stagnant. I enjoy battling a giant rampaging Wiggler aboard a moving train or shattering dams with bombs to restore a region’s water flow.
A decently varied enemy roster and elaborate arenas mean battles remain thoughtful affairs where your positioning and offensive order of operations matter. Sparks of Hope offers enough challenge that poor planning can lead to a punishing team wipe. This time, however, you have the help of Sparks: hybrids of Rabbids and Super Mario Galaxy’s Lumas. Equipping these critters to heroes bestows a wide range of powers and perks, such as adding elemental traits to their attacks (like fire and ice). Other Sparks disrupt enemy formations by repelling or attracting foes. One of my favorites temporarily renders a character invisible. The most powerful Sparks unleash wide-reaching assaults, such as a fiery meteor shower. Feeding star bits to Sparks levels them up, letting you improve the capabilities of your favorites.
Since each hero can carry two Sparks, they feel more versatile as individuals resulting in more well-rounded teams. I love that I can have Rabbid Luigi handle foes weakened by shock and frost attacks on his own. I appreciate how enemy vulnerabilities forced me to constantly switch Sparks and prevent me from sticking with the same loadout or team out of complacency.
It’s also great that party building allows for any combination of heroes, ditching Kingdom Battle’s restriction of only using Mario and at least one Rabbid. Since heroes have inherent specialties – Luigi is a long-ranged sniper, Rabbid Peach serves as a healer, and Rabbid Mario doles up-close physical damage, for example – assembling squads feels more interesting since I can mix things up better. Heroes also have skill trees, which largely improve or enhance existing moves, that you can respec anytime, granting additional flexibility in what talents they bring to each fight.
Three newcomers join the fray: Bowser, Rabbid Rosalina, and Edge, a mysterious tough-as-nails Rabbid. They feel like good additions for the most part. Edge is my favorite, thanks to the high damage she deals by hurling her whirling blade to eviscerate lines of targets. Bowser and his Bow-zooka rocket launcher make him a punishing tank that can obliterate groups and cover terrain. Rabbid Rosalina’s lackadaisical personality is amusing, but I often struggle to find a spot for her. She conjures debilitating effects that hinder or outright stop foes in their tracks, but her machine-gun-like doll doesn’t feel like it satisfies a particular need.
Expanded overworld exploration adds more engagement outside the battlefield. Multiple themed planets, such as a tropical beach or a mechanic’s junkyard, are packed with sidequests, puzzles, and secrets. I like that I’m not required to complete quests to progress. You’re free to mainline the sizable critical path, and you’ll largely remain appropriately leveled. But if you do, you’ll miss out on earning planet coins (native currency unlocking special keys, weapon skins, and more), useful combat items like POW blocks, and more Sparks. Tasks include helping a DJ find his missing records, solving a series of entertaining riddles for an enthusiastic explorer, or chasing and catching fish in a timed minigame. These missions aren’t the deepest, and I wish some had more variety; expect to fulfill the same “kill X-amount of X-enemy type” task on each world. But they’re enjoyable enough and can be welcome breaks from constant battling.
I have the most fun upgrading my robotic companion, Beep-0, with new abilities used to unlock inaccessible areas. Along the way, I acquired a sonic pulse to shatter weak walls and move blocks and a special light that exposes invisible paths and treasures. These abilities give Sparks of Hope’s worlds a light Metroid feel in that I regularly revisited destinations to unlock new zones. Solving environmental puzzles is also fun, offering adequate challenges without feeling tedious.
A charming though uneventful narrative about stopping a cosmic darkness from consuming the galaxy rounds out this delightful package. Like the best sequels, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope builds upon Kingdom Battle’s foundation with smart tweaks and fun additions to emerge as a better game in every way.