Sparks of Hope, while a little slow to start off, is the definition of a good sequel (keeping the good stuff while making some welcome changes to the old formula). By adding layers of strategy it is sure to keep fans of the genre engaged and by including a multitude of difficulty toggles, even first-timers will be able to jump in and enjoy this entertaining turn-based tactics adventure gem.
The original Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle‘s success caught many of us by surprise. The first few teases of the game had people questioning why the much-loved Mario would team up with the often quite annoying and crude Rabbids. And then, when we found out the game would be a take on turn-based tactics and strategy where the bouncy plumber wouldn’t actually be able to jump, it was easy to feel sceptical. However, after that wonderous E3 2017 presentation that included Mr Shigeru Miyamoto’s seal of approval and the clear love that Creative Director Davide Soliani had for the Mario Universe, it quickly became clear that our initial impressions were wrong. After playing the game we soon realised why it worked. The Ubisoft team had really managed to make a game that not only felt, sounded and looked like a ‘Nintendo original’ but also re-introduced a genre that hadn’t been very popular for a while and brought it to a whole new audience. And best of all, it was really fun and engaging!
…the more time I spent travelling and battling across this new galaxy the more I enjoyed it.
Now a few years later, we return to the unlikely partnership of Mario and the Rabbids in Sparks of Hope. The development team now has an eager and excited audience and the good news is that the sequel takes much of what was good in the first game and makes it bigger and better; A larger map, a giant, quirky galaxy to explore and tweaks to the battle and weapon system which almost all come off. Best of all, it manages to successfully tread that line between welcoming new players and pleasing returning ones, giving experts an even more challenging & strategic adventure while still making this an accessible and enjoyable introduction for beginners. And I’m happy to report that the more time I spent travelling and battling across this new galaxy the more I enjoyed it.
Beware the dark side
Sparks of Hope takes place after the events of Kingdom Battle, and as you can probably tell from the marketing around Rabbid Rosalina and the introduction of Sparks (hybrids between Rabbids and Lumas), this time around the stakes are higher as events take place on a “galactic” level (Hello, Super Mario Galaxy!). The opening cinematic (which like all cutscenes across the game is absolutely gorgeous) and accompanying tutorial not only introduce us to the dark new terror sweeping across the land, Cursa, but also give us a taste of the beautifully animated characters and refreshed movement. In this tale, the ridiculously cute energy-producing Sparks are being chased around the galaxy by Cursa’s own Rabbid-posse and a selection of mind-controlled Mushroom Kingdom minions, and as they wreak havoc, pools of a shadowy, almost tar-like substance, darken and ravish the worlds they land on. It is of course up to Mario and the Rabbid gang to travel to several different planets, free the inhabitants and save the Sparks from this evil influence and ultimately take on Cursa herself.
The bumbling Roomba-like ‘Beep-O’ returns and this time around he is joined by his own creation; A smart, and quick quipping A.I. called Jeanie. This now fully voiced duo are your guides and narrators for the story. If you remember the beeps, whistles and screams from the first game, it is a little strange hearing Beep-O this time around, not to mention the occasional one or two words which the Rabbids themselves will blurt out, however, this is almost always done for comedic effect and while the Rabbid’s humour is definitely not always to my personal taste, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I giggled whenever Rabbid Mario was targetted by enemies and blurted out “Hey… Take it Easy!” in a heavy Brooklyn-Italian accent. In truth I kinda loved it… And that made battling and travelling to the different worlds with this wacky and talkative motley crew really quite fun.
I giggled whenever Rabbid Mario was targetted by enemies and blurted out “Hey… Take it Easy!” in a heavy Brooklyn-Italian accent.
This is the way
As hinted at in the description above, rather than exploring very linear connected areas like in the first game, this time around you basically travel from one planet to the next in a great little ship (which I am pretty sure is powered by a flux capacitor). Upon landing on a new world, you can explore in any direction, however, rather than Beep-O leading the charge, one of your team members does the pioneering. While I’m actually a fan of more linear video games and can sometimes be overwhelmed by vast open areas, I really liked this change because it felt a lot like Super Mario Odyssey or even Bowser’s Fury; The planets felt big enough that it still felt like you were forging your own path and even occasionally finding some fun hidden areas, but small enough that I could still keep my bearings. The battles, rather than being implemented within the areas themselves, can be triggered and then take place in their own arenas. So, this means you can walk up to a relevant spot on the map (like a black, gloopy Cursa-sloshed tree) and it will indicate whether this is a storyline main quest or one of a huge number of side quests. Having the option to choose what to do next is really great, and the only real complaint is that during exploration there are a few environmental-type puzzles that either felt a little too simple and therefore a little like a chore or on one occasion so obtuse that it took me twenty minutes to figure out what needed to be done. That being said, this was definitely the exception rather than the rule.
The open-world take may seem like a small refresh, but it does make everything seem much bigger and felt like it opened up options for players who like to play in different ways but couldn’t really do so in the first game. At any point, you can decide if you want to start a specific battle and keep the story moving, keep exploring somewhere else to level up your character or find some hidden artefact or even simply take in the world while running away from the occasional random encounter. While the diversity from planet to planet was not as varied as it is in a game like Odyssey (and the first few planets seem to lean a little too much on spooky tropes (a foggy forest, an isolated library at night, and abandoned mansion) each area still has enough of its own personality and, of course, one big, dominant feature: an ice world, a flower world, a world with a wiggler steam train – all your favourites make an appearance. And these differences were expertly highlighted by an enchantingly excellent orchestral soundtrack that formed the backdrop to each new area. And really my only complaint about the truly excellent music was that I wanted to hear more of it but because, unlike the first game, there isn’t a way to ‘collect’ the music and so I will have to wait for the release of the OST.
…an enchantingly excellent orchestral soundtrack formed the backdrop to each new area.
Use the Force
While the more open-world type of exploration is a new key feature in Sparks of Hope, a lot of work has also been done on how battles and team chemistry now work. The first and most obvious change is related to movement. Before, a very obvious grid-based system was used. Each character had a set number of blocks they could move along, and each battlefield was set out like a jumbo-sized chess board. This time around, rather than a set number of blocks, each character has a set area to move in. This really opens things up and makes movement feel freer, especially in battle zones with different heights and crannies. That being said, having jumped back into the original game, this change is more visual than one that really makes gameplay feel very different. However, what does change things up quite substantially (and I’m still not sure I prefer it) is that the order of actions has changed…
In every turn, you can move around freely within your set area, use a number of free actions like dashing into an enemy and use two action points. These action points can be used to play an item (a health mushroom, or a pow block that will explode nearby enemies), use a unique Hero or Spark power (which I will dive into shortly) or use a weapon attack. The catch is, the weapon attack now has to be used last. In Kingdom Battle you could use your weapon and then find cover within your remaining movement area. This time though, movement is more open, but as soon as your fire your weapon you are locked in place. I did find it a little limiting until I had gotten used to it and I think beginners will struggle with this quite a bit, at least initially. That being said it definitely encourages finding cover and more strategic play (which will be a plus for many). However, personally, it is the changes made to character classes and progression, and specifically the use of Sparks where this sequel really adds some really interesting and really enjoyable layers of strategy.
The catch is… the weapon attack now has to be used last.
We’re not alone. Good people will fight if we lead them
Rather than upgrading weapons, in Sparks of Hope, characters use only one weapon and fit a specific category; as an example Peach wields a shotgun like Umbrella and can use her Hero Ability to protect fellow team members, Rabbid Mario is all about damage at a very close range whereas Luigi is a sniper, thriving from further away. This may sound limiting, but instead, I found that it really encouraged me to select team members that matched the situation at hand – less powerful enemies that are close by (Mario Rabbid is your Guy), powerful enemies that linger in far away towers (Luigi I choose you!). And the game really encourages you to mix and match, allowing you to quickly check out the enemies before each battle, select the perfect 2/3/4 member team before each match-up and then offering a great XP Share for all characters whether they partook in the battle or not.
Also, instead of gaining a simple 3-star grade, winning battles will earn you Skill Prisms which can be used to upgrade Key Skills for each character based on a multi-tiered skill tree. On top of that, rather than the status effects of Kingdom Battle, now you can equip two Sparks for each character. Equipping a Spark not only gives that character a passive buff, but also a specific element-based ability (which can also be upgraded); Some Sparks will add fire to Mario’s Blasters, while others can enable Bowser to send gusts of win around the arena, blowing enemies off the battlefield. Each enemy also has a specific elemental weakness and strength. And so again, I really enjoyed spending time figuring out not only the perfect team makeup but also which Sparks to send with each character to take advantage of what was in store for us next.
…it’s a game that really tries to cater for a lot of tastes and really succeeds in almost everything it does.
As you can see, there are a lot of strategic layers to Sparks of Hope and it really is a feature that I’m sure fans of the genre will appreciate. That being said, I did find that at least early on it that learning all of this was a little bit of a slog and could be a little overwhelming especially when you have Starbits, Skill Prisms, XP and HP Levels, Sparks and Skill Trees with branches of Health, Movement, Weapons and Techniques all thrown at you at the same time. Thankfully, one of the features I was most impressed by was how much work has gone into making this game accessible. Not only can Skill Tree progression be made automatic, but there are a variety of difficulty options which not only balances general difficulty (easy, medium, hard), but also go a step further by providing even nuanced changes like altering how powerful enemy attacks are and how much health is restored after a completed battle. These options are changeable at any time (and I happily admit that I opted to lower difficulty in the latter parts of the game and kept having a tremendous amount of fun because of that). You can even decide to make your characters invulnerable – meaning young or really inexperienced players can look forward to enjoying the full story if the battles get too tough.
My only small, slightly negative comment on this part of the battle system, is that it really feels like the second half of the game is more enjoyable than the first. It’s not that the first part of the game isn’t good – the battles are just more generic. In the second half, a few more battle modes were introduced (like surviving a certain number of rounds – rather than defeating enemies) and the enemies themselves became a lot more diverse and challenging. I suspect this decision was made to keep things simple early on (and I can certainly understand that given my comments in the paragraph above). That being said, I really enjoyed the latter part of this game a lot, and just would hate to see anyone fall off of it before hitting those highs.
The most powerful character in the Mario universe?
A New Hope
As you can tell, I really enjoyed my time with Sparks Of Hope. Sure, it starts off a little slow and small issues like the repetitive spookiness in the early game, Rabbid humour and environmental puzzles may actually be a little less enjoyable than in the first game mean that it definitely won’t be for everyone – it’s a game that really tries to cater for a lot of tastes and really succeeds in almost everything it does. Sure, I would’ve loved a crazy musical number to top it all off like in the first game, however, some great music and funny writing, engaging gameplay and a range features that make this game accessible and enjoyable to almost everyone is special. Plus, I’m pretty sure it reveals who the most powerful character in the Mario Universe is – and that’s got to be worth something, right!? Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a simply great sequel and a welcome addition to the Switch’s library of fantastic games.
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