Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. Just let that sit for a second. A sequel to what is surely one of the most incongruous video game collaborations of all time – one that, in early 2017, would have made little sense. Sure, these were two popular video game series in their own right, with each spawning a myriad of off-shoot media franchises in the form of film, comics, merchandise, and more since their inception. But a crossover? Surely not. That'd have made as much sense as, I dunno, Sonic + Silent Hill, or Dark Souls + FIFA. And then, on-stage at E3 2017, Ubisoft's co-founder and CEO, Yves Guillemot, was joined by Nintendo's top man, Shigeru Miyamoto, as the pair unveiled Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Even more confusing was the fact that this was, somehow, a strategy game in the same vein as XCOM.
And not just that. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was a pretty bloody hardcore turn-based tactics affair, which, despite its whimsical characters and gorgeous cartoon-like aesthetic, could challenge even the most resolute of genre fans. Positioning such a game couldn't have been easy. But, fast forward five years, and just about everyone with even a vague interest in this style of game knows exactly what to expect. Mario + Rabbids is no longer an unknown entity, which brings new challenges to creating and pitching Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope to prospective players.
"The first game was definitely a gamble," says associate producer Cristina Nava. "But after a year of playing, after we released the Donkey Kong Adventure DLC in the summer of 2018, we realised people were enjoying the experiment. We asked: can we stop there? And the answer was no. Of course not!"
Kill the rabbid
At first glance, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope looks every bit a Nintendo game. Like its forerunner, the series' next venture is colourful, vibrant, and brimming with ill-proportioned characters with big eyes and bigger smiles. If you didn't know better, you might approach its 3D world with the same casual mindset reserved for the Switch's straight-shooting platformers, simply because it looks like Super Mario Odyssey and its ilk. You'd do so at your peril, of course – but whereas a significant part of Kingdom Battle's purview was convincing players why its unlikely leap into strategy was a worthwhile one, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is more focused on balance, welcoming strategy veterans and first-timers alike.
"Sparks of Hope is, indeed, a tactical strategy game with combat. We know that the genre commands a more niche audience, but we wanted to make it as open as possible," explains Nava. "Here, what we wanted to do was make the tactical part of it even easier to grasp. The appeal for the hardcore gamers and the tactical genre enthusiasts, that's still there; the combat is still deep and layered, if you want to experiment. But we've also removed the grid when players are planning their attacks. There's real-time movement too, so there's a broader appeal for experts and beginners – we've tried to appeal to an even wider audience this time around."
By removing grids from its turn-based attacks – grids being a near-universal feature of the genre – Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is exploring new ground. Movement is still restricted to zones, in order to keep things fair (and to prevent the game from straying too far into real-time strategy territory), but the hands-off footage I was shown suggests that the ability to freely move in an allotted space means battles will be even more fluid than its predecessor.
Between fights, exploration is once more an integral part of the Mario + Rabbids experience, with Sparks of Hope's game world bigger than anything that's come before. One particularly popular feature of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was the ability to retrace your steps in the game world, in turn unlocking new abilities and perks. That's one element Ubisoft is building on for the sequel.
"Sparks of Hope is a combat game, but it's also a tactical adventure," Nava adds. "So the adventure part is indeed exploration – the other pillar of our game. We expanded the gameplay in exploration. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle's worlds were like corridors in many ways, they were very linear – in structure but also in progression terms and the story. Here, we're being much more ambitious. You can tackle challenges, battles, and the main quest in the order you see fit. There really is an open world to explore here in Sparks of Hope."
New faces, new places
Like the once seemingly incongruous partnership of Mario and Rabbids itself, Bowser joins forces with Mario and his pals in Sparks of Hope. As revealed at yesterday's Nintendo Direct, the Italian plumber's arch nemesis has had his army stolen from under his nose while the world has turned to ruins under a curse, and his only means of reuniting the troops is by temporarily siding with the good guys. In practice, this adds a whole new dynamic to battles, with King Koopa offering a healthy dose of brute force and tank-like power to each turn-based offence. Again, all of this is designed to entice both masters of Mario + Rabbids and newbies. To the latter grouping, Nava says: "If you want it to, the game will take you by the hand, meaning you'll never be left alone, not knowing what to do or where to go. The best advice for newcomers is to enjoy the story, enjoy the humour, and when it comes to battles, you don't need to rush because there is no pressure."
Nava says that players should lean on the game's aerial view of the battlefield ahead of combat set-pieces, in order to plan their moves as best they can ahead of time – but equally stresses the importance of experimenting on the fly and in the moment. This, so says Nava, is the best way to learn and improve your skills in combat.
She adds: "You can choose your heroes to play to your strengths too, and so you can counterbalance the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies. With the real time movement, you can experiment. You can try the best cover out in one round, and if that doesn't work for you, you can try flanking your enemies, get in close and use your abilities and techniques, or choose another hero to move."
"So, really the best advice is, take your time, don't be don't be stressed by the fact that it is a tactical strategy game because it's really really easy to grasp. If you want to rush, you can rush. If you want to take your time, you can."
If Kingdom Battle laid the foundations for a successful Mario + Rabbids crossover in the turn-based strategy space, it's the 2018 Donkey Kong Adventure DLC which cemented the title's place as a genre heavyweight. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope looks more than ready to carry the torch forward – but Nava is very clear that those who think they're familiar with the formula by now should not get complacent. "You think you know Mario + Rabbids? You think you know, but we have new gameplay mechanics and abilities, and we have the Sparks. These are a real game-changer, because they're not only in the title, but they will save the world from the curse that's overcome it. The Sparks provide the heroes with special powers, and can be equipped in any configuration – no Spark belongs to a single hero."
With that, players can have Mario shooting fireballs, flanked by a lightning bolt-blasting Luigi. Princess Peach might anchor the squad with an area-of-effect healing spell, while Bowser might be up top cracking skulls in close-quarters combat. How you combine and mix and match Sparks to suit your playstyle is totally up to you, and the scope for variety and changing things up in real-time seems huge.
To this end, Nava adds: "So imagine that you're using a hero, who is not the best in defensive stats and power. But with a 'Black' Spark, for example, as you might have seen in the trailer, it can deploy three shields as an Exosphere. Even with characters you'd never associate with defence, they can use Sparks to help you out. For example, you can pair it with Bowser who, as a companion using Exosphere, can trigger an area of effect defence spell for everyone else in the team, including himself. This is exactly what we mean about experimenting and the value of trying things out on the battlefield."
And with all of that, Mario + Rabbits Sparks of Hope is firmly on my radar. Given the popularity of its forerunner and its DLC, Sparks of Hope would surely have succeeded with more of the same – but the fact that it's pushing the boundaries of the genre, and its unorthodox collaboration, even further than anything before makes it deserving of the plaudits I'm certain it'll receive. The mix-and-match, BioShock plasmids-eque Sparks sound like great fun in battle, and free movement without grids is a bold move for any turn-based strategy game. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is due on October 20, 2022. I'm excited, and I think you should be too.
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