If Rabbid Peach took the internet by storm back in 2017, then our collective digital consciousness may well just implode with the news of Rabbid Rosalina. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is arriving as the second entry in the unlikely, but ravingly successful, Rabbids x Super Mario crossover series, where both Nintendo and Ubisoft's iconic mascots enter top-down tactical warfare. Building on the gameplay experience offered with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, the new title, Sparks of Hope, is doing things a little differently.
Faced with a villain called Cursa, who's looking to absorb all the energy of the universe, our beloved heroes are forced to go on a bigger journey than before, moving out of the Mushroom Kingdom to explore - and protect - the Mario + Rabbids universe on a galactic scale. But, along with the greater scale and scope of the game's locations, Sparks of Hope aims to give players a lot more freedom and control in how they approach both combat and exploration.
"We did not design the game just as a sequel, but we wanted to embark on a new journey; a new take on the tactical genre," explains creative director, Davide Soliani. "So in this game, we are aspiring to push the tactical boundaries even more to provide a renewed combat experience to players."
Off the grid
The original game featured a common element of many a turn-based strategy title - a grid system. This allowed our Mario + Rabbids heroes to move from tile to tile, and use the grids to see not only the impact of their attacks but how best to defend too. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is completely removing that grid, however, building on the design choices it made in Kingdom Battle's Donkey Kong Adventure DLC to give players more control on the battlefield.
"With the DLC Donkey Kong Adventure, we were changing quite a lot of stuff on the structure. And we were adding Donkey Kong going all over the place, grabbing the heroes, throwing them. So we are continuing [that evolution]," adds Soliani.
Although Sparks of Hope is allowing you to control each of the three heroes you have in play directly, all of them will still have a defined area of movement to operate in. None of the tactical planning, or turn-based systems have been removed, the Ubisoft Paris and Ubisoft Milan teams just want to give you more control - and have a little more fun too. You'll still be able to preview the moves within your turn, too, but your enemies and allies' reactions start playing out from the moment you begin moving or making plans for a hero.
"You see the enemies reacting in fear if you are attacking them, or you see your teammates being super happy if you're buffing them. We were loving the idea of transforming this game, almost into a cartoon, with the amount of animation that we are putting into this game," says Soliani.
Sparks of Hope also involves new mechanics, like the introduction of Super Mario Bob-ombs to the battlefield - now red-eyed and corrupted thanks to Cursa's antics.
"We started to add a lot of new elements linked to this real-time aspect," adds lead producer, Xavier Manzanares. "Because you can move in this area of movement the way you want, you can dash a Bom-omb, then you have it in your hand. You can move around as you want, but then it's going to explode. So you have a few seconds to react, which is completely different from what we had in the past. And so it brings this real-time element to the mix. So it's changing a lot, the way you play and the strategy."
"I do believe that it's making the whole combat system more swift and more dynamic. It's also opening a new tactical experience for our players. So that was our first aim when we decided to embark on Spark of Hope - to bring something new to the combat system."
Spark of creativity
But the new tactics don't stop there, because the titular Sparks will also add another level of spectacle and drama to the combat too. These are a new addition to the game, and a fusion of the Luma first introduced in Super Mario Galaxy, and the Rabbids themselves. Like the game's new galactic scale, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope takes a lot of its new additions from the Super Mario Galaxy world, for what I'm sure will be a whole host of new Easter eggs and discoveries for Mario fans.
Although Soliana says "it's a bit too early to speak about what exactly the Sparks will be doing", the game's reveal showcased Mario using the Spark to cause chaos on the battlefield. Apparently, they'll be incredibly useful against some of the larger enemies, helping to change the tide of battle in a pinch. "The Sparks are fragile creatures," says Soliani, "but they also have enormous power. And this power lands in the hands of our heroes. It's what they'll need to save the entire galaxy."
In between saving the galaxy (again), you're also going to want to explore it, as Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is evolving its overworld design, too. As we're talking about an interplanetary crisis with this new title, Ubisoft is again giving you more ways to navigate it, allowing you to move freely on each planet - rather than the restrictive pathways of the original game. Helped by the fact the development team is now triple that of Kingdom Battle, you'll discover that each planet has more to discover beyond battle - although these now happen more organically, with you teleported to the combat arena when attacked by an enemy in the open exploration sections, Pokemon battle style. You'll also be able to discover hidden puzzles, "crazy Rabbid elements", various mysteries, and additional characters and allies as you move around each planet.
"For us, in the past with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, we were thinking really in classical terms. Our beats could mess up with the classic [Mario] scenarios - lava, a desert area… This time, for us, it was very important to think about the message. What are the topics that we do really care about in life, and bring them in the game - and then working from the point of view of the Rabbids," explains Soliani.
"We have a lot of planets," adds Manzanares. "We won't spoil the amount… but we went crazy over the amount of different environments, and what happens on each planet - could be on the narrative side, or with the different puzzles or mysteries that you have in exploration, or even the type of enemies and what they do."
Thankfully this new space opera-style focus has also meant new faces and heroes can be added. Still, I have a feeling that Rabbid Rosalina is inevitably going to steal the show. According to Soliani, this is the type of character he's "always dreamed about" creating; she's lazy, bored, and just so over this universal drama thing. He also teases that she's a dreamer, and that plays a part in the game's story.
"That she would risk stealing the spotlight from Rabbid Peach… well, Rabbid Peach won't be happy about that," laughs Soliani.
Even so, Rabbid Rosalina is ready for battle, equipped with her own unique weapon - a blaster plushie. Yes, a weaponised teddy bear is coming to Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, and that probably tells you more than enough about what this game is all about.