Everyone's always telling you to think outside the box, but it turns out that Ubisoft really took that to heart for Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope by ditching the grid system entirely. And oh my, what a revelation it is. Allowing characters to move freely within a set area might seem simple enough on paper, but in reality it completely changes the way this sequel to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle plays out.
Release date: October 20, 2022
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer / Publisher: Ubisoft
"Freedom" is the best word to describe the way Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope plays, because that's the sentiment at the core of everything it's doing to be a true iteration of the original title. There's freedom to move around its combat areas, freedom to explore the world, freedom to mix and match the titular Sparks with a roster of new and returning characters, and freedom to battle at whatever skill level you want to.
It's a marvel really, how much Sparks of Hope switches up the brilliant gameplay that Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle introduced us to back in 2017. This was a crossover that no-one expected, after all, but it's seriously awesome to see it flourish into a strategy series to take note of. Because, despite the cutesy and goofy presentation, this can be a serious turn-based strategy game if you want it to be.
I played Sparks of Hope through on 'average' difficulty, and it regularly presented me with battles that really tested my capabilities, or forced me to go away and level up my team a little more before returning. There's a 'demanding' mode above that, and a 'relaxing' mode that dials down the threat and complexity for those looking for more of a story-based experience. But, head into the settings, and there are further options too, like unique dials for the enemy threat level and even an invincibility mode if you really want to avoid any danger. It's fantastic for inclusivity and ensures this is a title that can be a strategy game for any kind of player, which is really refreshing.
Wild and free
For me though, I relished the challenge, and all of the tools that Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope equipped me with to tackle them. As I mentioned, the removal of the grid in battles is an actual game-changer (as loathe as I am to actually use that phrase). There are still movement constraints, with each of your characters having a certain area that they can move within each turn. But they're free to move within that until the point they use their main weapon – and the size and scope of these areas can also be upgraded using the skill points you earn every time you level up.
What that means is there's a lot of room for fine-tuning the position of each hero before the enemy's turn. Characters can still utilize the Team Jump ability from the original game – where they use another character to propel themselves into the air to reach further areas of the map – so that can be used strategically to get your hero into a better spot, or closer to a goal within a single turn.
Positioning is key in Sparks of Hope, because while your heroes have increased freedom, the same goes for your enemies too. That makes battles unpredictable – sometimes frustratingly so – but the brilliance of the Mario + Rabbids approach is that you can restart a battle with no penalty, with any items you've used refunded. It's another string to its accessibility bow, and also means if you make a mistake or realize halfway through that a particular hero would be better for any given battle, you can do that.
But, the grid's disappearance is just the first major change. There are also the action points, which allow your character to do two things per turn. That might be using their weapon, or a unique special ability, but it could also see them use an item like a Mushroom for health, or a POW block to deal additional damage to any nearby enemies. Or, you could utilize the power of the titular Sparks, which essentially give your character elemental powers like shock or splash damage, or even unleash multiple blasts of green goo (my personal favorite). Enemies may have a weakness or resistance to particular elements, which adds yet another layer of depth to Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope's strategic action.
Before each battle, you can use the little flying robot Beep-O and its tacticam to survey an arena and the enemies you'll face within it, including details on their strengths and weaknesses. This gives you an opportunity to properly prepare, and equip the correct Sparks to the best hero ahead of each battle. I still found myself having a trio of favorite fighters, but some levels do force you to use specific heroes, which is a nice way to ensure you are seeing the full range of characters.
Each hero can be upgraded too – as with the original game – which might give them boosts to damage, special abilities, or let them chain dashes (the melee attack you get that doesn't cost an action point and can regularly make or break a match). The level of control and different options you have for tackling a battle is pretty broad here, and a real evolution over the original game.
Super Mario World
That sense of evolution extends beyond the battles too. While the original game was pretty linear, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is spread across different planets, each with their own unique theme and side activities to complete. This is much more of a Super Mario game in that sense, as there's just as much emphasis on being able to enjoy exploring as there is on battling. Whether it's helping collect some rogue baby penguins, running to collect red coins before a timer expires, or solving environmental puzzles, there's so much to do in this game. It's also beautiful, with crisp, colorful visuals, and brilliant little Rabbid dioramas adding extra flavor to each explorable space.
Access to each of the worlds is a little story-gated, with some areas only opening up after you've done the related story quest, but it means the side content is metered out nicely to help ensure you've got things to do outside of battles at all times. And doing these other missions will get you new Sparks, additional items, or just a fun little story so there are many incentives to get exploring.
In fact, the only thing that's holding back Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope from getting the full five stars is that the third world is quite the difficulty spike – and that's despite doing every side quest from the first two worlds to ensure I was at maximum level before moving on. Plus, as battle arenas get more complicated in terms of goals and mechanics, some elements could benefit from further tutorials – particularly when so much else in the game is made to feel as accessible as possible.
Overall, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is brilliant, silly, and really strategic (if you want it to be). Battles are complex, rewarding, and regularly very clever, which allows Mario + Rabbids to continue holding its own amongst the best strategy games out there. And with a whole host of post-launch content already confirmed, including our old pal Rayman, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope clearly has a bright future ahead.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch OLED with a code provided by the publisher.