Mario + Rabbids was perhaps one of the most wonderful surprises in video games, rapidly swinging in public opinion from its pre-E3 leaks to its reveal, release, and DLC. The strange combination of Mario, Rabbids, and a tactics game became something that not only worked, but became the gateway for many to fall in love with tactics games in general. Which left Ubisoft with a daunting task in Sparks of Hope: How to surprise that audience for the second time? More of the same in Mario + Rabbids would have been nice, sure, but Kingdom Battle and its Donkey Kong DLC largely exhausted the possibilities of their respective tactical rule sets, while creating high expectations. It would take a tremendous bombshell in the formula to catch us off guard again.
After about four hours with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, I feel confident that Ubisoft has given it the dynamite it needed. In terms of exploration, Mario + Rabbids’ transformation from its previous linear world structure to more open, free-roaming levels was possibly the best decision the team could have made to make this feel like a meaningful update. You still have to progress through the story in a linear fashion, and finishing story missions is critical to unlocking certain areas. But Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to make each zone have a wonderfully open feel, packed with side quests, coins, treasure, and silly little Rabbid vignettes that make each zone highly entertaining.
The extra space has given them air to tell stories with NPCs and environments in a way the first couldn’t, like the small town besieged by darkness on the first planet or the labyrinthine snowy castle on the second. Also, the zones seem to be able to change over time – there was a concert on the beach on the first planet that I couldn’t attend due to the weather, but since the story quest seemed to point to the sun on the horizon, I imagine later on will open even more activities. Despite the generous amount of lead time I had with Sparks of Hope, I found it difficult to stay on task and accomplish the story missions given all there was to do – I was too busy shaking bushes to see what might drop. .
But even more important than the exploration, I was surprised how completely open Mario + Rabbids has become thanks to changes in how movement and combat work. The freedom of movement opens up a range of tactical possibilities, and for someone new to the genre, it has made it much easier for me to understand the possibilities on the battlefield each turn. I can move my characters anywhere in a field, and if their positions don’t suit me, I can move them somewhere else as long as they haven’t attacked yet.
But that is combined with other significant changes. Each character now has two “action points” to spend per turn on attacks, special moves, and item usage, meaning every combat situation has a ridiculous range of viable approaches. The most exciting novelty, by far, is the sparks. Status effects have disappeared, but have been replaced by items like fire, water, ice, and others, which are applied to opponents not shooting boxes on the battlefield (well, at least not in the the one I played), but by equipping Sparks to characters, two each, and using them as attacks in their own right or to spice up weapons and hits with elemental energy.
fights in history
The opponents now have weaknesses and resistances to be taken into account, while equipping Sparks will also grant your characters resistance to a specific elemental type. All of them are easily interchangeable at the start of each battle, and their impact on combat led me to spend significant time analyzing the battlefield and enemy types. I had to think really, really hard about who I was bringing with me and what sparks they had equipped – it’s much harder to fight your way through the story matches.
But it’s also… easier to do, but only if you want to, thanks to a couple of wonderful key changes. For one thing, there’s a difficulty selection that you can adjust at any time to toggle between Easy, Normal, and Hard battles if you want either extreme. Additionally, it is now much more possible to significantly upgrade Sparks of Hope. It’s not necessary, as far as I can tell, as I was able to beat all the fights in the preview version without doing anything extra. But if I had fought, I know I could have gone back, redo some story fights, fought some of the roaming enemies on the map again, or done more side quests to level up my party. That would have meant more health, more movement area, and other rewards that I could theoretically use to get through a fight that’s giving me trouble. All of this should be very welcome news, as both features broaden the range of people who can enjoy Sparks of Hope: it continues to welcome tactics novices even as it gets more complex, and true tactics connoisseurs can challenge yourself even more.
Nevertheless, the only change that still gives me doubts it is that of the Rabbids themselves: now they speak. Not just “bwah bwah bwah” or incoherent screams, but they now have fully written and coherent dialogue along with occasional voice acting. They talk more than Mario. I don’t know how I feel about it.
They also occasionally intersperse their actual lines with their more conventional expressions, the familiar “blehs” and “bwahs” and whatnot, adding to the dissonance as they speak full, grammatically correct sentences. The truth is that I have no idea if this will end up working in the final game.
But I still like the Rabbids, whether they talk or not. Ubisoft pulled off quite a feat by making these almost Minions-like creatures so lovable in Kingdom Battle, and that work has largely carried over to Sparks of Hope, both in its ridiculous lineup of Rabbids NPCs and its roster of Mario hopefuls. Most of the cast from the first game is available almost entirely from the start in Sparks of Hope, so there’s less time to get to know them if you’re not familiar with their personalities. However, the initial rush of Rabbids adds to the huge range of tactical combat on offer, and gives newer roster members like Edge and Rabbid Rosalina much more time to shine. And no one can take the limelight from Kingdom Battle favorites like prankster Rabbid Luigi or phone-obsessed Rabbid Peach, who has become a true deuteragonist alongside Mario himself.
One of the typical side effects of watching more than a few hours of something trailer is that when it finally comes out, I find myself running through the content I’ve already seen to get to the juicy new stuff beyond. I don’t feel that way one bit about Sparks of Hope, which is probably the highest compliment I can give him. In the interest of time, I’ve had to gloss over a lot of interesting little details in the demo that I wanted to explore. But the most important thing is that what I played was tremendously fun and so full of possibilities that I can’t wait to try it again, but with different characters and strategies. I can’t wait to see what chaos the Rabbids and I can cause next time.