Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope Review
Looking back on 2017, it was a pretty fantastic year. We got the Switch, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 — a lot. But we knew all about them well in advance, and they weren’t a surprise.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was a surprise, however; Mario was in a game with another company mascot (that wasn’t Smash Bros). Mario in a game with guns. Mario in a strategy game with Rabbids – that’s the hand we were dealt, and it could have been so terrible… But it wasn’t. And Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t just interesting because it’s surprising, but because it was a lot of fun. Now, five years later, Mario and the Rabbids return in Sparks of Hope — and this time, we’re no longer surprised, so without the shock, can the sequel hope to stand out once again?
Sparks of Hope again takes place in a Mario and Rabbids smushed-together world where everything is just a little different. This time around, an evil-yet-somewhat-familiar enemy named Cursa wants to consume Sparks to take over the Galaxy. What are Sparks? They’re a mashup of Lumas from Super Mario Galaxy and Rabbids. Along with being excellent at feeding Cursa’s evil power, the sparks are used in battles to help Mario and his friends take on Cursa’s army.
All the gang from the original game are back, with one omission – both Yoshi and Rabbid Yoshi have been given the flick – but there are new characters to make up for it. Both Bowser and Rabbid Rosalina will eventually join the battle, and there’s also an entirely new character; Edge, a punk-inspired Rabbid, joins Mario and the team fairly early on and has some unique abilities. Actually, everyone’s abilities are unique, and combined with the Sparks can be mixed and matched even more.
Take Mario, for example; his main weapon can fire twice so that you can take out two targets. Luigi is a sharpshooter and best at ranged attacks. Bowser is damage-central, an offensive character, as you would expect. Edge’s sword, too, can hit multiple enemies in a row. Before I get to the Sparks, I need to talk about how the combat has changed. In the original game, each character moved on a grid. Wherever Beep-o was directed, they went. Now, you control the characters themselves, and they can move wherever they want in their range. This change makes battles more dynamic; take a character into the range of another, and you can dash into them for some damage, then fire off your weapon, or before that, use a Spark to power up.
The range of Sparks on offer means finding the ones that pair best with certain characters could take a little time. You’ll want to view the battlefield and examine the enemies. Find out what they’re weak to and what they’re resistant to. Different Sparks have not only different abilities but also different types. There are ones that zap and burn, ones that bounce and splash enemies around the field, and even more tricky ones that hide you from the enemy or boost stats. Sparks, like the characters themselves, can be upgraded by using Starbits. When upgrading a Spark not only is it better at what it does but, in some cases, it can be used more often. There are 30 Sparks in the game, you’ll have to play through the main quest and specific Spark Quests, and there are hitting secret zones on each world. There’s a lot to see and do sprinkled around!
In a few missions you do have to use a specific character, but most of the time it’s up to you to find the right combo. As well as upgrading Sparks, you can also upgrade your Heroes, and there’s a whole skill tree for each — plus Skill Prisms can be added to unlock better stats. I did look at this menu at the start, but it wasn’t until the end that I really needed it; the game could probably do without it but hey, if you like to get all micro-management on your strategy, go for it. You’ll want to use each character’s abilities to their full extent and the battlefield itself. Hiding behind cover gives you protection, but you can mix and match abilities to destroy the cover of enemies and snipe people from a distance. Once you get going, you’ll be using the Team Jump ability to move around the battlefield, dashing, then using your Sparks or main weapons to ensure you get the most out of each turn.
This time around, the game’s enemies are also more varied. There’s the usual Mushroom Kingdom fair like Goomba’s and Bob-Ombs and the standard grunts on the Rabbid’s side. The boss fights, the characters you battle along the way, and the “grunt” characters make for a good mix.
There are multiple worlds to visit, each with a unique theme and feeling. Each overworld hosts not only where to progress through the story but also side quests, side quests galore — it’s still a Ubisoft game, after all. Each story or side quest is labelled with a recommended level, but unless you stray off the path, you probably won’t find too many at a higher level than you already are, aside from a few notable ones. The living, breathing world of the Rabbids feels alive, with funny NPCs to interact with and locations to visit.
We’ve also got almost full voice acting in Sparks of Hope — but I’m leaning heavily on that almost. While Beep-o and Jeanie speak all the time, the Rabbids now do too — most of the time. The text boxes usually have one sentence or a catchphrase, and you’ll need to read the rest. Same with NPCs as well. It’s a half-step between full voice acting and a Banjo-Kazooie-like mumbling. The Rabbids speaking in conversations isn’t as fun as when in battle. Rabbid Rosalina yells yeet when she throws things, and Rabbid Mario puts on his best fake Italian accent (Chris Pratt, look out). You can turn it all off if you want, but you’ve got to embrace the humour and the crazy.
The main story in Sparks of Hope took me just over 17 hours to complete, with the game saying I had done 100% of the story but only 65% (at the time of writing) of everything collected. It’s not just a collectathon; you get to see and meet so many more characters, and that’s where things outside of battles mostly live. And be assured, that’s where you’ll be spending most of the game, in battles — it’s got Mario in the title but there’s no platforming here.
This time around, there are also some difficulty options for you. You can play the game on Relaxing, Average, or High. You can also dial down specific things like the strength of enemies, how much you heal after a battle, or even turn on invincibility. You can even use skill management automation if you want to focus more on the story. The game never really requires you to grind to level up, which is good, but later battles can be a wait fest as all the enemies move, attack, and power up all over the field. You can fast-forward all of this, but it still feels like you’re waiting a while for your turn.
The presentation of Sparks of Hope, like everything else in the game, is a mile better than what came before it. I went back and watched some of the first game and just realised how basic it all looked. The game is now dripping with style, from the characters themselves, the worlds, and even the UI. The game’s graphics are pushing the Switch this time around, and it doesn’t run entirely smooth all of the time amid battle, but the variety of locations and how they look make up for it. Everything bounces with brilliant lighting effects and details from the sunny beaches, the chilly mountains, and all the dark, gloomy tunnels.
The story is presented through many cutscenes, some of which are pre-rendered and others are not. There are also a bunch of videos that play when you pull off special moves; you can skip them, thankfully, as it gets annoying after a while. Also, all the unique skins you can unlock don’t show in them — a shame. This game does load quite a bit as well. It’s not the overall duration of the loading but how often the game flicks from a loading screen back to the action. However, not much can be done with this on the Switch.
The game’s sound design and music have grown up as well. Returning is Grant Kirkhope with his playful themes. Gareth Coker and Yoko Shimomura also lend their hand to the game’s music. While it’s never credited, it’s possible to tell who worked on what, and at times you have to stop and listen. All of the tunes sound fuller with a good orchestra. I’m very keen to hear it without the Rabbids parroting over it. The game’s music stands by itself and doesn’t lean so much on existing Mario tunes, and the game has its own audio identity. It’s fun, it’s gloomy, it’s scary — and a pleasure to listen to.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is Kingdom Battle but all grown up. The battle system has evolved to something more dynamic, and the game’s overworld, characters, and presentation have been taken to the next level. You don’t have to be a big strategy nerd to enjoy Sparks of Hope, as there are difficulty and accessibility options to let you enjoy just the funny story. Sparks of Hope has a lot of heart, is funny and fun to play, but that shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.
+ Great humour and a lot of heart
+ Battle system is more fun and dynamic
+ Dripping with style
- So many loading screens
- Battles toward the end get really long and tiresome
- Where's Yoshi, what have you done with him?