“Huh…that seems like a neat idea,” was my first thought upon the reveal of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle back in 2017, genuinely interested in the unexpected collaboration. With my affinity for the likes of XCOM and Fire Emblem, and longing for anything to fill the Super Mario RPG-shaped void in my life, I was open to the idea. It turned out to be a welcome surprise, but I often described it as, “baby’s first tactics game.”
I recently got hands-on with the follow-up, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope for a preview, and I’m here to report that this game is not playing around. It’s like they heard my description and said, “bet.” Deeper tactics combat, a better sense of exploration, a more intriguing take on the goofy drama, and a stunning soundtrack were all apparent from just playing around four hours.
What it really seems like is that Ubisoft figured out the formula with the first game then got carte blanche to expand on it with Sparks of Hope. Lead producer Xavier Manzanares told me that after Kingdom Battle, and the Donkey Kong Adventure DLC for it, Ubisoft essentially earned Nintendo’s trust and had the freedom to do what they wanted with the sequel.
Sparks of Hope ditches the grid-based system for a free-form movement system. With each turn in battle, you manually move your party members within a defined space, similar to Valkyria Chronicles. Characters still snap to cover within the combat arena, which keeps things neat and tidy, and the Dash and Team Jump mechanics have been tweaked to fit this change. And at least from my impression, the arenas themselves are designed with variety in mind. Overall, it makes the core gameplay feel closer to the classic action-adventure of a traditional Mario game while maintaining the core ethos of a tactical RPG.
What’s most important is that the tactics combat has new layers of depth and the bigger setpiece encounters force you into making tougher strategic decisions. Each character have expanded skill trees, and their playstyles nudge you into a certain type of build. But each party member can equip two Sparks (a fusion between the Mario world’s Lumas and Rabbids themselves), and this affords additional perks like elemental buffs and resistances. They also grant you additional attack spells or party buffs to use during your turns.
Even on normal difficulty, it’s imperative that you really understand how to use Sparks. Standard encounters in the overworld are simple enough, but the main story battles I played through put your tactics prowess to the test. One such encounter featured challenges such as enemies with Splash damage knocking you out of the arena for high damage and additional enemies spawning every other turn — and it was damn near impossible without equipping the water-based Sparks that protect you from the elements. It’s the variables such as those that give Sparks of Hope more of an RPG edge, too.
Additionally, Sparks of Hope has more involved overworlds that instill a sense of adventure with opportunities for exploration. Whereas Kingdom Battle often shuffled you from one combat encounter to another, progressing through Sparks of Hope has the sensibilities of a Mario level with some light puzzles, secrets to uncover, and optional encounters to take on. While the critical path is clear enough, having more to poke around at breaks up the pace and makes for levels that feel full.
Kingdom Battle proved that the turn-based tactics was a good fit, and the goofy tone of Rabbids could work given the right narrative context. And in these early hours, Sparks of Hope leans into it harder — restore the Sparks, defeat the “Darkmess,” cool, I’m on board. The Rabbids themselves have a bit more personality, and the newcomer Edge has a silly edginess and drama with the villain that drives some of the early story elements. I’m not expecting to be emotionally moved by what’s at stake, but some of the cinematic cuts and the age-old concept of saving the galaxy might just be enough to drive me through. Damn man, I don’t know, maybe Rabbids are cool now?
I clearly had a lot of good things to say about these early hours, but the most impressive part of the experience was hearing the bold, intense orchestral soundtrack. Part of me thought that maybe it was going too hard for what I thought Mario + Rabbids to be. It’s as if I was in a big boss fight in some Final Fantasy or NieR game, but I’m out here trying to save Rabbid Peach. If there’s any one element I can point to that drives me through a game, it would be a banging soundtrack.
Grant Kirkhope is an iconic composer in the realm of games, for sure, and he brought life to Kingdom Battle . However, the Sparks of Hope soundtrack was made in collaboration with Gareth Coker and the legend Yoko Shimomura. As someone who loves Super Mario RPG and its music dearly, just hearing that Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XV, and more) had a hand in Sparks of Hope got me hyped. As Manzanares explained to me, all three composer worked closely together to avoid the silo effect and create a cohesive sound. I don’t know what these Rabbids have in store, but I have a feeling we’re gonna fight god by the end of this game.
Nintendo tends to be quite protective of their IP, so of all the mashups they could have done, who thought it’d be with these goofy-ass Rabbids? I liked Kingdom Battle well enough, but I wasn’t sure if I needed another one. Well, Sparks of Hope doubles down on the idea and seems to be making all the right moves. After getting hands on, it’s climbed my list of games to cram in before the end of the year.
For a moment, I thought to myself, “What if this the Super Mario RPG or Paper Mario spiritual successor I’ve been looking for all this time?” Despite its strong impression, four hours is only small snippet of a much larger game. We’ll be able to get the full experience when Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope launches on October 20, 2022 exclusively for Nintendo Switch.
[Disclaimer: Fanbyte’s parent company Tencent owns some percentage of stake in Ubisoft, and at this point, it’d ethically demand a disclaimer.]