I didn’t wait for my time with Mario + Rabbids: sparks of hope to start with finding Rabbid Mario’s pants while he was hiding in a bush, but that’s the kind of humor we’ve come to expect from this weirdly wonderful crossover. A little juvenile, yes, but strangely endearing. And yet, it is one of the only things that has been preserved from the original title, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battlebecause everything else has had Quite the update. Trying out a duo of the game’s early levels, it’s immediately apparent that this is much more of a Super Mario game than I was expecting.
Granted, it’s still a tactical battle game, that’s true, but a lot of the evolution of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope comes from the fact that this is a much less linear game than Kingdom Battle. This time we will embark on an intergalactic journey, with the aim of defeating Cursa, a new enemy that infects numerous planets with dark and ink-filled tentacles. Each planet you land on unfolds as a small explorable hub similar to something you’d find in Super Mario Odyssey or the more recent Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury.
It’s not completely open world, but these planetary hubs are packed with plenty of things to do to distract you from your main quest. There are side quests to complete, puzzles to solve, new routes to discover, and characters to interact with. One of those side quests on the second planet I explored, a snowy place that was once home to the Winter Palace, asks me to help a mad scientist whose lab has been invaded by that inky dark thing I talked about earlier, known as ‘Darkness’. The brilliant final battle of the mission involved pressing buttons while moving through the arena to start the wind machines. Eventually these would push Bob-ombs through the area as well, allowing one of my party to activate it and then launch it towards Darkmess to finally clear a path.
These planet hubs also allow the core story to offer a bit more fun and puzzle solving. The Winter Palace, for example, required solving several door puzzles to continue progressing through the castle. They were pretty simple, but they added some flavor to the gameplay between battles. It’s also great for adding more visual flair and intrigue to the worlds themselves, compared to what we saw in Kingdom Battles.
sparks of magic
There’s just so much more creativity here with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, and the fact that there’s a greater focus on choice and freedom is clear just from these first few hours I’ve had with the game. Being able to activate and then launch Bob-ombs not only at the stage, but also at enemies is a wonderful touch, and you can also use and launch other items during your turns to turn the tide of battle, like ‘POW Blocks’. ‘ to damage enemies within a certain radius, or mushrooms for a quick burst of health.
That freedom also comes into play even more through the removal of the grid in battles. I honestly didn’t think it would make much of a difference (you’re still limited to a certain range of motion for each character, after all), but it makes planning your next moves feel more organic. I found myself quickly switching between characters to get them into position before I even thought to pull the trigger. The moment you use your primary weapon, you’re locked into that position, but until then you can continue to use other special moves or moves like ‘Team Jump’ to get your crew into the best positions possible.
The bunny-eared drone, Beep-O, returns for this title with its own upgrades, including a tactical camera. It allows you to observe your enemies at any point in battle to find out what kind of weapons they use and if they have elemental strengths and weaknesses. Now, this is where the starting Sparks come in. These Rabbid Luma hybrids are fun little creatures, but they each come with their own elemental attacks that can be used by any of your Mario + Rabbids cast. It can be something you can add to your main attack, like splash or fire damage, or a temporary upgrade to your board like an electrical wave. However, some also have their own unique attacks that can be used, as a particularly effective attack.
Initially, you can associate a Spark with each character, but when I jumped to the second planet on sale during this hands-on session, each of my characters had a Spark duo assigned to them. You only get two action points per round, which you’ll need to use the sparks or special moves, so it becomes a brilliant balancing act of what to use and when. I found myself spending much more time in the preparation and planning stages due to the number of tools at my disposal. Of course, bugs kept happening – the absence of a grid makes enemy movements more organic and harder to predict as well – but I always felt empowered during battle to have a few tricks up my sleeve.
And no doubt that will grow as well, with a light RPG upgrade system for both characters and Sparks. Each battle allows you to earn XP but also coins and Star Bits. Coins can be used to buy more in-game items or even keys to unlock new areas on the map, but Star Bits can also be used to upgrade Sparks to make them more powerful. Pretty much as you wander through each world, you’ll find enemies to fight whenever you feel like it, allowing you to push yourself a bit between missions to make sure you’re as prepared as possible. Interestingly, battles also trigger Pokémon flair, which brings you into a separate battle space, but also allows you to sneak attack before the battle begins with a well-timed dash. It’s just another element that makes Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Battle feel more organic and dynamic.
Oh, and did I mention that there are new characters to play with too? Not only does Bowser switch sides here, but we also have Rabbid Rosalina. While I didn’t get to spend time with Bowser during this preview, I did meet Rosalina, and she’s a perfect teenager. Murmuring, grumpy, and very annoyed that he’s doing anything other than reading her books, but also ridiculously powerful, with a stuffed toy that doubles as a kind of button gun that’s both cute and deadly. Plus, there’s an all-new Rabbid named Edge, who’s all goth and armed with a sword that makes him invaluable for close combat.
I had too much fun with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. While Kingdom Battle was a brilliant game, it seems like Sparks of Hope really found itself. By embracing strategic battles, but imbuing them, and the galaxy in general, with more Super Mario creativity and fun, Sparks of Hope looks set to be absolutely brilliant. I can’t wait to see more on October 20, when the game launches exclusively on Nintendo Switch.
I think it’s safe to say that Sparks of Hope seems likely to become one of the best strategy games out there