Every so often you get a game mashup that is a completely bonkers concept. Something that simply sounds ridiculous on paper, and yet when you see it in action, it just works.
The first Mario & Rabbids title was somewhat of an interesting surprise. It was quite a bizarre premise for a crossover: “Mario, with Rabbids? And it’s a tactics game?” I remember questioning back in 2017. And yet, it somehow became one of the best Switch games of that year, so a sequel was inevitable.
Mario & Rabbids: Sparks of Hope follows up with the Rabbids now living in harmony in the Mushroom Kingdom. We see the return of familiar characters; Mario, Peach, Luigi – as well as some new faces on the Rabbids side. In this sequel, an entity named Cursa is spreading dark energy throughout the galaxy, and our team of heroes step up to defeat the evil.
As with the first game, each new planet you visit offers something completely new in terms of world design, enemy variety, and powerups on offer. However, unlike the first game, combat encounters pull you into an arena which is separate from the overworld, allowing for more freedom in its design.
This also allows for random encounters, which can be found by exploring each planet, that give you a random combination of enemies and arena layouts. It’s an interesting departure from the first game, and extends the life of your playthrough by giving you more opportunities to gain experience points.
One of the biggest changes Sparks of Hope makes from its predecessor is abandoning the grid-based aspect of movement during play, adopting a more real-time approach. This time, you can walk around the allocated area of movement freely before planning your attack. This gives you so much more freedom in how to tackle each combat encounter, since you don’t need to worry about movement taking away any tactical advantage. It makes each encounter more fluid, faster-paced and interesting.
Another new aspect of the game is the inclusion of Sparks, creatures formed by the fusion of Lumas and Rabbids, who can be equipped with a specific hero offering them new power-ups. These can be mixed and matched with each other, playing to the hero’s specific strengths, to create some truly unique team setups. For example, one Spark lets you pull in enemies closer, which works well when combined with a melee/short-range character like Rabbid Luigi.
With a brand new movement system, this also extends to the level design too. Combat scenarios are now more open, located in their own self-contained arenas with plenty of options on how to traverse it. With a slightly more diverse roster of characters than the first game, this allows greater versatility in beating each level – ultimately opening you up to more interesting sessions that don’t adhere to a single “meta” playstyle.
But Mario & Rabbids: Sparks of Hope also recognises that combat is not the sole feature of the game, and will instead give you opportunities to solve puzzles in the overworld. Beep-0, your robot companion who assists in exploration, can gain special abilities during these exploration segments, such as being able to break rocks or reveal hidden clues, which are then used to solve puzzles.
Some of the optional puzzles here can be genuinely difficult at times, and you’ll end up spending more time than you thought on finishing them. However, on the more disappointing side of this feature, the rewards you get from solving these optional puzzles are quite lacklustre. This can ultimately take away some of the meaning from these moments.
As a game franchise aimed at children, the difficulty of the first Mario & Rabbids game was something I felt a little uncomfortable with. A large portion of the game was pretty difficult for younger gamers, and even with the easier assist mode turned on, there were still moments where it felt like the game was punishing you unexpectedly.
Sparks of Hope turns that around. The default difficulty offers a decent challenge, but never really becomes unbearably hostile. There are assist options to help give you the edge though, including how much your heroes heal outside of combat and if they even take damage at all. There is, however, also a harder difficulty. I ended up turning this on towards the end of my playthrough, because it started to feel like a cakewalk once I’d levelled up my characters into the high ranks.
With now two excellent games under its belt, it beckons the question of where the franchise goes next. Do we go for a simple Mario & Rabbids 3? Do we add Zelda or Pokemon characters into the mix? Do we change genres, turn it into a soulslike or roguelike? Whatever happens, I just need more.
For our Mario & Rabbids Sparks of Hope review, a Nintendo Switch code was supplied to GameByte by Ubisoft.