Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was a much better game than anyone was willing to give it credit for since before it was even officially revealed. The reaction to its initial leaks was a widely negative one, to put it mildly, and yet Ubisoft and Nintendo’s collaboration bore fruit in surprising ways, delivering a game that not only made a Super Mario and Rabbids feel like the most natural thing in the world, but was also an excellent turn-based tactics game in its own right. Now, five years later, is sequel is here with Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, and unsurprisingly, it’s excellent.
What is surprising, however, is just how much of a leap it makes over its predecessor. Kingdom Battle was by no means lacking in density and complexity in its design and gameplay mechanics, so you wouldn’t be blamed for believing that under ordinary circumstances, an sequel would be an iterative upgrade at best that largely delivers more of the same, but with a few added bells and whistles. Sparks of Hope, however, is surprisingly ambitious and expands upon Kingdom Battle way more than you’d expect, making its excellent predecessor feel almost simplistic in comparison.
"Sparks of Hope is surprisingly ambitious and expands upon Kingdom Battle way more than you’d expect, making its excellent predecessor feel almost simplistic in comparison."
Where the story is concerned, it feels like more of the same- which, in this case, is a good thing. Once again, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope blends the distinct worlds of Mario and Rabbids effortlessly, and in doing so it crafts something that feels true to both, and yet wholly unique. The entire experience is brimming with a unique charm and sense of humour, driven by a caste comprised of lovable Super Mario characters, returning Rabbid hybrids from Kingdom Battle, and entirely new Rabbid characters. The heroes’ galaxy-spanning journey to defeat Cursa and eradicate its corruption does an admirable job of keeping you entertained while being smart enough to know when it needs to stay out of the combat’s way.
Because unsurprisingly, the combat is where Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hopes shines brightest, and it’s also where it makes the biggest changes. The most significant one of these is a completely new way of moving around. While movement in Kingdom Battle was grid-based like a traditional turn-based tactics RPG, in Sparks of Hope, it’s radial and real-time, more similar to Valkyria Chronicles than anything else. Until you’ve fired your weapon, you’re free to move around in your character’s allotted area of movement however you want, which completely changes the way you think of battles on a fundamental level, and makes everything feel like a much more dynamic blend of turn-based and real-time combat.
That, of course, is paired with a whole host of other things you can do in battles. Every character has two action points per turn, which are consumed by using weapons, items, or powers, but like in Kingdom Battle, you can use a number of movement-based abilities once per turn as well, from a team jump, which allows you to jump off of an allies head and float to a distant point on the battlefield, to a dash attack, which can even be used to strike multiple enemies with one attack if they’re lined up right. Another new element is the Sparks, which are part Rabbid and part Luma, and can be equipped to characters to not only give them passive boost, but also allow them to use special abilities in combat, from granting elemental attacks to target specific enemy weaknesses to enabling a temporary shield that absorbs damage.
"Until you’ve fired your weapon, you’re free to move around in your character’s allotted area of movement however you want, which completely changes the way you think of battles on a fundamental level, and makes everything feel like a much more dynamic blend of turn-based and real-time combat."
It’s a surprisingly complex battle system that layers mechanic on top of mechanic, resulting in something that feels incredibly dynamic. Add to that other considerations like the game’s impressive enemy variety and the unique strategies they demand to large-scale boss fights to smartly designed battle arenas that encourage you to think tactically about your surroundings, and what you get is a combat system that feels like a massive improvement over what we saw in Kingdom Battle– which is a huge compliment, because until I played Sparks of Hope, I didn’t realize Kingdom Battle’s combat could even be improved in most of the ways it has been here.
Every battle feels even more enjoyable and fresh thanks to the roster of playable characters, of which there’s no shortage in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. You start off the game with six characters in your roster to choose from when deciding who take take into battles, while several more join your party as the story progresses. Each character, of course, has their own weapons, progression paths, and attributes. Luigi is a long-range specialist and has greater movement range than his friends, while Rabbid Mario is a bruiser who can deal devastating melee damage to multiple enemies at once. Rabbid Peach is a healer who can fire off homing missiles even at enemies hidden completely behind cover, while Edge has a massive sword that essentially serves as a boomerang and can strike several foes as long as they’re in a straight line. Each character feels genuinely useful one way or another, and each is an absolute blast to play as. Figuring out how to compose your party and which characters might be better suited to certain battles is a big part of the fun.
Adding further depth and complexity to the combat is an expanded progression system. Leveling up and using skill points to unlock new abilities and defensive and offensive boosts for every character works pretty much the way you’d expect, but Sparks, too, can be upgraded, while after a certain point, each character is able to pick to. The effects that equipping the right Spark can have on a character’s build are surprisingly significant and can often be central to how you choose to take on enemies. If you’re looking for tactics in your turn-based tactics game, there’s plenty to go around here, and the level of build variety on offer here – of which the Sparks are a significant part – is hugely responsible for that.
"Each character feels genuinely useful one way or another, and each is an absolute blast to play as. Figuring out how to compose your party and which characters might be better suited to certain battles is a big part of the fun."
Mario + Rabbids makes major gameplay improvements outside of combat as well. The tactics and the progression are very much the spine of the experience, but there’s plenty of emphasis on exploration in Sparks of Hope as well. Taking inspiration from the Super Mario Galaxy games, Sparks of Hope sees our band of heroes travelling from planet to planet and curing them of Cursa’s corruption, and each planet acts as a semi-open hub where you’re free to explore- and there’s a surprising amount to do. There’s secrets to find, hidden areas to discover, puzzles to solve, side quests and optional battles to complete, and much more.
You can easily spend several hours in a single planet if you’re trying to 100% it- though admittedly, some side quests and optional battles do end up feeling a but too repetitive after a while. Rationing these side offerings rather than bingeing through them all might be the way to go if you want to avoid getting burnt out.. Meanwhile, the game also boasts impressive variety in environments and visual design from planet to planet, while locations themselves also change in significant ways. For instance, exploring a planet and soaking in its vibe can be a radically different experience based on whether you’re doing it before or after you’ve freed it of Cursa’s corruption. Going back to older planets at later points is also encouraged, with new abilities allowing you to access previously inaccessible areas.
Another area where Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope deserves heaps of praise is its music. Thanks to the combined talents of three musical geniuses in Grant Kirkhope, Yoko Shimomura, and Gareth Coker, the soundtrack is an absolute banger, delivering track after track that’ll burrow into your head, from rousing orchestras accompanying moments of action and heroism, to much more playful tunes that pair excellently with the game’s humour and charm.
"Another area where Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope deserves heaps of praise is its music. Thanks to the combined talents of three musical geniuses in Grant Kirkhope, Yoko Shimomura, and Gareth Coker, the soundtrack is an absolute banger."
And though the game isn’t as much of a treat for the eyes as it is for the ears – owing to the fact that it’s made for hardware that was severely outdated even when it launched over five years ago – it does still look good. You do notice some technical deficiencies, as you’d expect from a Switch game, but much like Kingdom Battle, the vibrant art design makes up for that. There are a few other technical issues that hamper the experience, like load times that are too frequent and, on occasion, a tad lengthy, while I’ve even had a couple of hard crashes- so hopefully Ubisoft will be ironing those issues out with post-launch patches.
Ultimately though, this is an excellent game. Given how much I liked Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, I would have had absolutely no issues with a sequel that played it safe and didn’t change things up too much. Sparks of Hope deserves credit not only for taking risks where many may not have felt they were needed, but also excelling in the execution of its new ideas. An expanded and much more dynamic system, a charming and humorous world and story, and a satisfying level of mechanical complexity come together in what may very well be one of the best games in the Switch’s esteemed library.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Fun story with a unique sense of humour and endearing characters; Real-time movement changes the combat in fundamental ways; Combat feels much more dynamic; A vast and varied roster of characters, each of whom is a blast to play as; Expanded progression mechanics make for impressive build variety; Significantly expanded exploration; Plenty of side content; Stellar soundtrack; Looks great.
Side activities can get a little repetitive; Some technical issues.