Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope – released Thursday on Nintendo Switch – does what you’d expect from a sequel to a well-received game, immersing you in a richer, more expansive world. While the first game, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, proceeded in a linear fashion, Sparks of Hope tries to be more exploratory with a kind of semi-open world. There is now a map in the game, with missions marked on it. Thankfully, it’s not as icon-laden as some of Ubisoft’s other open-world games. There’s a bit of level control, as you might expect – it never really got in my way, although your mileage may vary depending on which route you take. Each new Sparks of Hope planet opens up about a dozen quests that you must complete before taking on the big bad. You can roam freely and decide what you want to do first.
Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris – the returning developer team on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope – have also reconsidered their approach to the game’s turn-based arena. Unlike Kingdom Battle, where your heroes move around on a grid-based layout, Sparks of Hope is completely free-to-play. During your turn, you can move infinitely while you ponder your choices. After activating team jump, you are lifted into the air and free to move before falling to the ground. Also, some new enemies like the Bob-omb can be picked up and thrown after you lunge at them. In both cases – team jump and run and throw – you have a few seconds to make up your mind. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is still a turn-based tactics game, but there’s now a real-time element to it.
While most of these submissions are welcome, there are also some unwanted ideas. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has three in-game currencies right now: the existing “coins” to buy new items and weapons, “Starbits” which are used to upgrade Sparks characters, and planet-specific currencies – there are five planets in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope – to unlock one-time usable items. Kingdom Battle only had Coins for both weapons and items. To help manage everything, Ubisoft has given Sparks of Hope an in-game store. Your merchant appears before the start of each level, giving you the option to recharge everyone’s health with Coins. Given what we’ve seen with other Ubisoft games, I’m afraid microtransactions and limited-time cosmetics aren’t too far off.
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After the events of Kingdom Battle, Mario and the gang are happy in the Mushroom Kingdom. The biggest calamity seems to be Rabbid Mario having his pants stolen. But, as anyone who has seen any movie or game sequel can tell you, peace can never last. The new villain in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a floating, tentacled entity called the Cursa, who is taking over the galaxy using mind control and inflicting black sticky Darkmess that dominates everything. To further his plans, Cursa is tapping into the energy of Sparks—a combination of Rabbids and Lumas—which grant bonuses and special abilities to our roster of playable heroes. Eventually, you can assign up to two per hero, choosing from the 30 Sparks in total, which are unlocked as you play and complete missions.
Speaking of heroes, the gang is available from the start: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Rabbid Mario, Rabbid Luigi, and Rabbid Peach. New heroes Edge, Bowser and Rabbid Rosalina join them along the journey. More importantly, you’re not forced to use Mario as was the case in Kingdom Battle. In Sparks of Hope, Mario can be replaced with a different hero. I’m glad Ubisoft didn’t opt for some artificial method to re-lock character rosters. That said, his abilities were blocked again. To save time, individual skill trees can be auto-populated with recommendations provided by Jeanie, a new AI created by Beep-O, who he is now jealous of, as she seems to have better ideas. Beep-O and Jeanie are fully voiced, which was not the case in the first game.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope also introduces new enemies – and new ways to defeat them. Instantly recognizable Goombas are now part of the game, and you can even run past multiple Goombas to knock them out all at once. With the aforementioned Bob-ombs, you can run past one to light it up and throw it at the others. Sometimes you end up with a beneficial ripple effect – with one Bob-omb blowing up others, which in turn damage even more enemies. Of course, you can also use the variety of weapons at your disposal. With Sparks, you can supercharge your attacks, dodge and absorb damage, or add fire, freeze, and a myriad of elemental effects. Unique items can help you heal, deal AoE damage, or even reset your cooldown when you’re in trouble.
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What is cooling? As with Kingdom Battle, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope puts a multi-turn timer on using Sparks and special abilities to prevent them from being OP. And of course, as before, the game also limits how many actions you can take per turn. You can choose two out of four options: Weapons, Sparks, Items and Skills. The increased complexity affects your Kingdom Battle strategies, forcing you to find new ways to succeed in the new Mario + Rabbids game. In addition, you must take other factors into account, such as enemies that move after you shoot them and portals that randomly appear and spawn new villains for you to deal with. You he can destroy these portals to avoid fighting new enemies, but that throws in another factor to consider in your approach.
If it ever gets too much for you, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope offers a lower difficulty option, as was the case with Kingdom Battle. Here, it’s called “Relaxed”. You can even choose to make Mario and his gang invulnerable if you’re only interested in the story. (This option is not enabled even if you choose Relaxed. You’ll need to dive into Options > Gameplay. There, navigate to the end and enable Invulnerability.) But while the first game only had two options, Sparks of Hope has three. For players who want a challenge, Ubisoft has included “Demanding” – where enemies are tougher and deal more damage, and the hero’s health is not restored after battle. The default difficulty is called “Average”, and that’s how I played Sparks of Hope.
Outside of turn-based fighting levels, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope offers light work of environmental puzzle in the open world. Part of this is carried over from Kingdom Battle. You move the objects to unlock a flow. You reorient the statues to answer a riddle. You race for coins in time-based challenges. The open world Sparks of Hope has nooks and crannies that you’ll find as you explore. (This might land you an extra helping of coins, or you might run into an enemy who starts a battle.) While a new area might look empty from the outside, it’s only when you start wandering around – and trying to tick off every quest – that you realize you’ve spent hours there since walking through the first door.
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And if you decide to buy the Gold Edition/Season Pass of the game – it’s a premium of $30 (about Rs. 2,500) over the base game – you’ll get even more content in the future. Ubisoft is promising three story-driven downloadable content (DLC) expansions for Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, with one to introduce Rayman, a Ubisoft character with his own franchise that spawned Rabbids in the first place. According to the Nintendo Store, two are expected in 2023 and the last one in 2024.
But I’m sad that I can’t play any of it – be it Sparks of Hope or any of the three expansions – with friends and family. While Kingdom Battle’s co-op and PvP multiplayer was complementary and had its own downsides, that’s completely gone from Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. The game’s producer, Xavier Manzanares, says they cut it due to balancing issues caused by the combat additions, which would have led to “a game that never releases”. It’s still an unforgivable decision in my books.
For those planning to play games on a big screen passing Joy-Cons, you should know that the graphical quality in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope isn’t all that impressive. My experience on a 55-inch TV wasn’t great at all, and the game was clearly designed to be played on the Switch’s own screen at arm’s length. (The Nintendo handheld’s internals have been speeding up the graphics almost since its release.) That said, I did enjoy the surround sound with my TV hooked up to a 5.1 speaker setup.
Ultimately, the new Mario + Rabbids game is a solid sequel to the five-plus-year-old Kingdom Battle, though Ubisoft’s attempts to give it an open-world spin end up with mixed results. Do I appreciate the increased ambition? Yes. Am I put off by the controversial additions and wary of the Ubisoft pitfalls I’ve seen elsewhere? A yes to that too. But that’s the price we pay for the world we live in. When it was first conceived, despite the brand’s obvious synergy with the characters coming together, Kingdom Battle felt like an innocent little experiment. Now, with success on their backs, there’s a hunger for more, and both Ubisoft and Nintendo are seeing dollars in their eyes. Mario + Rabbids is similar to a franchise now – and it shows.
- Richer and more expansive world
- Easy to learn, hard to master
- Free form arena layout
- Three difficulty options
- Six hero picks from the start
- Mario can be removed from the list
- Concept of an in-game store
- Items usable once
- Mix of real-time and turn-based gameplay
- Three game coins
- No co-op or PvP multiplayer
Rating (out of 10): 8
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope launches Thursday, October 20th on Nintendo Switch. It takes up 5.8GB of storage space after downloading.
Officially priced at Rs. 3,999 in India from Games The Shop, Game Loot and Mcube Games, you can get Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope for Rs. 3,599 on the e2z store.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is priced at $59.99 (about Rs. 4,930) from Nintendo Store online.