Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope Review (Switch)
Release Date: October 20, 2022
File Size: 5.7GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
It is impossible to overstate how surprising the original Mario + Rabbids title was from nearly every angle leading up to and after its release. A tactical RPG of the wacky and nonsensical Rabbids mashed with Mario aesthetics and characters was something that just should not have worked- but it did. Not only that, the game provided a delightful interpretation of Mario jumping mechanics to another sort of genre, proving that the plumber is so much more versatile than we give him credit for. Combined with gorgeous aesthetic design, this silly game wormed its way into the hearts of many and proved that, with the right amount of passion and creative direction, even a Rabbids-themed Ubisoft title could land properly on the Nintendo Switch.
I have previously stated that Sparks of Hope was one of my most-anticipated RPGs of 2022, with similar creative leads returning and offering an enhanced version of the tactics gameplay from the first title. However, I was perhaps unprepared for how much this game would exceed my expectations in a number of respects. Sparks of Hope once again confirms how great the Mario + Rabbids experience can be, even in spite of some slight hiccups.
Once more, the players use the iconic Mario characters in tandem with their Rabbid counterparts to defeat enemies in tight, tactical environments. Rather than featuring a grid-based area of combat, you’ll note that the game now offers free movement, though level geometry still favors corners and occasional diagonals in its environmental design. The characters now have bubbles of movement in which they can navigate, and are only locked into place upon executing a weapon-based attack. The combat options are all mapped to the triggers and bumpers, which allows the face buttons to be freed for a variety of other functions.
Players can still perform actions using the A button, and can freely execute dashes and team jumps, though these elements are now active in nature- once you have performed them, they are exhausted until your next turn reset. This means that team jumps are now dependent on player input: you’ll get a new cone of movement and/or distance prompt, but you need to direct the character towards your desired landing point within the amount of time they can remain airborne. Beep-O, the plucky robotic assistant from the first game, acts as a floating drone that carries the player to their intended destination, and displays the amount of airborne time they have remaining. This timer can be increased for certain characters via character progression, but it is still a marked difference from the first title.
Weapons are no longer bought with currency, but can be modified with the powers of Sparks, recruitable assist options with their own cooldowns that grant specific traits to weapon attacks, or offer new kinds of offensive options. These can be neatly arranged into different categories: weapon modifiers, dash modifiers, attacks, and support options. The latter two types are the most surprising and enjoyable, with tons of neat abilities to vary tactical builds, and all Sparks can be leveled up by consuming Star Bits, which can be gained from winning battles and defeating certain kinds of enemies.
Keep in mind, all of this is in addition to the various progression options gifted to the characters themselves. The game does a good job identifying each character’s archetype, but their skill trees themselves are also neatly arranged into sections based around health, movement, attack, and skills. Though Yoshi and his Rabbid counterpart are no longer team members, parts of their kits were granted to newcomers Edge, Rabbid Rosalina, and Bowser, who occupy specific niches themselves. The amount of strategies on offer is staggering, even though some characters do possess some hard-to-top attributes. Here’s looking at you, Rabbid Mario.
Since the battles themselves are free roaming, the environments have gone the same way, and due to the intergalactic odyssey at the heart of the game, you’ll find yourself exploring new, isolated biomes that represent planets. While some are to be expected, such as your beach, winter, and flower-themed worlds, others are much more unique, such as the autumnal Palette Prime and the desolate Barrendale Mesa. You’ll still find yourself flipping switches, conquering Darkmess Pools, and gradually completing minor quests as you make your way from one story objective to the next, and each world features at least one dungeon to explore with more focused pathways and puzzles. There’s plenty to do off the main path, as many quests offer beneficial Sparks or resources with which to defeat enemies. Some side activities are a bit basic, such as the strange fish-chasing minigame that appears on each planet, while others pay homage to Mario staples like red and green coins.
Aesthetics and Narrative
The original Mario + Rabbids took a limited camera perspective and integrated battlefields into the explorable terrain in order to present a lush, albeit warped version of the Mushroom Kingdom, but Sparks of Hope leans further on the absurdity side of the Rabbids in its aesthetic design. The environments are not as clean or colorful as the Kingdom Battle worlds, but do use a cartoonish texture design to emphasize their otherworldly theming and character. The result is not as pristine as the first title, but perfectly serviceable for the game’s context. These changes in art style might be a result of a freely-rotating camera and environments that vary in complexity and scale.
Fortunately, Grant Kirkhope is still helming the soundtrack, though he is joined this time by the esteemed Gareth Coker of Ori and the Blind Forest/Will of the Wisps (among others) and famed Japanese composer Yoko Shimomura, known for her history with the Mario and Luigi titles and her work with Square Enix on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. I was absolutely astounded by Shimomura’s gravitas upon entering into the Prologue Battle, as she brings her experience with RPG soundtracks and infuses an epic quality to the affairs of the rubbery, madcap Rabbids, all the while adhering closely to the soundscape created by Kirkhope from the first game. His work is still as joyful and rollicking as the previous entry, though he gets to flex his skills in grandiose, weighty orchestration in several boss battle tracks.
Coker tows a delicate line between the two extremes of Kirkhope and Shimomura, but does an equally impressive job offering strong motifs to a number of encounters, lending them a rhythmic and celestial quality. Mentioning him last out of the three should by no means do a disservice to his contributions, which are all excellent. Honestly, it’s hard to say which compositional voice is the standout here, but the genuine takeaway here is that the soundtrack absolutely kicks ass. You will marvel at the breadth and drama present across the tracks, but it’s all in service of making the music as entertaining and endearing as the characters and gameplay.
Every character now gets more than a few voice lines, and while it’s weird to hear Rabbid Peach spitting out comments about having a cellphone charger, each Rabbid has their own unique voice that fits their silly characters perfectly. Meanwhile, Charles Martinet does his staple work on the Mario brothers, and the other Mushroom Kingdom characters are perfectly voiced. The sound design reflects the traditional Super Mario soundscape while adding in the madcap slapstick of the Rabbids, with some enemies acting as a mix of the two worlds themselves.
The first Mario + Rabbids did not feature a particularly strong narrative, but it was serviceable in the scope of the project. Sparks of Hope acts as a sequel in a variety of ways, possessing ties to antagonists from the prior game and building upon this odd blended world, but it never tasks the player with thinking too hard about a story. The game offers immediate objectives on each planet that reward the party with fuel that bring them closer to their overarching goal of facing down Cursa, whose true nature is heavily telegraphed from the start of the game. There is a particular character teased on the second planet that comes as something of a surprise, but it’s no monumental twist. The original game had opportunities for the player to view amusing vignettes featuring the Rabbids interacting with the world, and while Sparks of Hope still includes these, it also uses a number of framed portraits to fill in backstory about specific characters.
These are largely inconsequential despite being narrated by Beep-O’s voice actor, but they don’t really explain much about the present narrative, instead offering context for many of the Rabbid characters. Some might argue that there is a greater emphasis on Rabbid characters in this game because of this and their status as quest givers, but I found that the mixture of Mario and Rabbid elements still felt balanced. The Mario characters still do spend most of the cutscene running time acting as the straight men for the Rabbids, which makes them feel a bit lacking in personality themselves. The game unfortunately saves most of its main narrative lore for the eleventh hour, meaning that there’s not much drama or justification for events to be found throughout the majority of its playtime. Honestly, it’s not a huge blunder, but with a score so epic, one would hope for a heightened narrative to match the orchestral tones.
Impressions and Conclusion
Throughout its 30-something hour campaign, the player will find themselves mostly focused on combat, with brief spats of environmental puzzle solving across locations and dungeons. I wish I could say that the returning block puzzles from the first game have been refined, but their controls are a bit more rigid this time, the blocks themselves only movable on worn dirt paths that clash with the open movement the new control scheme allows for. There’s also lots of switch-flipping present in puzzles, raising and lowering blocks and bridges for the sake of revealing new paths, and a new mechanic reveals hidden paths with a sort of radar function that initially feels novel, but quickly grows familiar.
The game allows for dynamic difficulty shifting either on the options screen or in before battle, which is welcome, though the normal difficulty is rarely too punishing to require alteration. Some have noted that Sparks of Hope is a more tactically complex game, and I found that its combination of movement and ability skills took a bit of getting used to, but gradually became comfortable. There are lots of neat maneuvers to pull off, from an elementally-charged dash that chains into multiple overwatch attacks, to specific turn orders that end up buffing party members based on lethal damage.
The addition of field enemies that create less tactics-intensive skirmishes is a welcome one, as it further divides the exploration and scripted encounters, but never offers a challenge that can’t be conquered in one or two turns. If anything, these are empowering moments that allow the player to flex their tactical prowess. There are a lush variety of tactical scenarios in this game, such as those that task players with defending or reaching a certain point, surviving a number of turns, and defeating a certain number of enemies, with specific types requiring a sufficient amount of damage per turn.
Unfortunately, the freedom of camera movement in combination with the age of the Nintendo Switch has resulted in a game with a stuttering framerate while exploring, and although I didn’t find this to be a huge issue in battles, it was prevalent enough in overworld exploration to be mentioned. There are a few music tracks that do feel a bit overused and inappropriate for the theming of the game, but it never strays outside of a specific genre. The progression structure is closely monitored by the amount of experience distributed to the player, and at times it seems like the only grinding that can be done is via Star Bits or coins, which can offer stronger Sparks and access to items, respectively. The latter does offer some abilities that can feel a bit game-breaking, but considering item use takes up an action point per character, their implementation is firmly rooted in a risk and reward structure.
Although the ranking system from the previous game is no longer present, which penalized players for taking too many turns and letting their allies fall in battle, Sparks of Hope manages to maintain its standard of difficulty and still offer a very different kind of experience. The over-abundance of Rabbids rather than Mushroom Kingdom characters does feel a bit regrettable, but more Mario enemy types on the battlefield are always welcome and fairly challenging. It doesn’t always feel like Mario and his friends are active participants in the narrative, more passive observers doing what is right, and the game could perhaps use a few more cutscenes to strengthen their presence.
What is always palpable, however, are the personalities of the Rabbids, and their goofiness is a lens through which the game finds itself enjoyable. Though it most strongly pushes boundaries in regards to its combat, the entire experience is a breezy jaunt through the galaxy that proves this unlikely marriage of properties has more than enough gas in its tank to justify a sequel, and maybe even more titles down the road.