Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review – Lacks challenge, but sparks joy

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope screenshot showing Mario, Peach, and the RabbidsUbisoft/Nintendo

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a smart evolution of its predecessor’s core systems that’s a great game for strategy newcomers that won’t challenge genre aficionados.

I spent a lot of time playing Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. It came out of nowhere and consumed my Switch for plenty of hours. Its smart walking back of tactics genre staples like bizarre percentages and clunky interfaces made it feel wholly unique among the genre it was inspired by.

It also felt like it was discounted so often that I feared we would never see a sequel (you should still pick it up, by the way), but to my delight, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is here. The greatest compliment I can award it is that it feels like a Nintendo game in a way that even its highly polished predecessor could’ve only dreamt of.

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Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a joy from start to finish, and while I definitely would’ve appreciated a little more challenge, it ranks high among an already excellent list of Switch exclusives in 2022.

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope key details

  • Price: £49.99 / $59.99
  • Developer: Ubisoft
  • Release date: October 20, 2022
  • Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope trailer

Intergalactic tactics

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s story is, sadly, its weakest component — at least when it comes to the beat-to-beat moments. This time around, the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom and their newfound besties are living a charmed life before, as you’d expect, a new ‘Big Bad’ arrives. It’s not likely to have you on the edge of your seat, but it’s a handy way to introduce new and returning characters, and their Rabbid counterparts, as you go toe-to-toe with Cursa.

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Cursa is a spectral entity that’s looking to consume Sparks, and it’s up to Mario and friends to team up with the adorable astral companions to save the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond. At least Cursa herself has some nuance to her character, conveying emotion through shifting eye colors.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope screenshot showing a seaside areaUbisoft/Nintendo
Sparks of Hope is gorgeous to look at.

It’s a great microcosm of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope’s increased focus on its characters. While Kingdom Battle saw the slapstick Rabbids offer little more than comic relief for their esteemed counterparts, one of the biggest shifts in the sequel is the addition of full dialog for Ubisoft’s divisive critters.

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That means that while they’ll still occasionally scream gibberish, they actually speak (for the most part) in complete sentences. It’s very jarring at first, especially for anyone who spent a lot of time turning the volume down on the Switch in the first game whenever the Rabbids were speaking, but it really does make for a much more enjoyable experience.

Forget all you know

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope screenshot showing combatUbisoft/Nintendo
Combat is impressively different from Kingdom Battle.

If you played Kingdom Battle, there’s something you should know — there’s a huge change in how Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope handles much of its exploration and combat.

For one, while you’ll still control Beep-0, the drone itself will now hover over your lead party member’s head. That means that, rather than accidentally leading you to think you’re controlling Mario in the last game, the two are now one and the same which drastically improves exploration.

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That’s particularly useful because Sparks of Hope now offers more open areas to explore, each with bite-sized mini-battles that are triggered manually or by coming into contact with enemies. These areas can play host to small side quests, collectibles, and new gear to earn. My only disappointment is that many of the worlds fall into pretty standard tropes — there’s a beach world, there’s a snow world, and there’s a forest-like world. Each battle area feels impressively designed like a combat puzzle, but the set dressing (outside of some set pieces) feels a little plain.

Movement has also been drastically overhauled in the heat of combat, too. Whereas Kingdom Battle had players draw a line with a set number of spaces, things are much more flexible in the sequel — your characters have free motion within a predefined area, letting you line up for increasingly elaborate combos.

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Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope screenshot showing a snowy worldUbisoft/Nintendo
We’d have liked a little more deviation from the worlds.

Between the dash and the returning team jump, plus weapons that can swerve around cover and some that simply destroy it, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope offers huge satisfaction in putting together a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption. Some battles can be completed in a single turn with the right setup, and are easy to repeat to grind out levels and resources.

That brings us to our biggest issue with Sparks of Hope, though — the difficulty. While you can adjust it to be more difficult, it never reaches the challenge levels of something like XCOM 2. That may be asking a lot (and we can’t see Nintendo allowing permadeath for Mario and co.) but it’d be great to have a little more challenge.

In fact, the only times I struggled were when I overstretched, misjudging a Team Jump and sending my character into an area with no cover, or accidentally performed a dash through enemies when I wanted to execute a Team Jump.

Star Power

One of the biggest changes this time around, outside of Mario’s dual-wielding, is the inclusion of Sparks. Think of them as a cross between the Mario franchise’s Luma and the Rabbids.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope screenshot showing the charactersUbisoft/Nintendo
Each character can hold two Sparks at a time.

Each character can equip two Sparks, and these flashy abilities come in various elemental forms that essentially replace status effects. Using a fire-infused dash to power through a group of enemies and leave them with a burning status is great, but your Spark will be weaker to, say, a water element. It adds a surprising amount of build diversity (never thought I’d say that about a Mario title).

Combined with character abilities, and the aforementioned changes to movement, these Sparks offer a huge array of tactical options that make replaying levels with different combinations of characters much more enjoyable than in Kingdom Battle.

Sparks of Kirkhope

I played Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope on the Nintendo Switch OLED, and as much as playing tactics games on a larger display is usually best, the OLED screen was too tough to resist. The intergalactic setting allows for deep blacks, while flashy attacks, detailed locales, and the cast of characters truly burst from the screen. It’s the first Switch review I’ve spent more time curled up on the sofa playing than I have with the console docked, although your mileage may vary on the original console.

As Cursa’s inky tendrils and minions spread throughout the galaxy, there’s an incredible soundtrack accompanying our heroes thanks to a trifecta of some of the best composers in gaming today. Grant Kirkhope’s (Donkey Kong 64, GoldenEye 007) whimsical compositions are wonderfully light and welcoming, while Gareth Coker (Halo Infinite, Ori franchise) offers a gorgeously wistful tone.

Completing the triumvirate is Yoko Shimomura, known for Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy titles, whose grandiose orchestral scores feel perfect for a spacefaring adventure. It’s an incredible combination, and one where it’s obvious which composer is behind each track without it ever feeling disjointed as a whole.

The Verdict – 8.5/10

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope builds upon its predecessor in surprising and delightful ways to create a tactical RPG that stands among the best in the genre. While it may lack the challenge of some of its contemporaries, it’s a fun adventure that, despite still feeling like a fever dream cooked up by a child’s imagination, is one of the finest titles of 2022.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch