One of the most unlikely video game franchise mashups is back with Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, taking Mario, all his Mushroom Kingdom comrades, and their Rabbid alter-egos on a broad new interstellar adventure to fight off the invasive corruption of Cursa. Can it strike the same vein of crossover gold as the original?
There’s a lot about Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope that, were it not for the familiar cast of characters and franchise mashup, would have you thinking this was a completely different game series. It’s still a turn-based tactical game, but so much of how it plays and the way that it tells its overarching story is new.
At the heart of it is the new combat system. Where the original Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle quite strictly adhered to the XCOM formula with a movement grid, and while the options you had were expanded with dashes, pipes and other abilities, you were still relatively restricted with action points and turn order. Sparks of Hope ditches the grid in favour of completely free movement, allowing for much greater flexibility in how you get around the battlefield, and it’s transformative.
You can really finesse all of your movements and actions in Sparks of Hope, specifically around the ability to boost jump off a friendly character and then glide using Beep-0 for a few seconds. You can move as much and as often as you want within a particular radius of movement, and with the help of some overlays, that means you can swap between characters, launching them in the air and rapidly moving through the map. The only thing that will stop you moving (usually) is firing your weapon.
There’s added flexibility to the character abilities as well, thanks to the introduction of Sparks. Each character has a specific weapon and character ability, putting them firmly in set roles and archetypes – Mario has his twin pistols and overwatch ability, Rabbid Peach is the sole healer, Rabbid Luigi and Rabbid Rosalina have powerful debuffs and status effects. Augmenting them are Sparks who add additional buffs and abilities, and which can be swapped around before each battle, with up to two Sparks attached per character helping to tailor your squad.
Setting up your team can be key, as you get to view the battlefield. Half a dozen hours into the game, you’ll want to start looking for elemental resistance and weaknesses, figure out if you want a sniper like Luigi, or need to clear hordes of Goombas with the wide-spread shotguns of Peach and Rabbid Mario. Typically you can pick any three characters, but some levels will be for specific character sets, helping to encourage a little exploration and diversified team builds.
Outside of bosses, there’s around half a dozen different enemies that you’ll have to face off against. They’re new creations, blending Rabbids with different animals – snipers are wolf-like, Squashers are piggy Rabbids with Thwomps on their backs and a nasty leaping attack. It allows the focus to be on the scenario, whether it’s a quick puzzle-like battles, fights to survive a number of turns, pushes to reach an end zone, or larger multi-stage levels and big boss battles.
There’s more scope for mixing things up thanks to the open worlds that you explore – battles are also now bespoke levels that float in a void, instead of being built into the wider world. Each planet you visit has two main objectives to complete, dispelling the Darkmess gloop that has corrupted key parts of it. As you explore and clear the corruption, you’ll find optional side missions and battles, a handful of environmental puzzles, and quirky little challenges – you can choose what battles to engage with and when, able to run away from overworld missions that would trigger an encounter.
Beep-0 gains new abilities to trigger and destroy marked blocks and walls, as well as to reveal hidden parts of the world. There’s plenty of reasons to head back to earlier worlds and find all the collectables, though it might feel more important to fully clear worlds when playing on the hardest difficulty – the game’s still fairly straightforward on regular difficulty, but can be tailored to different skill levels and some of the toughest fights are hidden away behind completing a world’s side quests.
It’s all wrapped up in a nicely mysterious story. Cursa’s sudden invasion has thrown the Rabbids worlds into disarray, and part of your efforts will be to restore the quirky warden characters back to their full stature. There’s also Edge, an original Rabbids character, seemingly with some kind of connection to Cursa’s Spark-hunting minions. It’s geared towards younger audiences, so there’s no really fractious relationships or distrust between characters – heck, Bowser’s welcomed onto the team without really batting an eyelid.
Perhaps the strangest thing in the game’s narrative is the mish-mash of dialogue styles. Every character has dialogue, but where Beep-0 and the ship’s AI Jeanie are fully voiced, all of the Rabbids will speak a phrase from a line of dialogue, and then you have Sparks, Mushroom Kingdom characters and others who make non-verbal sounds. I found it really quite jarring, especially when the first game was able to do so much characterisation almost purely through animation. Beep-0’s new voice does little to endear him to me, and I’m not sure I needed the snippets of a stereotypical ‘valley girl’ accent to understand Rabbid Peach’s bored socialite vibes.