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Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Oct. 20, 2022


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Switch Review - 'Mario + Rabbids Sparks Of Hope'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 18, 2022 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Mario, Rabbid Peach and their friends are back for a new adventure of cosmic scale in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope!

Buy Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope

Video game crossovers can be weird. Square Enix and Disney created an action-RPG series where Goofy and Donald team up with a spiky-haired JRPG protagonist, and Neegan from "The Walking Dead" showed up in a fighting game. There are few that sounded as absolutely out of left field bonkers as "Mario and the Rayman's Raving Rabbids team up in an X-COM clone where the iconic plumber wields a laser gun."

It turned out to be one the Nintendo Switch's surprise treasures. The next game, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, captures the charm and fun of the first game while adding a host of new gimmicks and features to make it shine.

Sparks of Hope picks up sometime after the events of the first game. The Mushroom Kingdom citizens, along with a healthy dose of Rabbids, are relaxing during a party when a manta ray creature attacks. The heroes dive into the ray and find themselves in an alternate dimension, where a horrifying creature called Cursa is inflicting torment on the worlds. It is up to Mario and pals to bring down Cursa and return peace to the Mushroom Kingdom.

The core plot of the game is a standard Mario RPG plot. A big cosmic entity shows up, Mario and friends need to fight it, and they encounter wacky things along the way. Perhaps the weirdest element of the game is that the Rabbids are now capable of full speech. It turns out that when you can understand them, there's not much difference between Rabbids and any member of the Mushroom Kingdom. The bulk of them feel about as eccentric as the many Toads in a Paper Mario game, with distinct visual takes on Rabbids to separate their looks.

This isn't a bad thing, but it does make the Rabbids feel pretty superfluous. The first game's cut scenes rely heavily on the slapstick comedy of what were basically Minions but more Chaotic Neutral. Here, the Rabbids feel like standard characters instead of tiny chaos gremlins. For those who find their antics annoying, this is probably a boon, and it adds personality to the characters. This feels like we're including Rabbids because the first game did, rather than using them in an effective way. Probably most noteworthy is Edge, a parody of JRPG protagonists whose Rabbid nature feels divorced from the rest of her character.

Sparks of Hope feels a lot like the now-defunct Mario and Luigi or Mario RPG games in terms of characters, comedy, plot and structure. The only difference between the bean people of Superstar Saga and the Rabbids in Sparks of Hope is that the latter technically had their own game series first. If you enjoyed the feel of those games, then you'll probably have a lot of fun here.

The biggest and most significant change to the core gameplay is that movement is no longer XCOM-style grid-based movement. Every character has a movement radius and can move freely within that radius without limitation. The only time you lose the ability to move is once you've made a weapon attack, at which point your character remains locked wherever they fired from. Just about any other action can be done freely for the entirety of your turn.

This opens up a ton of options for mobility and tricks. The most obvious is with team jumps. By running a character into another character, you can have the second character boost the first into the air. From there, they have a temporary amount of time to glide through the air, after which they land with a new (reduced) movement radius. This doesn't take up a character's turn, so you can chain various movement actions to get significantly longer movement space. In most situations, you can only do one leap a turn, so you don't have infinite movement.

Combat actions also play into this. Each turn, you have two action points to spend on a character's moves. This includes weapon attacks, Spark summons and character-specific techniques. In addition, every character can perform certain action attacks. Every character can do a dash melee attack, where they slide into the foe and deal damage, and some characters, like Mario or Bowser, can perform air stomps. Since you have full freedom to move, you can mix and match most of these (except weapon firing). A character can run out of cover to dash attack a foe and retreat back to cover.

Where this gets spicy is when the game introduces Sparks and Techniques. Every character has a distinct and exclusive technique. Mario can enter a stance where he attacks any enemy nearby that moves. Princess Peach can generate shields around allies. Rabbid Peach can heal allies. Bowser can summon mechakoopas to serve as suicide troopers and potential targets for enemies. Rabbid Luigi can debuff foes, while Rabbid Rosalina can temporarily freeze foes in place. Using a skill puts it on cooldown for a brief period of time, and skills use up your two-a-turn actions.

Sparks are where you can customize characters. There are equippable Rabbid-Lumas ("Sparks") that each have a passive and an active ability. The active abilities are widely varied. Some grant elemental effects to your weapons or dashes, some turn you invisible, regenerate your health, or reflect damage. There are even attack spells that summon giant fireballs or huge pulses of toxic energy. These function under the same rules as Techniques and use up an action and cooldown. The passive skills are flat bonuses, like damage boosts or immunity to certain elements. You begin with only one Spark slot but unlock more as the game progresses.

Mixing and matching your skills is the way to huge success. For example, Edge the Rabbid's biggest gimmick is her mobility and ability to dash attack multiple times in a single turn. You can rush her forward to repeatedly knock over a foe, which is respectable damage but leaves her at risk. You can equip her with an invisibility Spark and set up Mario nearby with his Hero Sight ability. Every time Edge uses a dash attack, Mario attacks, adding a tremendous amount of extra damage to unfortunate foes. You can use invisibility, so Edge is safe if any enemies survive, or you can use a magic attack so she dishes out even more damage.

This emphasis on figuring out team combos is where the game gets really fun. It's the difference between attacking and shooting versus setting up lengthy move-jump-dash-technique combos to clear out numerous foes in a short period of time. There are few things as satisfying as figuring out how to eke out that extra damage to finish off a foe who might be a problem during the next turn.

While Sparks of Hope is more of a JRPG than its predecessor, it retains the same cover system and general lethality of foes. It ramps up much slower, though. Early on, the game is notably easier than its predecessor, and it isn't until the midgame where you run into situations where a misstep can lead to the loss of an entire character. Leave a character out of cover or in an enemy's range, and they can die in a single turn, with squishier characters often dying in one or two hits. The powerful techniques, and the ready accessibility of healing and power-up items, mean that it's a fair playing field. Enemies may kill quickly, but they can also die quickly.

Battles are divided into two different types. The first is designed levels, which focus on certain enemies and gimmicks. You might need to use jump pads to move around a huge map or set up a series of fans to blow a Bob-Omb to a vulnerable target to destroy. Most of these are fun and reward you for swapping characters. If a map is huge, high-mobility characters like Rabbid Mario tend to be more valuable. If a map is small, Luigi (the game's sniper) is less effective.

The other kind of battles are what amount of JRPG-style random battles, where you run into an enemy in the overworld and are thrown into a simple map populated by a semi-random select of foes. The battles are intended to be finished in one or two turns. They can be a fun way to experiment with techniques in a less stressful situation than a main stage, but they can also get a touch tiresome. I avoided random encounters unless I had a quest because it felt like a waste of time.

I found the Sparks of Hope combat system to be a lot of fun. It feels extremely different from the first game's XCOM combat system, which might turn off some people, but most of the changes emphasize mobility and chaining moves to reflect the best parts of the first game. Building the perfect team and outfoxing enemies feels great, and there is enough complexity to the main level design to keep fights interesting for a long while.

Beyond combat, the game has a more RPG-inspired version of the first title's maps. Each planet has its own explorable environment and a variety of side-quests. Most are some variation of fighting foes, but there's also a reasonable dose of puzzles. It's a big step up from the first game; even if the basics are the same, the presentation makes it feel like areas that are worth exploring instead of awkward busywork between the fun parts. It helps that it has a Metroidvania-lite system, where you unlock new skills that let you return to previous areas to find more stuff.

Side-quests reward you with coins, items, stars to upgrade Sparks, and occasionally new Sparks. Almost every side-quest also gives you a Planet Coin for the current planet; Planet Coins can be spent at shops to unlock keys to hidden areas, lore snippets, and cosmetic skins for weapons. A lot of this is for flavor, so you don't feel like you must complete every side-quest, but it can be fun to swap weapon looks. (There really should be more variety in weapon designs.)

If I had one serious complaint, I really feel that the overworld segments should control more like a Mario game. You're locked to the ground except for certain areas, and movement can sometimes feel stiff, only allowing you to jump off ledges in certain areas or climb certain places. The game looks enough like a 3D Mario title that I found myself wishing it also controlled like one, rather than a standard RPG. It can be difficult to tell what areas you can and can't access with your current skill set, and I repeatedly bashed my head against a puzzle that I lacked the necessary ability to solve.

Sparks of Hope looks good. It's hard to go wrong with bright and colorful Mario visuals. The variety of Rabbid designs lends personality to the game, and there are some incredibly charming cut scenes. (Bowser's introduction is an absolute delight of physical comedy.) The only problem I can note is that the frame rate is incredibly inconsistent and frequently chugs in busy areas, which feels weird considering the simple visuals. The music is quite excellent, featuring music by Greg Kirkhope and Yoko Shimomura, the latter of whose inclusion helps the game feel more like a Mario and Luigi title than a sequel to the first game.

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is an absolute delight. The new mobility-focused combat trades some difficulty for a more flexible and dynamic battlefield. The more JRPG-styled tone and structure of the game gives it a solid basis that the first game didn't quite reach. Most of the improvements are for the better. There are still some nagging problems here and there, and the frame rate is rough, but if you can get past that, there's a ton to love here.

Score: 8.5/10

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