Tactics, strategy and underlying subgenres often feel hellbent on appealing to the hardest of hardcore audiences. Bleak, dystopian worlds subjugated by alien invaders with equally unwelcoming mechanics and gameplay are considered the cream of the crop. And rightfully so; the XCOM games are fantastic. Unfortunately, legions of games chasing that same ethos don’t always bring the same brilliance to the cause, and thus the genre tends to bleed together and alienate the average player in the process.
Recent years have seen that status quo defied from multiple angles. Into the Breach delivers the best game in the genre by trimming nearly every ounce of fluff from other tactics greats, Triangle Strategy offers a gorgeous revival of the classic tactical JRPG, and Gears Tactics broke free from the grid and injected some immensely satisfying ideas into the genre. Still, none have done what Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle did in 2017: make tactics approachable.
That’s not to say others haven’t tried and succeeded in the past, but the first Mario + Rabbids felt like a turning point in the genre. Since its inception—which was met with critical and fan acclaim—the tactics genre has expanded. Not because Rabbids influenced other greats that came after it, but because in the five years and change since its release, we’ve seen a boom in tactics games. From new takes on classic franchises like Gears Tactics or the upcoming Metal Slug Tactics, to the emergence of smaller experiences like Into the Breach, to returning classics like Tactics Ogre and Advance Wars, the landscape feels different than it did just five short years ago.
Now that we’ve seen this groundswell, Rabbids has much more to reckon with. Luckily, Sparks of Hope lives up to the first game’s legacy in shaking up and reorganizing the very notion of not just the turn-based strategy game, but the first Mario Rabbids game. Mario Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a tactical playground rife with charm whose dazzling score (penned by some of gaming’s greatest composers), measured doses of fanservice, and deeply satisfying (if occasionally shallow) gameplay delight far more often than they have any right to.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a bizarre game. Not necessarily because it’s a crossover between Mario and the Rabbids, but because it bears the trappings of an Ubisoft game and a Nintendo game at the same time. For me, these are dissonant things. Ubisoft’s horrifying business and creative practices, only to be outdone by its workplace culture, aren’t what I’m talking about, either. After all, not even squeaky-clean Nintendo’s above mistreating its employees.
I mean that each major area in Sparks of Hope is an open world, with generic piles of goo to clear away via tactical battles. The worlds surrounding them are distinct and fun enough to be in that they don’t blend together nearly as much as the standard Ubisoft game, but being plopped into an open area full of things to do is overwhelming at first. Luckily, the worlds are small and easy to mainline, so Ubisoft’s trademark bloat is largely nonexistent.
Unfortunately, the structure’s the only Ubisoft trademark that’s missing. Its difficulty options, which offer a few individual selections that allow the player to customize their playing experience are paltry. I played a decent chunk of the game on its hardest difficulty until I realized that the only changes that came with the hard mode involved enemy health and damage. Enemy AI seems to always be the same difficulty, so playing on hard mode effectively just makes every enemy tankier. That’s not the kind of challenge that actually adds anything to the game most of the time and takes away from its overall pacing.
Sparks of Hope is a big game, so it only makes sense that it launches with some bugs at launch, but I can count on more than one hand the number of times I’ve had to restart a battle because I did something that the game wasn’t prepared for. Now I’m pretty savvy when it comes to tactics games, but I’m not that good. The most frustrating instance of this was the fact that I had to restart the gargantuan, three-phase final boss fight twice. It even seems to have some system-level bugs, as it inexplicably altered my Switch’s resolution, causing it to output in 480p, despite being docked and set to 1080p. This happened after leaving the game in sleep mode while playing it handheld on the bus and then docking it.
I’m not a programmer or hardware engineer, but I’ve never had this issue with my Switch aside from when reviewing Sparks of Hope, so I’m reasonably sure that it’s a problem with the game’s native resolution in handheld mode, but I couldn’t say with absolute certainty. However, this does point to the only other real issue with Sparks of Hope: it’s a Switch game. I love the Switch; it’s my favorite piece of gaming hardware, probably ever. I’ve traveled the world with it and played most of my favorite games of all-time on it, including ports like Wolfenstein II, which ran at 30 FPS. I bring this up to make it clear that I have no problem with pared-down experiences as long as they run well and feel good to play on the Switch.
Unfortunately, that can’t always be said of Sparks of Hope. It’s either too much game for the Switch, or it’s poorly optimized. Of course, there’s almost certainly something that I’m missing, but my point stands; the Switch can barely handle this game. Objects and textures pop in during cutscenes and the game throws loading screen after loading screen at you; cycling between menus and battlefield overviews before a battle, entering a battle and even opening the overworld map all present you with a loading screen. It’s rarely an egregiously long loading screen, but it adds up, especially when you’re constantly switching between the battlefield and your menu to get the perfect team and configuration set for each challenge.
These issues make me wonder what this game could feel like if it weren’t bound to nearly six-year-old hardware. Switch Pro rumors and speculation are beyond trite in 2022, but it can’t stop a guy from dreaming.
Thankfully, Rabbids’ meat and potatoes—the tactical gameplay, exploration and puzzle-solving—aren’t too deeply affected by any of these issues. Challenging or not: nailing a perfect turn scratches an itch that few other games do. Puzzles are decidedly less fun and satisfying. Thankfully, they’re minimally invasive distractions that tickle your brain just a bit between battles and reward you with collectibles and currency.
I’ve never played a tactics game where every playable character is given the opportunity to shine the way they do in Sparks of Hope. It’s miraculous, considering there are nine playable characters by the end of the game, each with their own specialties and unique abilities that help fill in different roles. This stands in stark contrast to 2017’s entry, where most characters had slight variations of each others’ movesets and weapons. Mario may have had more movement or aerial stomps than Rabbid Peach, and Rabbid Peach might’ve had some healing abilities where Mario had an ability that let him target opponents during the enemy turn, but at the end of the day, they had very similar weapons and feel. This was the same for about half of the last game’s cast.
In giving each character their own weapon, style, flow and abilities, Sparks of Hope actively encourages you to experiment. Fighting a cluster of enemies might encourage you to use characters whose attacks fill up an area of effect, like Peach or Rabbid Mario, whereas taking on enemies that like to rush you might require Rabbid Luigi or Rabbid Rosalina’s debuffs to avoid taking on too much damage. Every situation has multiple solutions that are as satisfying to put together before the battle as they are to execute. Knocking a line of enemies into a row with Mario’s double-shot using a spark’s bounce effect before decimating them with Edge’s massive sword feels just as good as landing a shot with Luigi from across the battlefield after clearing enemy cover with Rabbid Peach and Bowser.
The addition of Sparks further encourages experimentation and allows each character to take on secondary and even tertiary roles. Most Sparks (the fusion of Rabbids and Lumas of Mario Galaxy fame) have elemental attributes that add various effects and extra damage to each character’s main attack and can be used against enemies that are weak to said element to deal even more extra damage. Other Sparks might allow you to summon a friendly unit or apply buffs to allies and debuffs to enemies, or even bring enemies closer to you or scare them away. Sparks act like special abilities and operate on a cooldown once used the same way a special ability would in any other tactics game.
The only difference here is that Sparks are completely modular: Mario and Rabbid Rosalina can both use a spark that sends a shockwave around them or one that temporarily turns them invisible. When paired with each character’s unique skill tree and weapon, you’re presented with near-limitless freedom to set up exactly what you’re going for—within reason.
That caveat stings a bit. Sparks of Hope introduces a number of interesting twists to the franchise; some good and others frustrating coming off of the first game’s DLC, though not necessarily bad. Overall things are tighter, but also a bit more strict. The movement’s cut off after attacking for everyone but Rabbid Mario, and even that is locked deep in his skill tree, and it also can’t be undone like it can in the previous game. That keeps battles flowing faster, since the last game separated plotting out a move and actually performing the move, whereas Sparks of Hope adds some action-style gameplay into movement.
Instead of controlling a cursor as you’re crafting the perfect turn, you’re actually controlling the character that’s moving. That, combined with the new grid-free battlefields, makes Rabbids feel much more engaging in its moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s easy to get lost in long, plodding turns in other tactics games as your units each move and shoot. One of Sparks of Hope’s greatest achievements in the genre comes in its bucking of that trend by turning team jumps and slide and stomp attacks into real-time actions.
Those were all included as parts of the movement sections in the previous entry, and still are, but now they happen the moment you choose to use them. In Sparks of Hope, bob-ombs make an appearance for the express purpose of injecting even more action into each battle. Once you dash into them, each character can pick them up and throw them. They’re on a timer, though, which makes every interaction with them one of urgency. It’s another small addition that ends up carrying a lot of weight in the long run.
This game’s bombastic score—a collaboration between three incredibly talented composers (Grant Kirkhope, of Banjo and Kazooie fame, who’s returning from the previous game and its DLC; Yoko Shimomura, whose most well-known work can be found in Street Fighter II and the Kingdom Hearts franchise; and Gareth Coker, the composer for both Ori games)—highlights each artist’s diverse chops while also maintaining a thematically cohesive soundtrack. Shimomura’s dramatic sensibilities might come out in full force for a battle theme only to give way to a moodier track from Coker before Kirkhope’s whimsical, exciting style reminds users that this is, in fact, a crossover between Mario and the Rabbids.
With occasional nods and winks at Mario’s interplanetary adventures on the Wii, it’s only fitting that Sparks of Hope came out within a week of Super Mario Galaxy’s 15th anniversary. Sound cues from my first Mario game tickled my nostalgia bone. It’s somewhat low-hanging fruit, but Rosalina’s storybook theme always gets me.
Overall, Sparks of Hope takes a less outwardly slapstick approach to its storytelling and cutscenes than the last game, opting instead to rely on writing in its overworld to deliver the laughs and letting its cutscenes try and hit a more dramatic tone. The same way that Rabbid Rosalina’s a fan of Rosalina in the game, this entry unabashedly wears its fandom of Mario Galaxy in particular on its sleeve. Looking deeper, there’s a cute metanarrative about homage, fandom and fan service in Rabbid Rosalina’s character that’s worth exploring in itself given how dedicated the Mario franchise is to being both reverent to its past and continually breaking new ground.
Mario Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a surprising game on all accounts. It manages to shake up tried-and-true elements from the last game and the strategy genre as a whole and even rewrite the rules dictating what it means to be a tactics game. Where the last game set out to make tactics gameplay approachable for a wider audience, Sparks of Hope seeks to inject its own clever spin on the turn-based strategy genre, and in doing so delivers a fantastic experience. Complete with one of the best scores in any Nintendo game, fun puzzle-solving and solid exploration, Mario Rabbids Sparks of Hope isn’t just a follow-up to a game derisively categorized as “baby’s first tactics game” by hardcore fans of the genre; it’s a tactics game for everyone that everyone should play.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope was developed and published by Ubisoft. It’s available for the Switch.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.