Mario and Rabbids Kingdom Battle was a wonderful surprise when it launched a few years ago. Driven by the tropes of the genre and infused with that textbook Mario charm, it caught me off guard by how lovingly crafted it was.
Going in to play Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope, I knew exactly what to expect and it somehow still managed to surprise me. With the bones of the previous game but tonnes of new ideas and ways to play with the formula, I was left wanting just a little bit more time.
For a game like this that may take tens of hours to get through, this "just one more match" mentality is so important. Luckily, every little bit of the game feels designed to get you to come back for more.
Not here for the story
Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope cares much more about its world than its story. You have to cure a world from spreading darkness with the help of Rabbids and a new Rabbid type of Luma. Not only do they look incredibly silly but they can be attached to any of your characters to give you a nice new move and a special buff. This will go anywhere from adding flames to your weapons to a toxic AOE attack.
Luckily, this is not the only new addition in the game so far. Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope takes a lot more joy in the exploration. Though the addition of Rabbid Rosalina and Rabbid Lumas really wants the players to compare Sparks of Hope to Mario Galaxy, Mario Odyssey feels like a much more natural comparison to make. Areas are like small dioramas with side quests and secrets to find.
You can bust through secret walls, crack codes and fight rare enemies. Although you don't have access to a jump mechanic as you explore, it plays around with these limitations by placing cannons around the map, firing you off to new patches of land. It's a shame Mario can't jump but it makes up for this in its level design. You are set loose on an island, allowed to chase the main quest or slowly uncover everything it has to show you.
Take to the skies
While they have pushed it forward, the same basic combat underlies Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope. If you've played XCOM before, you have a decent idea of how it works. You are placed on a field, with a handful of enemies, cover to move around and skills to use. It is more of a strategy game than anything else, requiring you to think two or three turns ahead and place all of your characters in advantageous positions.
When an enemy is not behind cover, you have a 100% chance of hitting them, going down to 50% behind partial cover, and 0% when are behind full cover or out of sight. Each character has a different type of weapon, leading to a rock-paper-scissors-like combat structure. You can scan the field before encounters, changing out Lumas or characters to best handle them. There is a sense of verticality that was missing from the previous game.
Alongside this, you have bounce mechanics, allowing you to jump off a friendly unit into the area, where you have extended range and some fun new combat tricks. This is great and encourages sneaking up on your enemy for loads of damage. There are light RPG systems, allowing you to plan out every character and build the best unit for different types of encounters. This allows some long-form strategy that the previous game didn't have.
Successful battles are more than just the culmination of good shots and strategy - they are the sign of a well-thought-out team. You can upgrade your Lumas with bits or characters with each level, granting them extra health, damage, or more. Unfortunately, you can't customize your weapons, leaving you with the same base archetypes throughout the game. Though there isn't a huge amount to change from match to match, there's just enough to keep you grinding against the less substantive enemies.
During my time with the game, I got to play the intro, as well as two different worlds. One was a small fishing town with a lighthouse and the other was an icy zone with a much colder heart at the centre. They both managed to play into their settings well with the former having water-based puzzles and secrets and the latter using heat and steam to its advantage. It felt clever in the way those old LEGO games do - a certain joyous creativity.
Each level had some rotting core to it that you had to figure out but that allows the areas themselves to bear signs of that rot. You peel back each world by yourself, destroying the darkness or figuring out what is wrong with its civilians. You can pick up special coins in every world that give you either encyclopaedic knowledge of enemies or just new skins for your weapon. It's a nice reward for exploration that doesn't make you totally overpowered for the boss. It's a relatively easy game but that sense of strategy gives a great level of satisfaction.
Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope doesn't take itself seriously and this allows it space to be a great sequel. They don't feel worried about destroying the canon or staying tonally consistent. Injecting the Rabbids into a situation leaves it feeling so inherently silly that you don't bother to really figure it all out. A sense of fun sits at the centre of every decision I've seen so far.
This is what made the first game shine. It was made with both kids and adults in mind and, if you don't take yourself too seriously, you can really get invested in that silly world. Though I can't guarantee the proceeding twenty hours will impress me as much, I'm invested in seeing what the end product is like on its launch on October 20, 2022