When a game takes you by surprise, it becomes hard to really understand how good it is. This is why I can't help but look fondly at Mario and Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Now committing to the formula, Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope manages to do what few games can - follow up a surprise hit with a sequel that is just as competent.
Relying on many of the factors that made the first game stand out, it builds on it in meaningful ways delivering an experience that is reminiscent of the first game yet wholly unique.
Before establishing how it turns on the formula, it is important to first understand how it nails it.
A small spark
Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope seems to care very little about its story. Helping Rabbid Mario find part of his outfit while he sits in a bush, your castle is ambushed by Darkmess, the spreading of a great darkness upon the world.
This all follows Cursa, a powerful entity looking to harvest the sparks (a Rabbid Luma) for their own nefarious purposes. In retaliation, you must assemble a group of heroes, willing to travel across the galaxy to the heart of this evil and stop it at its core.
Though a simple tale, this allows the players to explore a handful of little worlds, all with their own problems and people. Levels are essentially split up into tiny dioramas that you can explore and piece together. Though there are plenty of comparisons one could make, the closest, at least in a story sense, is Mario Odyssey. You are given a main objective but far too many distractions to take the optimal path.
Building from an ember
Most of these puzzles are solved by moving and navigating through blocks or taking down enemies at the centre. Though it doesn't shake up the moment-to-moment gameplay quite as much as Odyssey, Sparks of Hope's focus is elsewhere. Each combat encounter is essentially its own little minigame, having you look over a battlefield and figure out the best way to get through it.
Though obviously inspired by the likes of XCOM, Mario and Rabbids Sparks of Hope is clearly a much more arcadey attempt at the formula. As you continue to grow and get experience, each character can explore a level tree, putting points into the right skills and making your own builds. It's never overly complex, but adds enough depth to keep you constantly moving towards the next milestone.
By the end of the game, you will have invested in multiple trees, leaving less of a need for a specific build but, early on, the variety in combat really shows itself. As Mario, you can opt to focus heavily on defensive abilities or put tonnes of points into his movement skills. These branching paths fundamentally change the way you view each combat encounter.
A roaring flame
Another meaningful choice made to combat is through Sparks. They can be equipped to any character, giving both a combat skill and a passive buff. With tens of different sparks to choose from, you can wildly change your combat plan at the start of every fight. As an example of this, when playing Edge - a new character - I focused on their dash ability, allowing them to hit multiple times in a single move. I then attached two sparks, infusing that dash with water and life steal, keeping them moving and healing every two turns.
This level of creativity is excellent, and enemies having weaknesses and resistances means you have to constantly change your sparks to adequately deal with every encounter. You can crank up the difficulty and really think about your encounters or push it down for some casual fun. With robust difficulty and accessibility settings, Sparks of Hope manages to do a good job of appealing to all age groups - something the first game attempted.
The game's focus on side content can leave the main quest feeling a little bloated. Most of the game's enemies follow your level and powers until a certain point, where you will be significantly stronger. This doesn't tend to happen as you follow the main quest but doing all of the side content can leave you significantly higher level than the game intends you to be. This makes it so that the right build can almost clear entire fights by itself.
Unfortunately, this is part of where the game starts to lose focus. The further you get in, the more your challenges and puzzles feel the same. There's a little bit of a grind to finish the game that is only alleviated somewhat by new ways of finishing quests.
Your robot companion is given more skills as you get through the game that helps you to tackle new puzzles but many of the game's combat encounters feel the same. New planets start to feel like a skin change, as opposed to a meaningful uprooting of what we've previously known.
With great visuals and dynamic music, there's enough to keep you going but, if you weren't enthralled by the first half, the second won't change your mind. Sparks of Hope gets so much right but its commitment to the formula leaves the latter planets feeling familiar - slowing down what could have been the game's biggest selling point.