Review – Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is aptly named. Pardon my ultra cheesy cliché with this one, but it does showcase a bit of hope for a game company in dire need of some goodwill. Over the past few months, Ubisoft has been delivering bad news after bad news (delays, cancellations, NFTs), as well as a myriad of underwhelming releases, namely their latest Ghost Recon games, mobile outings, and a battle royale you didn’t even remember it existed prior to reading this sentence. Sparks of Hope is a different beast. Much like its phenomenal predecessor, as well as creative games like Watch Dogs: Legion (yes, I’m still defending this one), it showcases that passion projects are still being made by this company. The talent is still there, with Ubisoft being able to deliver great things when they aren’t hampered by unnecessary decisions from their higher-ups.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is one of the best games of the year, and one of the best exclusives available on the Nintendo Switch. I called its predecessor “the best dumb idea in the history of gaming”, mixing Mario, the then-insufferable Rabbids, and XCOM, in a shockingly cohesive package. However, it did leave a LOT of room for improvement. It was too linear, devoid of the kind of exploration we’d eventually see in games like Super Mario Odyssey or Bowser’s Fury. It also needed a bit more Mario elements in what was a game that felt less like Mario and more like Rabbids. In summary, it felt like a successful experiment, with a potential sequel being able to build upon its strong foundations. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is exactly that.
While we don’t play Mario games for their story, I have to say that Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope has a decent one, all things considered. It starts off right at the end of the previous game, with the people of the Mushroom Kingdom now happily living alongside the rabbit-like abominations, until a mysterious force of darkness (called DarkMess) shows up and starts wreaking havoc on the various realms present in this particular version of the Mario universe. The gang quickly finds out about the existence of Sparks, Rabbid-Luna hybrids that can rid the world from said DarkMess. They quickly decide to venture from world to world, rescuing and recruiting new Sparks in order to defeat the big baddie by the end of it.
The Sparks work well as the game’s main MacGuffin. They are equal parts Power Stars from Mario 64 and collectable pokémon. You can collect them, train them, and use them in battle alongside your main characters. For instance, I tied a poison-type Spark to Mario, which dealt an area-of-effect sludge wave to infect enemies around him. I also tied a fire-type Spark that unleashed a meteor shower that can burn enemies, as well as destroy surrounding walls. Not to mention still being able to freely move around a specific radius as my character per turn, do slide attacks, and then perform your turn-ending shot. As long as you have ability points, the world is your oyster. With smart thinking, you can win a battle in your first turn.
Other elements need to be taken into consideration. Items like the POW Block can deal a horrendous amount of area-of-effect damage towards enemies close to each other. Some status effects, like burn, poison, or electricity, can be spread in the same manner. If you soak an enemy with a water status effect, it oddly becomes bouncy, meaning you can then throw it out of the arena, dealing “out-of-bounds” damage. I haven’t even mentioned how each character plays differently from each other, with Mario being the standard, rounded up character, Luigi being a sniper, Rabbid Peach being a cleric, and Rabbid Rosalina (what an amazing character!) being an unstoppable force of destruction with her stupidly overpowered machine gun.
Suffice to say, I loved Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope‘s combat. Way more its predecessor. In games like this, with a lot of admittedly long and complex combat sections, I tend to avoid picking more brawls than necessary. But in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope‘s case, I was grinding because I simply wanted to. I legitimately loved the combat to the point I was looking for trouble just so I could test new builds, new loadouts, and new characters to use. When it comes to turn-based games, I don’t think I have enjoyed a combat section like this ever since Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, way back in 2016.
But the combat is just half of what I loved from the gameplay improvements in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. For as much as it is pristine, the star of the show lies outside of combat sections. It’s the overworld exploration that elevates this game to new heights. And yes, for as ironic as it may sound, I am about to praise the hell out of an open world exploration loop in a Ubisoft game. You’ve been warned.
Essentially, each level feels like a world from Super Mario Odyssey. You have your main objectives, which are basically what you HAVE to complete before tackling everything else the level has to offer. But once you do, each world opens up like a collectathon. The amount of sidequests in each level is ludicrous, but never exhausting. I actively wanted to 100% each area before leaving towards the next one; that goes to show how well-designed and entertaining each level is.
There are basically two main collectables to look for once you liberate a level from the power of DarkMess. The first one is more Sparks, which are usually given out as prizes for more obtuse and complex sidequests. The other main collectable is each world’s specific “Planet Coin”. Collect enough of them and exchange them for a key, which will unlock an ultimate gauntlet mission in each world, where its rarest and most powerful Spark. You can also buy skins for your weapons with additional Planet Coins, but to be fair, they are super ugly. I stuck to the main skins throughout my entire playthrough, buying these extra ones just for completion’s sake. I had spare Coins, so why not just spend them, right?
That’s right: Ubisoft nailed the open world in one of their games, miraculously enough. Sure, they basically threw in the level design and philosophy from a much better open world game, but I don’t see that as a problem. In fact, the overall gameplay in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is almost perfect. The only problems I had with it were its occasionally annoying camera controls and some minute, but frequent, framerate drops. But there’s a reason to the latter.
Considering the pitiful hardware at its disposal, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is shockingly gorgeous. One of the best-looking games on the Switch, being a noticeable improvement over its predecessor, at the cost of more framerate drops. Characters are superbly well-animated as well. I can’t help but love how Ubisoft went out of its way to give appropriate animations and personalities to each Rabbid in the game, making them feel less annoying in the process. The way Rabbid Rosalina walks in a “I really can’t deal with your b***s*** right now” way is just a delight.
Let’s not ignore the fact that each level is immense and incredibly well-designed, feeling less like a plastic toy set like the levels from Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope‘s predecessor. They aren’t particularly THEMATICALLY creative (the first world is beach-themed, the second one is ice-themed, and so on), but they are vibrant, colorful, and full of elements that make each one of them stand out. It’s also impressive how Ubisoft has finally managed to come up with an art style and particular color palette that made the worlds of Mario and Rabbids mix together in a very cohesive way. The uncanny valley effect from its predecessor is gone now.
I cannot ignore the game’s FANTASTIC sound design as well. First of all, there’s the soundtrack. Grant Kirkhope is back at it, and he’s as good as ever. In the first Mario + Rabbids game, most of his tunes were recreations of famous Mario tunes with their own distinct Kirkhope spin. That means they were excellent, but they were, for the most part, rearrangements. In Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, good old Grant was free to compose a new batch of tunes that feel more like his own stuff, with their characteristic “Rare from the late 90s” vibe I can’t help but love. It’s one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time.
Finally, I need to talk about the voice acting. For there is way more voice acting in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope than I was expecting. As in, I was not expecting for any at all, besides the usual exposition-heavy voiced dialogue uttered by the floating rumba that accompanies you throughout the whole the game. Other Rabbids utter a few voice clips here and there, be it during dialogue sections or during combat. And they did not suck. On the contrary, they were fine. My favorite of the bunch being Edge, a character I can best describe as Ubisoft making fun of every single Tetsuya Nomura character ever created in the most hilarious of ways. At least I hope that was the intention.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is the gift that keeps on giving. Its predecessor was excellent, but left a lot of room for improvements. Ubisoft took that as a foundation and made Sparks of Hope bigger, prettier, funnier… in summary, it’s better in every single conceivable way. By turning its overworld exploration into a mini collectathon, the game has managed to feel even more like a traditional Mario game with a much more polished gameplay twist. As mentioned in the beginning of my review, it’s also a game that shows there’s still a spark of hope for Ubisoft. The company is still able to deliver some amazing passion projects. As long as a higher-up doesn’t interfere with the developers’ vision.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is one of the prettiest games on the Switch, with phenomenal animations, but it does suffer from some noticeable framerate issues.
A more robust combat system, which gives you more freedom to do some crazy crap against enemies. The start of the show, however, is the open-ended exploration, turning each level in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope into a miniature collectathon world.
Grant Kirkhope’s soundtrack is both nostalgic and fresh. The voice acting included in the game was also surprisingly funny, despite all odds indicating it would be a disaster.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s better than its predecessor in every single conceivable way: looks, music, gameplay, humor, and most importantly, content.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is available now on Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope was provided by the publisher.