Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was such an unexpected delight when it was first released only five months into the Nintendo Switch's lifecycle. Mario! And the Rabbids? How can that be? Of all the crossovers in video games, why would you bring these two together? Whatever the reason for it, I'm glad as to this day it's one of the best games on the console. That's a high bar indeed, one that its sequel – Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope – fails to reach, even if it's still a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Five years on, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope attempts to build upon its predecessor with a grander story that takes the Mushroom Kingdom residents and Rabbids to space – fans of Super Mario Galaxy will be very pleased in this regard. It also introduces a more free-flowing turn-based combat system that integrates real-time action to give the player a better choice of how they approach every battle.
On the surface, this sounds like a homerun. It's just that Sparks of Hope occasionally loses that same bizarre and brilliant creativity that made the first game a must-play. Aside from the tedious opening, I really enjoyed my playthrough yet constantly was aware of how much better it could have been if different decisions were made, making it something that's good but not great.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: price and release date
- What is it? A turn-based action-adventure starring Mario and the Rabbids that serves as a sequel to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
- Release date? October 20, 2022
- What platforms can I play it on? Nintendo Switch
- Price? $59.99 / £49.99 / AU$79.95
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: What is it?
We pick up the story in the heart of the Mushroom Kingdom, with Princess Peach's Castle now playing host to the Rabbids following the conclusion of Kingdom Battle. All seems well until Cursa, a dark entity that intends to spread its icky matter – known as Darkmess – across the galaxy by draining all the Sparks (a new hybrid species of Lumas and Rabbids) of their power. It's then up to Mario, Luigi, Peach and their Rabbid variations to collect purified forms of Darkmess, so they can create Warp Tunnels and ultimately, stop Cursa.
I appreciate that developer Ubisoft attempted to craft a somewhat different story, unlike the tired narrative of Peach being kidnapped by Bowser for the umpteenth time. In fact, the King of the Koopas is along for the ride too, bringing some fun dynamics between the group. It's nowhere near the comedic levels as say the Paper Mario series, but it has its moments.
Additionally, in the absence of Yoshi (boo!), Rabbid Rosalina and a punk-goth Rabbid called Edge join the crew. They're fine. Rosalina's demure and sleepy mannerisms are pretty endearing, likely more appealing for young kids. Edge is cliched from the beginning, often feeling unnecessary. I'd have much preferred to just focus on the original Rabbid trio like the selfie-obsessed Rabbid Peach, who continues to be the standout. I've already been quoting "#healingjourney" for a good week now.
The main journey takes place across five explorable planets, each one home to battles, puzzles, quests, challenges and a total of 30 Sparks to unlock. Starting with Beacon Beach, I found all of them pretty bland, leaving much to be desired regarding their personality outside of the surroundings. It might be because each planet is overrun with Darkmess, so only when you've completed the level does it start to feel more distinct and by that point, you're onto the next one.
The same can be said for the lacklustre characters you encounter on each planet, such as the self-proclaimed sun god Augie or poetry writer Woodrow. A distinct lack of Bwario and Bwaluigi too.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: How does it play
Battles make up the majority of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, based around a three versus three turn-based combat system where two actions can be used per turn. This can either be a Weapon Attack, Hero Power, Spark Power or Item Usage with the former two unique to each individual character, such as Luigi's Sharpshooter working better from a distance, and Peach's Boom-Brella better up close. Once the player has used up all of their Action Points, the turn ends and the enemies begin.
It's superb, tweaking enough to keep things interesting for returning players while making it simple enough to pick up for newcomers. Like every modern game, Sparks of Hopes comes with a Skill Tree, where you can invest points earned over time in ways to upgrade health, movement, weapons or technique. Experience is shared throughout all team members too, so you never feel like anyone is being left behind. I was glad of this considering Luigi, Peach and Rabbid Peach established themselves very quickly as my main trio.
Sparks, in particular, are a great new addition. The goofy star-like creatures offer either an elemental advantage or some other perk that can help shift the odds in your favour. Two can be assigned to each team member, giving lots of options. I mostly fell back on three: Starburst for an enhanced attack, Exosphere to help take less damage and Pyrogeddon for raining down meteors upon all that stood in my way. Already I can hear dollar signs ringing in Nintendo's head with a plushy toy line ripe for the taking.
Unlike Kingdom Battle, Sparks of Hope removes the grid-based formula for more open areas that can be explored freely within that character's movement radius. It's a smart change, probably one of the most significant but it feels like a modern evolution rather than an odd sidestep.
Boss battles, on the other hand, do feel like a step backwards, feeling generic from time to time especially compared to the first game. There's nothing like the operatic Phantom singer, for instance. Too much focus is given to the Darkmess. So, instead of fighting say, Rabbid Kong, you are now trying to destroy a dozen eyeballs on a volcano. The only time this really felt exciting was an encounter with an enranged Wiggler that was slamming into a train and my team needed to take out eyeballs along its body before we were railroaded off the track.
Beep-0, the gang's adorable robot assistant, eventually gets granted new powers to help take on different puzzles. These are cool new inclusions, it's just a shame there's only two. We also get a new companion in JEANIE (Jovial Electronic Artificial Neuronic Intelligent Elite), the Rabbids' spaceship AI who provides lore on the planets visited. The question is: does Sparks of Hope really need lore? It comes across as filler for the sake of it.
Sparks of Hope's gameplay is smooth when blown up on a big TV, though it felt more at home on my Switch OLED. This is a game designed for laying back on the sofa or playing on the move. I did encounter a couple of framerate issues concerning cutscenes, however. Also, during the final boss fight, the enemy's damage wasn't depleting so I was really confused as to whether I was making progress and was insanely close to restarting.
One of the biggest headaches stemmed from loading. As you are constantly jumping in and out of battle, Sparks of Hope goes through a lot of loads – each taking around five to 15 seconds. Similarly, menus take longer than they should to boot up, making everything more sluggish than it should be. A simple door puzzle was excruciating due to the numerous loads needed in between.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: How does it look and sound?
Upon early footage of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, it was rumoured that the game was running on a Nintendo Switch Pro or Nintendo Switch 2. In hindsight, those rumours now seem silly as graphically it's quite disappointing. It doesn't seem much of a leap from the original, and that's a five-year difference.
The hub worlds are all lifeless and the draw distance suffers. Cutscenes equally failed to inspire (also a minor grievance but skins don't apply in weapon cutscenes, which is not great for anyone that paid extra for them in the Gold Edition). Kingdom Battle's colours popped better, so potentially it's an artistic choice. Either way, it didn't hit for me.
I have to say that voice acting failed to work, either. Having only Beep-0, who now speaks like Stewie Griffin yet more annoying, and JEANIE speak while the Rabbids say the odd word and the Mario characters keep quiet felt very out of place. It killed every ounce of my affection for Beep-0. Instead, little things such as Luigi going "zoom zoom" like a Thierry Henry advert whenever he goes from a walk into a run always made me raise a smile. Sometimes less is more.
Grant Kirkhope works his magic once again on the game's orchestral wonderful soundtrack, accompanied this time by Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) and Gareth Coker (Halo Infinite). The trio have produced a rousing rendition of top-notch tunes that compliment the glowing scenery or tense battles while adding a blend of Mario charm. Fans won't be disappointed.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: How long to beat?
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope took me just over 15 hours to roll credits on. For the most part, I focused on the story (due to time limitations) while also testing out all of the side-quests on the first planet. With that, I'd expect it to take the average person close to 20 hours to complete and probably another 10 hours to unlock everything.
A Season Pass is also available for those that are looking to get more in the future, including additional story content, new characters, quests and battles. This will be included for anyone that picks up the Gold Edition of the game. Best of all, Rayman is set to be to star in his own DLC at some point too.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hopes doesn't quite live up to the high expectations set by its predecessor but its turn-based combat advances in a modern and fitting way, with a terrific orchestral soundtrack and fun new addition in Sparks that fans of the first game will still enjoy. It's good but it could have been great.
I can't stress enough how fantastic Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is. I never really considered myself a fan of X-com-style games until this came along, pairing Mario together with the Rabbids for an adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom. It's whimsical and downright weird but it works! It possesses one of my favourite boss fights ever in the Phantom while sporting a superb control system that will appeal to both newcomers and veterans.