Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope cuts back on linearity and spotlights exploration
We've seen a fresh batch of gameplay and even had a chat with creative director Davide Soliani.
Amid the hype of the all-digital E3 last year, during the Ubisoft showcase the publisher's Italian branch, Ubisoft Milan, lifted the curtain on a sequel to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Coming from the same talented team led by Davide Soliani, this sequel is the continuation of the partnership Ubisoft started with Nintendo almost a decade ago, a collaborative effort that birthed one of the most unique and unusual Mario games in a long time. A year later, Ubisoft is finally ready to show off another look at this very sequel, known as Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, and has done so at a showcase that has just wrapped up. I've been able to take an early look at the game as part of a preview event, and even caught up with Soliani, the creative director at Ubisoft Milan, to learn even more about the anticipated title.
For those who are unaware, the original game's creation was quite an inspirational and memorable story, one where Soliani and a small team of developers had to convince Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto to work with them. This started with a board game and a brief prototype demo that escalated and grew into the game we've known since 2017. But as Sparks of Hope is coming off this successful first instalment, I was wondering whether working on the sequel has allowed Ubisoft Milan to be a little more creative in what they can offer now that they have the experience of one Mario game under their belts.
"We do have all the freedom in the world to propose anything, because that's the whole point, proposing something that Nintendo could not do on their own or something that is completely crazy," said Soliani.
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And crazy is the keyword here, as Sparks of Hope plays significantly differently to Kingdom Battle. The games may look similar and have familiar beats, but this is a very unique approach to the Mario + Rabbids series, one where the heavy-focus on strategy has been partly side-lined in favour of adventuring and exploration. You can see this in how the combat is served up, as the linear nature of Kingdom Battle has been axed. In Sparks of Hope, players will be able to travel to different planets in the galaxy to help save the powerful Sparks (which are combinations of Lumas and Rabbids) that are dotted around. And because of this design, Ubisoft Milan has chosen to create freely explorable locations where you can interact with characters, take on side quests, and when necessary, still start a fight.
"In Sparks of Hope, you basically navigate and discover the planet as you please," Soliani told me. "You decide where to embark on a combat or help inhabitants of a planet, so there's a circular kind of movement inside the world that gives a lot of agency to the player, and this is what we were searching for."
But as for how the planets differ, Soliani gave me a few examples. "Each planet has its own narrative, each planet has its own type of quests, its own Wardens that are trying to protect the planet." The Italian developer continued, "but in terms of pure topography, level design, and creation, we tried to offer in one planet more verticality. In one planet underground exploration. On another planet, we created a cluster of gameplay bubbles separated from each other."
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You might be wondering how this style of design affects the combat. The actual combat scenarios can be engaged by bumping or sliding into foes that are roaming around each planet. When you do so, you'll be transported to the Darkmess dimension, a dreary and grim location ruled by Sparks of Hope's main antagonist, Cursa, the very being that wants to claim all of the Sparks for itself. The reason for this gameplay choice, as Soliani puts it, was "we wanted to have way more battles than Kingdom Battle," and to do so meant that the combat needed to be separated from the exploration and creation of each planet location.
But, by also separating the combat from exploration, it has allowed Ubisoft Milan to take further risks and drastically change how combat works. Gone are the grids and turn-based strategy gameplay, and in its wake is a real-time movement system, where you can make decisions, and then change them if you don't like how they'd pan out. You can also combo better than ever with allies and even interact and use the level to your advantage like never before. For example, you can slide at a Bob-omb, pick it up, throw it at a foe, while jumping on one of your teammates to launch to a new position, and ultimately get a flanking shot on another enemy.
"This real-time movement basically completely changed how quickly you intervene within the combat scenes," Soliani stated. He also told me, "this was a game-changer because now you can go anywhere inside your eye of movement." By making some big changes here, Soliani does hope that fans will enjoy the experience more, even if the overhaul does leave him a bit anxious. "I really want them to enjoy the combat system because we worked it from scratch. This is my biggest reason to be excited but also the biggest reason to be a bit tense."
Expanding on the combat further, the gameplay shows how players can look to expand and improve their roster of heroes. Between finding and using different Sparks for unique attack styles, such as electric, water, ice, or fire damage, players will be able to level-up each hero, to unlock new moves and gear, and to make them stronger and more lethal when in battle.
As for the roster of heroes, the recent showcase has just revealed that Bowser will be joining the fray as the final playable character (alongside Mario, Rabbid Mario, Peach, Rabbid Peach, Luigi, Rabbid Luigi, Rabbid Rosalina, and the mysterious sword-wielding Rabbid, Edge). He'll be joining the ally roster because the new big baddie, Cursa has taken over Bowser's army and now the typical antagonist wants revenge.
For those who are wondering where the actual Rosalina is, or even a Rabbids version of Bowser, Soliani told me, "as a player and as developers, we would love to include as many Nintendo or Rabbids characters as possible. But the reality is creating those heroes, with nice synergy in combat, it requires a lot of time and effort." He continued, "after the success of Kingdom Battle, one of the most beloved characters was Rabbids Peach. When you create Sparks of Hope, and you have to create other characters, Rabbids Peach is going to be a reference. It's very hard to come up with something that could match Rabbids Peach. That was our biggest challenge."
Looking at the narrative itself, Soliani also informed me that while this is a sequel, the game has been designed in such a way that it can be played without needing to experience Kingdom Battle, even if there will be the occasional narrative thread that ties the two together. But at the same time, while the word 'sequel' was thrown around a lot, Soliani also wanted to affirm, "we basically didn't treat this as a sequel. We went back to the drawing board and we reworked everything from the ground up. So, the game has completely changed, even if it's born from the foundation of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle."
Even though a galaxy-trotting adventure is hardly new ground for the Mario brand, by treating this as a new project that was being built from the ground-up, Ubisoft Milan has been able to create a narrative that is a bit more mature in its themes and in the way it looks to tell a story. While Soliani refrained from diving into any spoilers, you could hear the excitement and also a little bit of nerves in the way that he passionately described the newfound approach. He sounded off on the matter by simply saying, "I do hope that the player will enjoy it. I loved it. I love it, and I hope they will love it as well."