Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope has more Mario charm and less turned-based strategy
We've gone hands-on with Ubisoft's upcoming strategy sequel, and experienced the new exploration options, the improved combat, and clocked in some time as Rabbids Rosalina and Edge.
A few months back, I had the opportunity to check out a bunch of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope gameplay, and even speak with creative director Davide Soliani to learn all about what makes this sequel so unique. Ever since that day (well... since the game was unveiled truthfully), I have been engrossed by this title and incredibly excited about it, because it seemed like Ubisoft had looked at the original and really focused on improving and iterating on the slower and less engaging parts of the gameplay. Of course, this was all just a speculative thought, or rather it was, as now that I have had the chance to play through a couple of levels for a few hours, I can add that this is shaping up to be a very impressive experience.
To start with, before I dive into the gameplay, let's talk tone. Like the original Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Sparks of Hope has that wonderful combination of Mario charm and heroism, and Rabbids humour and chaos. The Mushroom Kingdom-based heroes and characters are all once again brilliantly and perfectly offered up, and this is all bolstered by the return of the macho Rabbids Mario, the endlessly hilarious Rabbids Peach, and the various other new and returning faces from this Ubisoft-centric IP. If anything, it often feels like Ubisoft has been given a bit more creative freedom in how they present each character, as the charisma of each individual feels deeper and broader than it did in the first game.
This sort of creative freedom can be seen in the gameplay at pretty much every turn as well. The combat is an entirely different beast than it was previously, and I'll get to that soon, but looking solely at the world design and the way that you can explore, Sparks of Hope already feels more like a Mario game than its predecessor. Each planet has been served up almost like it was in Super Mario Galaxy (albeit as a horizontal level and not a spherical one). You can wander around as you see fit, explore the quirks of each location, and hunt for secrets and goodies that are off the beaten path and hidden from immediate sight, which offer up lore or helpful items that can be brought into battle or used to level up heroes or Sparks. There are also new characters to meet here, many of which will have side quests and other activities for you to complete, all alongside roaming enemies that when engaged with, will allow you to enter into a combat scenario.
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And this is where the next bulk of changes come into effect, as unlike Kingdom Battle and its incredibly rigid turn-based strategy combat system, here you are far more open to tackle battles in the way that suits you. Within a turn, each character has a specific area that they can move within, and you can do so freely without worrying about grid spaces. You can also expand this range with team jumps, pipes, tunnels, and so on, meaning you can really cross the battlefield in a way that wasn't previously available. Then to add to this, you have the option to interact with certain enemies, for example Bob-ombs, which can now be slide-tackled and then picked up and thrown at enemies within a single character's turn, and all of this is without even considering using action points to actually attack an opponent.
Here, you have the option of using two, often offensive, moves. It could be simply attacking an enemy with your weapon, or could be using a special ability, or the ability of the newly added Sparks. These adorable combinations of Lumas and Rabbids allow your heroes to use new moves that are elementally charged, for example fire attacks or water attacks. They're great for taking down healthy foes who have a certain weakness against an element, and also provide your hero with some resistance against attacks that correspond to that Sparks' elemental type. And you may be wondering how you could possibly know what Spark is best to take into battle before that combat scenario starts? The Tacticam pre-battle phase where you can use Beep-O to study up on enemies has been expanded, so you can change your team or Spark combination before getting into the nitty-gritty of combat.
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While the returning characters all play similarly, I have had the chance to play with a couple of the new faces: Edge and Rabbids Rosalina. The latter is a fantastic character when it comes to humour and her on-screen presence in cutscenes and so forth, but in actual combat plays more similarly to a typical hero. She has a multiple-shot primary weapon, and then can use a special move to essentially neutralise any attacks or movements of enemies for an entire couple of turns. She plays a more careful and safe role than say Rabbids Mario, who prefers to get into the heat of battle and let his fists do the talking. And on this topic, we have Edge, the spiky-haired heroine that sports a sword that would make Final Fantasy's Cloud jealous. She fights by flinging this sword at foes, and then can also spin around on the spot to attack enemies that move within her vicinity when using her special move. Edge feels quite powerful and capable, and the sort of character you want on a team with Rabbids Rosalina, as she brings a tanky, aggressive presence to the battle.
Looking at the progression, this comes in a few different ways as well. The skill trees for each character are back, but this has been tightened up with skill points that are acquired by levelling up (with experience being earned from battles), and skill points being equivalent to one upgrade - rather than Kingdom Battle's system of having to acquire a bunch of Power Orbs to be able to purchase a single upgrade. To add to this, you can level up Sparks by spending Star Bits found through exploration and defeating enemies in battle, to improve the effectiveness of each Spark's ability. And of course there are Coins to pick up along the way, which can be used to buy items, such as Mushrooms, at the shop to make combat more approachable - I would recommend doing this, as some boss battles have multiple phases and will require you to be very strategic about your actions.
Generally speaking, I found it very difficult to dislike Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope from what I saw. It has an expanded and improved combat system over the original, and then a bolstered exploration offering that makes it truly feel like a top-notch Mario game through and through. This doesn't look or play like a turn-based strategy game anymore. No, this is almost a 3D Mario platforming title with strategy elements, and it's all done in such a way that it is captivating and charming. Nintendo might have a stacked portfolio for the next few months, but if the rest of the game holds up to the standard of the first two levels, this could just be the cream of that crop when it arrives on October 20.