Mario + Rabbids was perhaps one of gaming’s most wonderful surprises, swinging rapidly in public opinion from its pre-E3 leaks to its reveal to its launch to its DLC. The bizarro combination of Mario, Rabbids, and a tactics game somehow came together into something that not only worked, but became a gateway for many to fall in love with tactics games more broadly. Which left Ubisoft with a daunting task in Sparks of Hope: how do you surprise that audience a second time? More of the same Mario + Rabbids would have been fine, sure, but Kingdom Battle and its Donkey Kong DLC largely exhausted the possibilities of their respective tactical rulesets, while also setting high expectations. It would take one heck of a Bob-ombshell tossed into the formula here to properly catch us all off-guard again.
After about four hours with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, I’m feeling confident Ubisoft has given it the dynamite it needed. On the exploration side, transforming Mario + Rabbids from its former linear world structure to more free-roaming, open levels was possibly the best decision the team could have made to make this feel like a significant upgrade. You still have to progress through the story in a linear way, and finishing story missions is critical to unlocking certain areas. But Ubisoft has put in a lot of work to make each zone feel wonderfully open-ended, stuffed with side quests, coins, treasures, and dopey little Rabbid vignettes that make each area highly distracting.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope Preview Screenshots and Renders
The extra space has given them room to tell stories with NPCs and environments in ways the first one didn’t, such as the little village besieged by darkness on the first planet or the labyrinthine snowy castle in the second. Plus, zones seem to be able to change over time – there was a concert on the first planet’s beach that I couldn’t attend due to the weather, but given that the story quest seemed to point at sunshine on the horizon, I imagine even more activities might open up later. Despite the generous amount of preview time I had with Sparks of Hope, I found it difficult to stay on task and get the story missions done given all there was to do – I was very busy shaking bushes to see what might drop out.
But even more important than the exploration, I was surprised by how utterly blown open Mario + Rabbids has become thanks to the shifts in how movement and combat work. Free movement alone opens up a feast of tactical possibilities, and for someone who is a more recent convert to the genre, has made it worlds easier for me to take time understanding the battlefield possibilities on a given turn. I can move my characters wherever I want within a field, and if their positions don’t quiiiiite work out for me, I can just move them somewhere else as long as I haven’t attacked yet.
But that’s combined with other significant changes. Each character now has two “action points” to spend per turn on attacking, special moves, and item use, meaning every combat situation has a ridiculous array of viable approaches. The most exciting new addition, by far, are the Sparks. Status effects are gone, but replaced with elements such as fire, water, ice, and others that are applied to opponents not by shooting crates on the battlefield (well, at least not in the bit I played) but by equipping Sparks to characters, two apiece, and using them either as attacks in their own right or to spice up weapons and dashes with elemental energy.
Opponents now have weaknesses and resistances to keep in mind, while equipping Sparks will also grant your characters resistance to a particular elemental type. They’re all easily swappable at the start of each battle, and their impact on fights pushed me to spend a meaningful period of time analyzing the battlefield and enemy types. I had to really, really think about who I brought in with me and what Sparks they had equipped – it’s much harder to bulldoze your way through story fights.
Except it’s also…easier to do that, but only if you want it to be, thanks to a couple wonderful key changes. For one, there’s a difficulty selection you can adjust at any time to toggle between Easy, Normal, and Hard battles if you want either extreme. Additionally, it’s now far more possible to grind meaningfully in Sparks of Hope. It’s not necessary from what I can tell – I was able to push through all the fights in the preview build just fine without doing any extra. But had I struggled, I know I could have looped back, redone some story fights, battled some of the roaming enemies on the map again, or done more sidequests to level up my party. That would have resulted in more health, more movement area, and other rewards I could theoretically use to push past a fight that’s giving me trouble. This should all be extremely welcome news, as both features broaden the range of people who can enjoy Sparks of Hope: it continues to welcome in the tactics newbies even as it grows more complex, and the true tactical connoisseurs can challenge themselves even more.
The one change I’m genuinely still uncertain about, though, involves the Rabbids themselves: they talk now. Not just “bwah bwah bwah” or incoherent screaming, but they have fully written out, coherent dialogue now alongside occasional voice acting. They speak more than Mario! I don’t know how I feel about it.
On one hand, we get some great characterization this way. I’m not sure we’d quite feel the same depth of utter ennui from Rabbid Rosalina, or clear edgelordory from, well, Edge, without them actually talking. Beep-0 would have to fill in the blanks as he did in the first game, and while I think it worked then for the cast of Mario parodies, now that we’ve delving into more original characters (including NPCs), that’s a lot more work for one robot’s narration to accomplish.
But on the other hand, it’s just kind of weird, ya know? Especially when they yell out barks in battle. It feels inherently unrabbid of them to speak. They also occasionally intersperse their actual lines with their more conventional utterances, the known “blehs” and “bwahs” and what-have-you, which adds to the dissonance when they speak complete, grammatically correct sentences. I genuinely have no idea whether this will end up working for me in the final game. Your own mileage may vary.
But I still love the Rabbids, talking or not. Ubisoft accomplished one heck of a feat in making these dorky, almost Minion-like pests so charming in Kingdom Battle, and that work has largely carried over into Sparks of Hope in both its goofy line-up of Rabbid NPCs, and its roster of Mario-wannabes. The greater cast of the first game is almost entirely available right out of the gate in Sparks of Hope, so there’s less time to get to know them if you’re unfamiliar with their personalities. But the initial Rabbid deluge both adds to the massive tactical combat range on offer, and gives the new members of the roster like Edge and Rabbid Rosalina much more time to shine. And no one can take the spotlight away from Kingdom Battle favorites like the prankster Rabbid Luigi, or the phone-obsessed Rabbid Peach – who’s become a proper deuteragonist next to Mario himself.
A typical side effect of getting to preview more than a few hours of something is that when that thing finally comes out, I find myself sprinting through the content I’ve already seen to get to the juicy new nuggets beyond. I don’t feel that way a bit about Sparks of Hope, which is probably the highest praise I can give it. In the interest of time, I had to gloss over tons of interesting little nuggets in the demo that I wanted to explore. But more importantly, what I did play was wildly fun and so full of possibility I’m eager to try it again, but using different characters and strategies. I can’t wait to see what chaos the Rabbids and I can cause next time.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.