America - Front
America - Back
By Christian Evans 21st Nov 2022 | 2,545 views
2017... I remember it well; I was bedazzled by the Nintendo Switch, and after spending countless hours in Hyrule, was looking forward to E3 to muse over what was in store later that year for the little hybrid. Cue the pre-E3 leak of Kingdom Battle, a Mario + Rabbids crossover that had me scoffing at the very idea, with eyes firmly rolled back into my head at the thought of those annoying critters ruining a Mario game. Little did I know how wrong I could be, becoming a paragon to the perils of judging a ‘video game’ by its cover — the official reveal at the Ubisoft presentation even persuaded me to pre-order the damn thing, and it went on to become one of my favourite games of the year. Thus we arrive at the eagerly anticipated release of the sequel, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, with the expectation bar raised significantly higher than 5 years ago. The question now is does it shine as bright as its predecessor?
The simple answer: Sparks of Hope surpasses Kingdom Battle in nearly every way. While the first game, thematically you might say, is akin to Super Mario 3 in its criss-crossing linearity for both tactical battles and exploration on the field, the jump to a Mario Galaxy inspired romp has done wonders for the whole experience, and fuels inspiration for all elements present in the game.
With battle arenas having been removed from the exploratory playing field, there's much greater creative freedom in the layouts and scope of the world exploration, and so much more space to wander about in, with plenty of secrets to discover and mini-games to complete. Consequently, it feels like you’ve popped on your Indy fedora thanks to the abundance of ‘treasure’ and environmental conundrums dotted around the various planets. Being hyper-critical there are probably not quite enough ‘puzzling’ puzzles, with a few too many blocks being pushed onto pressure pads for my liking, but given the broad ages of potential players, the difficulty balance and variety are probably about right.
Outside of the necessary main story missions (which take around 20 hours to complete), the additional side-quest content always feels valuable. Alongside planet-coins (used in the world’s shop), you can find lore-based information or new weapon skins; perhaps you’ll be awarded useful battle items such as a POW block, or multi-dash; while the most prized possession are new Sparks, a being blessed with the features of a lovechild between a Luma and a Rabbid.
Now, while the tactical battle scenarios are roughly similar to the first game, such as reaching the goal, or defeating all/specific enemies in the arena, there are some fundamental changes to them at play. Primarily, being transported to a separate battlefield also allows more of that creative freedom that we see in abundance while exploring. While there are a number of examples to the upgrade in quality, the stand-out is an exceptional train battle, which has a large angry Wiggler running alongside the carriages bashing the arena with every turn, thus decreasing the train's integrity and your time to win the fight.
Notably, movement is much more fluid than its purely grid-based predecessor, which helps with the general flow, but it's the addition of the Spark partners that really shakes things up. Gone is the tediously frequent weapon upgrade switching of the first game - now, alongside the returning skill-tree of each playable character, a Spark's powers are upgradable by feeding them star-bits (gained from missions and exploring), and they're incredibly useful and fun in battles.
While you begin with one Spark partner for each team-member, a second Spark can join the crew, resulting in wonderful combination elements on the battlefield. My particular favourite combination is ‘Gather ‘Round’, which pulls all enemies in range into close proximity, only to then unleash ‘Skyrain Shock’, showering down electric chaos on a whole raft of enemies. Of course, all enemies have their strengths and weaknesses, as do our heroes, so preparing for the fight correctly is paramount to success. The default difficulty balance, if you always prepare well, is a smidgeon on the easy side, but a whole host of different parameters can be altered to suit all players of all abilities.
The constantly engaging gameplay is beautifully complimented by the overall presentation and characterisation of the heroes, villains, and the worlds themselves. The dynamic between the world of Mario Galaxy and Rabbids just works unexpectedly well, so well in fact that the Rabbid variants, and new original characters like Jeanie and Edge, actually overshadow those from the house of Mario. I must also confess to chuckling a number of times during my playthrough; an apathetic Rabbid Rosalina, with her patchwork Luma during the cut scenes, will always raise a smile from me.
The story, based around Cursa’s quest to capture (via Spark Hunters) and use the Rabbid Luma’s powers, is the goofy type of fun you’d expect — funnily enough there's no permadeath mode here — but it still maintains some really cool Mario-type moments. Each planet is home to a colourful cast of Rabbid variants who need your help saving them to progress, and each has a guardian with their own storyboard art montage dotted about full of lovely little details. The standout for me is T.S Woodrow, the poet seemingly cursed to portend bad luck on anyone unfortunate enough to listen to his stanzas.
Of the planets themselves (there are five in total), plus Cursa’s lair, each has a distinct flavour which often maximises the individual scene fashioned. For me, Terra Flora is the standout, with its water volcano surrounded by spiralling vine train tracks. Maybe I'm being game-greedy, but if I were to offer constructive criticism it would be based around my wish for the developers to be even more creative with the planet themes, especially given the potential possibilities in a Mario Galaxy setting, rather than falling back on a beach or frosty mountain theme. The caveat being that both are really well realised despite that desire.
It would be entirely remiss of me not to mention the fantastic score that ties the galaxy of Sparks of Hope together; Yoko Shimomura, Grant Kirkhope, and Gareth Coker have done a top job, and that also goes for the entire sound design team. Everything sounds just right, from the coin collecting to feeding star-bits to a Rabbid Luma. My particular top-level detail is that, while traversing a snowy garden maze where you're encouraged to sneak past enemies, the speed of your footsteps controls the pace of these lovely ‘snowy’ arpeggios as you make your way through, it’s just so perfect. Each planet having its own musical style really compliments each world, and of course there are plenty of musical nods littered throughout to those iconic Mario themes we all know and love.
Sequels can often find themselves in invidious positions; to follow on from what was already successful, while making enough changes to justify its existence, is a tricky balancing act in any form of media. If the necessary criteria are to be bigger, better, and more ambitious, while retaining the original's heart and soul, then Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope accomplishes that with flying colours. Any criticism will likely be confined to what it isn’t (if you’re perhaps looking for darker, more mature themes, you’ll probably look for other TRPGs to fill that niche). What is present is a lovingly crafted experience, that’s super fun and engaging for all types of players, of all ages... unless, despite Ubisoft's best efforts, you really can’t stand those Rabbids!