My first big laugh in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope came approximately five minutes into the game. Rabbid Peach — a social-media-obsessed imitator of the Mushroom Kingdom’s charismatic princess — stands in front of a deadly intergalactic beast, obliviously taking selfies as the creature barrels toward her. She screams and gets swept up in the monster’s wake.
It’s just slapstick, but it works, because the game takes a silly premise and fully commits to it.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 20, 2022
Genre: Turn-based strategy
“Taking a silly premise and fully committing to it” is an apt way to describe Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope overall. In this sequel to Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (one of the best Nintendo Switch games by a wide margin), you’ll once again take control of Mario, his friends and their Raving Rabbid counterparts as they duke it out with colorful foes in demanding turn-based battles.
This time, the battles are a little more streamlined and the exploration is a little more freeform, but the core formula is the same. It worked last time, and it still works now.
With satisfying strategic gameplay, a variety of vibrant worlds and some honest-to-goodness laugh-out-loud moments, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope seems like the best possible execution of a truly bizarre premise. Movement during battles could be a little tighter, and overworld exploration could be a little more straightforward. The Switch hardware occasionally chugs.
But if “Mario in a turn-based strategy game” sounds even mildly appealing, then our Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review will explain why this is a worthwhile planet-hopping adventure and how it became my favorite Switch game of the year.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review: Gameplay
Like its predecessor, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a turn-based strategy game with light RPG elements. You’ll take control of a helpful robot named BEEP-0, as well as some familiar Mario characters (Mario, Luigi, Peach, etc.) and their ersatz Raving Rabbid copies. From there, you’ll guide them across a variety of planets and stopping often to engage in thoughtful tactical battles.
Gameplay consists of combat and exploration sections, in roughly equal measure. Combat is the big draw here, as it’s delightfully varied. With nine playable characters, four skill trees per combatant and 30 “Sparks” that grant additional abilities, there’s should be something here that appeals to every playstyle.
As Mario and co. explore five different planets, they’ll take part in both random battles and story-based encounters. These take place on sprawling battlefields, replete with cover, gaps between areas, vertical vantage points and other turn-based strategy mainstays. Some missions require that you defeat every enemy onscreen; others might end when you reach a certain area, or survive for a set number of rounds. There’s a good amount of variety, which ensures that combat doesn’t get stale, even after you’ve had a few hundred battles.
During those battles, each character has a set movement range. Up until they attack; they can run wherever they want within this range, unlike the grid-based movement in the first game. They can also dash into enemies for extra damage, or “team jump” off of other party members for additional movement. It’s only a slight twist on the standard turn-based strategy formula, but it works well. Taking down foes feels rewarding, as does building up your party with the experience you earn.
Each character has a regular attack and a special attack, which feel tremendously varied. Mario’s standard gun can target two enemies at once, for example, while Bowser’s can blow up enemy cover. Rabbid Peach’s special ability heals the party, while Rabbid Rosalina’s stuns enemies. Every party member feels balanced and interesting, and experimenting with different combinations is a big part of the game’s charm.
However, there’s one major difference from Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and it’s a double-edged sword: real-time combat elements. When characters pick up and hurl explosive Bob-ombs, or team jump and hover over the battlefield, they have only a limited time to do so. Since movement is no longer grid-based, aiming and landing can be a bit imprecise — but the game is still difficult enough that one false move can ruin your whole plan. The real-time elements sometimes feel at-odds with the otherwise-thoughtful, strategic gameplay.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review: Exploration and Sparks
When you’re not in combat, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope has five different planets to explore, from the sunny sands of Beacon Beach, to the lush fall foliage of Palette Prime. While traversing the overworld, you’ll have to solve simple environmental puzzles to unlock new areas. These are usually fun, albeit not too taxing, and provide some much-needed breaks between the combat sections.
However, exploration can also be one of the more tedious elements in Sparks of Hope. Unlike Kingdom Battle, Sparks of Hope doesn’t have an isometric map, so each level feels a lot more open, with much more verticality. As such, it can be surprisingly tricky to get from point A to point B, even if your map has marked a valuable side quest at point B. Expect a lot of backtracking and dead ends, as well as a lot of random encounter enemies to slow things down even more.
On the other hand, exploring each level lets you recruit the game’s titular Sparks, which impart a level of customization that simply wasn’t present in the first game. Mario and co. can each equip up to two Sparks: small, starlike creatures that confer unique abilities, such as empowering weapon attacks or poisoning nearby foes.
You can level up Sparks over time and assign them to any character you wish, but your resources for upgrading them are limited, which means you’ll have to make some difficult character-building choices. The Sparks are a smart addition, and give players a lot of leeway to think up some devious combos.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review: Story
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope takes Mario and his allies on an intergalactic adventure. A tentacled monstrosity called Cursa is spreading a toxic substance called Darkmess all around the galaxy, and you’ll have to travel to five different planets to gather the necessary resources to foil the fiend. It’s not exactly a story for the ages, but it does provide a suitable backdrop for some excellent character comedy.
One element that Sparks of Hope absolutely nails is its delightful cast of characters. This time around, most characters have dialogue, rather than just startled yelps, and it makes a huge difference. From Rabbid Mario’s tough-guy posturing, to Peach’s can-do attitude, to Rabbid Rosalina’s mopey monotone, all of the characters are at least chuckleworthy — and some are downright hilarious.
Rabbid Peach’s online antics routinely had me in stitches. Shouting out “hashtag healing journey!” or “blessed!” during battle may feel dated in a couple of years, but for now, it’s made me laugh out loud more than once.
This time around, Ubisoft has even added an original character to the mix: the angsty anime swordswoman Edge. This stylish Rabbid isn’t a copy of anyone in particular, but she skewers some well-worn tropes, and that’s always welcome in a comedy game.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review: Visuals and sound
The biggest compliment I can give Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is that it looks much better than I expected from a late-era Switch game. The characters have distinctive designs, and the levels feel suitably varied. What struck me most, however, was the game’s use of color.
This is one of the first games I’ve played in a while that makes full use of the spectrum, from the reds, blues and greens of the party members’ outfits, to the yellows, oranges and purples of the environs they explore. The game did stutter occasionally, and loading menu screens took just long enough to be irritating, but there were no huge performance issues.
The music in Sparks of Hope is excellent, from the intense orchestral battle themes, to the chill exploration music, particularly in the pumpkin spice-infused Palette Prime. This time around, the game also has quite a bit of voicework. The Rabbid cast especially delivers, with a lot of spirited one-liners and battle cries.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope review: Verdict
Mario + Rabbids is an idea that probably shouldn’t have worked even once, but Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope demonstrates that it can work twice. “Mario and the Raving Rabbids in a turn-based strategy/RPG” is probably not a concept anyone was dying to see, but Sparks of Hope makes it work as well as it possibly could. The gameplay is satisfying, the characters are hilarious and the overall package simply feels like a lot of heart went into it.
The game can be difficult and tedious at times, and if you don’t already have a little affinity for the genre, Sparks of Hope probably won’t change your mind. But if the premise sounds even vaguely interesting, you should come away from the experience with a big smile on your face.