Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: Out of this world - MrLiambi's blog


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Sunday, 30 October 2022

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope review: Out of this world

In 2017, when Ubisoft hitched its Rabbids franchise (largely unloved beyond France) to the Mario juggernaut in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, the results were highly promising, thanks to judiciously tactical turn-based gameplay reminiscent of the mighty XCOM. With Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, that unlikely fusion is beginning to look like a masterstroke.

Sequel games can be tricky to craft, but, if approached in a thoughtful manner, they can also provide opportunities properly to define a franchise, and the latter case applies to Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. From the off, it feels like a much more coherent game â€" as opposed to a collection of set-pieces â€" than its predecessor.

Hitting the right tone

It also feels reassuringly like a Mario game from the start, and right at home on the Nintendo Switch once again. Story-wise, it is basic and impressionistic. Mario and his chums â€" including countless Rabbids cosplaying as them â€" are disturbed by the arrival of the huge and malevolent Cursa, a sort of intergalactic octopus who instantly wreaks chaos on the galaxy, infesting it with black, choking Darkmess.

You must travel from planet to planet, fighting battles against ever more sophisticated enemies to clear up puddles of Darkmess that block your path. Prevail in boss battles and you'll destroy the Darkmess Tentacles and acquire the Darkmess shards required to travel to the next planet. It's a classic quest, in which you meet all manner of whimsical characters â€" each planet has a very eccentric Warden. There's no real narrative to it, but the vibe is spot-on, aping that of a typical Mario game, with the Rabbids injecting a slightly anarchic edge to the humour, which just stops short of getting too silly.

Plenty to explore

It helps that each of the planets is chock-full of fantastically reassuring nods to the Mario universe: green pipes offer access to hidden areas, Goombahs wander around offering random battles, there are gold coins to collect. These can heal your team when needed, and also buy useful objects such as Pow Blocks and health-replenishing mushrooms. Old rivalries are even set aside against the common enemy Cursa â€" for example, you co-opt Bowser into your squad.

Each planet has vast amounts of activities beyond the main quest: even when you take down the Darkmess Tentacles, puddles of Darkmess linger. There are distinct types of puzzles (again, often reminiscent of the Super Mario games) on each planet, and activities which yield Planet Coins that can be cashed in with the traders on each planet. 

Cleverly, you acquire gadgets that let you uncover different types of hidden paths and areas, which provide incentive to revisit the earlier planets. Gratifyingly, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is pretty meaty: it contains well over 30 hours of gameplay, although you can race through each planet if you want. Such an approach makes little sense, though, since the vast majority of the activities on offer are great fun, and whenever you prevail in battle, you level up all your characters.

Deeper gameplay

But the absolute meat of Mario + Rabbids Sparls of Hope lies in its battling, which has been brilliantly overhauled since the first game. Primarily due to the introduction of a new gameplay mechanic called Sparks, which are star-like creatures that provide useful abilities (such as turning invisible for a couple of turns, fortifying all team-mates within a certain radius or launching close-proximity attacks that affect nearby enemies but destroy surrounding cover).

After a while, each character can equip two Sparks, allowing you to customise your characters for each battle so that they have specific attributes. Crucially, before (and even during) each battle, you can investigate each type of enemy to determine their strengths and vulnerabilities. The Sparks interplay brilliantly with each character's specific skill â€" so choosing the right party of three (and sometimes four in the boss-battles) is crucial. Those skills are both offensive and defensive: Rabbid Peach, for example, can heal herself and team-mates, while the real Peach can put up a barrier which shields her team-mates from damage for a couple of turns, while Mario and Luigi's skills allow them to shoot enemies that move after your turn has ended.

Getting tactical

As you progress, the enemies you face become ever more challenging â€" often with humorous results. Some, for example, will steal health from you, others will heal themselves if you don't take them out at once, and there are plenty of tank-like creatures you come across who might, for example, suck all your nearest team-mates in and set them on fire.

This means you have to adjust your tactics carefully according to what you're up against, and make maximum use of all the moves available to you. Of which there are plenty: you can dash-attack any enemies within your movement range, and do team-jumps, opening up otherwise inaccessible areas. You get two combat actions per turn in addition, which could be shooting your weapon and using a spark, and can often use items as well. The latter can prove vital, as they include the likes of granting extra movement or removing the cooldown on your Sparks and skills.

The end result is every bit as tactical as the XCOM games, albeit in a much more forgiving manner. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has a judiciously shallow difficulty curve, which enables you to get to grips with its tactical demands in its early stages, before proceedings become more challenging (and thereby more satisfyingly strategic) on the third planet. There are five planets, plus Cursa's stronghold.

At first, there are two types of battle objective, requiring you to either eliminate all enemies or to get one of your party to a designated point on the battlefield. But other objectives are added, such as eliminating a certain number of enemies, eliminating all enemies of a certain type or surviving for a specific number of turns in the face of an onslaught of spawning enemies.

If we have one criticism of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope it would be that it often introduces new battle objectives without really capitalising on them, but the diversity of the enemies you face means that it never reaches the point at which you feel you're doing the same thing over and over again. A decent skill tree for your characters as they level up also helps in that respect: as you progress, you can enhance their strengths and ameliorate their weaknesses to an extent.

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