Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope — out Thursday on Nintendo Switch — does what you’d expect from a sequel to a well-received game by immersing you in a richer and more expansive world. While the first game, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, proceeded in a linear fashion, Sparks of Hope tries to be more exploratory with a semi-open world of sorts. There’s now an in-game map, with quests marked on it. Thankfully, it’s not as littered with icons as some of Ubisoft’s other open world games. There is a bit of level-gating, as you might expect — it never really got in my way, though your mileage may vary depending on the route you take. Each new Sparks of Hope planet opens up a dozen or so quests that you must complete before you tackle the big bad. You can roam around freely, and decide what you want to do first.

Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris — the returning team of developers on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope — have reconsidered their approach to the game’s turn-based arena too. Unlike in Kingdom Battle, where your heroes moved in a grid-based layout, Sparks of Hope is entirely freeform. During your turn, you can move around endlessly as you ponder your choices. After activating team jump, you’re lifted into the air and free to move around before you fall to the ground. Additionally, some new enemies, like the Bob-omb, can be picked up and thrown after you dash into them. In both cases — team jump and dash-and-throw — you have a few seconds to make up your mind. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is still a turn-based tactics game, but there’s a now a real-time element to it.

While most of those are welcome introductions, there are some unwelcome ideas as well. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope has three in-game currencies now: the existing “Coins” for purchasing new items and weaponry, “Starbits” that are used to upgrade power-up characters Sparks, and planet-specific coins — there are five planets on Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope — to unlock one-time usable items. Kingdom Battle only had Coins for both weapons and items. To help manage it all, Ubisoft has given Sparks of Hope an in-game store. Its merchant shows up before the start of every level, giving you the option to top up everyone’s health for Coins. Given what we’ve seen with other Ubisoft games, I’m afraid microtransactions and limited-time cosmetics aren’t very far off.

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Following the events of Kingdom Battle, Mario and the gang are blissful in the Mushroom Kingdom. The biggest calamity seems to be Rabbid Mario having his trousers stolen. But, as anyone who’s seen any film or game sequel will tell you, peace can never last. The new villain in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is a floating tentacled entity called Cursa, who is taking over the galaxy by using mind-control and inflicting black gooey Darkmess that takes over everything. To further its plans, Cursa is using the energy of the Sparks — a combination of Rabbids and Lumas — who grant bonuses and special abilities to our playable roster of heroes. You can eventually assign up to two per hero, picking from the 30 Sparks in total, who are unlocked as you play and complete quests.

Speaking of heroes, the gang are all available from the start: Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Rabbid Mario, Rabbid Luigi, and Rabbid Peach. New heroes Edge, Bowser, and Rabbid Rosalina join them along the journey. More importantly, you aren’t forced to use Mario as was the case on Kingdom Battle. In Sparks of Hope, Mario can be replaced by a different hero. I’m glad that Ubisoft didn’t opt for some contrived method to re-lock character rosters. That said, their abilities have been re-locked. To save some time, individual skill trees can be auto-filled with recommendations provided by Jeanie, a new AI created by Beep-O whom he’s now jealous of, as she seems to have better ideas. Beep-O and Jeanie are both fully voiced, which wasn’t the case in the first game.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope also introduces new enemies — and new ways to defeat them. The instantly recognisable Goombas are now part of the game, and you can even dash through multiple Goombas to knock them out at once. With the aforementioned Bob-ombs, you can dash through one to light it up, and then throw it at others. At times, you end up with a beneficial cascading effect — with one Bob-omb blowing others up, which in turn damage even more enemies. Of course, you can also use the variety of weapons at your disposal. With the Sparks, you can turbocharge your attacks, deflect and absorb damage, or add fire, freeze, and a myriad of elemental effects. One-off items can help you heal, deal area damage, or even reset cooldowns when you’re in a pinch.

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Rabbid Peach throws a Bob-omb in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope
Photo Credit: Ubisoft/Nintendo

What’s cooldown? As with Kingdom Battle, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope puts a timer of multiple turns on the use of Sparks and special abilities to prevent them from being OP. And of course, as was the case earlier, the game also limits how many actions you can perform per turn. You can choose two out of four options: weapons, Sparks, items, and abilities. The rise in complexity impacts your Kingdom Battle strategies, forcing you to find new ways to succeed in the new Mario + Rabbids game. On top of that, you have to take other factors into account, such as enemies who move after you fire at them, and randomly appearing portals that generate new baddies for you to deal with. You can destroy such portals to avoid fighting new enemies, but that throws another factor to consider into your approach.

If it ever gets too much for you, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope offers a lower difficulty option, as was the case with Kingdom Battle. Here, it’s called “Relaxed”. You can even choose to make Mario and the gang invulnerable, if you’re just in it for the story. (This option isn’t turned on even if you choose Relaxed. You will need to dive into Options > Gameplay. There, navigate to the bottom and turn on Invulnerability.) But while the first game had only two choices, Sparks of Hope has three. For players who want a challenge, Ubisoft has included “Demanding” — in which enemies are tougher and deal more damage, and hero health is not restored after battle. The default difficulty setting is called “Average”, and that’s how I played through Sparks of Hope.

Outside of the turn-based fighting levels, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope offers light environmental puzzle work in the open world. Some of it is carried over from Kingdom Battle. You move around objects to unblock a stream. You reorient statues to answer a riddle. You run after coins in time-based challenges. The Sparks of Hope open world has nooks and crannies that you will run into as you explore. (This might lead you to an extra helping of coins, or you might run into an enemy that kicks off a battle.) While a new area might seem barebones from the outside, it’s only once you begin to roam around — and attempt to tick off every quest — that you realise you’ve spent hours there since you came through that first door.

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Rabbid Rosalina, Luigi, and Rabbid Peach explore one of five planets in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope
Photo Credit: Ubisoft/Nintendo

And should you decide to buy the game’s Gold Edition / Season Pass — it’s a $30 (about Rs. 2,500) premium over the base game — you will be treated to even more content down the line. Ubisoft is promising three story-based downloadable content (DLC) expansions for Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, with one to feature Rayman, a Ubisoft character with its own franchise that spawned Rabbids in the first place. As per the Nintendo Store, two are expected in 2023, and the last of them in 2024.

But I’m sad that I can’t play any of this — be it Sparks of Hope, or any of the three expansions — with friends and family. While Kingdom Battle’s co-op and PvP multiplayer was complementary and had its own drawbacks, this has disappeared entirely from Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. The game’s producer Xavier Manzanares says they cut it out due to balancing issues caused by the additions to combat, which would have led to “a game that never ships.” It’s still an unforgivable decision in my books.

For those planning to play on a big screen by passing Joy-Cons around, you should know that the graphics quality in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope isn’t all that impressive. My experience on a 55-inch TV wasn’t anything great, and the game is clearly designed to be played on the Switch’s own screen at arm’s length. (The Nintendo handheld’s internals have been throttling graphics almost ever since its launch.) That said, I did appreciate surround sound with my TV hooked up to a 5.1 speaker setup.

Ultimately, the new Mario + Rabbids game is a solid sequel to the five-plus-year-old Kingdom Battle, though Ubisoft’s attempts to give it an open world spin end up with mixed results. Do I appreciate the increased ambition? Yes. Am I turned off by the controversial additions, and wary of the Ubisoft-y trappings I’ve seen elsewhere? A yes to that too. But that is the price we pay for the world we live in. When it was first conceptualised, despite the obvious brand synergy with characters coming together, Kingdom Battle felt like an innocent little experiment. Now, with success on their backs, there is hunger for more, and both Ubisoft and Nintendo are seeing dollars in their eyes. Mario + Rabbids is akin to a franchise now — and it shows.

Pros:

  • Richer, more expansive world
  • Easy to pick up, hard to master
  • Freeform arena layout
  • Three difficulty choices
  • Six hero choices from the start
  • Mario can be removed from roster

Cons:

  • Concept of an in-game store
  • One-time usable items
  • Mix of real-time and turn-based gameplay
  • Three in-game currencies
  • No co-op or PvP multiplayer

Rating (out of 10): 8

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is released Thursday, October 20 on Nintendo Switch. It takes up 5.8GB of storage space post download.

Priced officially at Rs. 3,999 in India on Games The Shop, Game Loot, and Mcube Games, you can get Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope for Rs. 3,599 at e2z Store.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope costs $59.99 (about Rs. 4,930) on the online Nintendo Store.

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