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Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a more dynamic take on tactical RPGs

Enlarge / The gang (and the other gang) is all here!

Even though Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a sequel to a well-loved crossover, it’s still hard to fathom that it’s a real game. Blending the distinct worlds of Nintendo’s iconic Super Mario franchise and Ubisoft’s raving, oddball Rabbids series, the original Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle took many liberties with its sources. Yet it was still a game that was a passionate tribute to both.

The sequel, thankfully, seems to be leaning further into the strangeness of this odd union while also tapping further into what makes Mario and the Rabbids both so endearing. Just ahead of its planned October 20 release, I got to play several hours of this follow-up to one of the Nintendo Switch’s best tactical RPGs and found a charming and transfixing crossover that adds a bit more vibrancy to its solid predecessor.

Strange bedfellows

On paper, a Mario crossover with Ubisoft’s Rabbids as guests in a tactical role-playing game seems strange, but it’s not too far off from some genres Nintendo has infused with Mario in the past. The Mario + Rabbids series shares a lot of DNA with the likes of Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario series but within the framework of tactical turn-based strategy systems from more mature games like XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics.

The Mario + Rabbids series at its heart is a family-friendly take on a tactical role-playing game. One of the great successes of the original is that it presented complex gameplay systems and mechanics in an approachable way, which still felt true to the whimsical and over-the-top platforming action of Mario games.

The sequel picks up right after the events of Kingdom Battle, with Mario and friends—including the Rabbids, who effectively cosplay as the Mushroom Kingdom’s most iconic heroes—enjoying some much-needed rest. Unfortunately, that peace is short-lived, as a new galactic evil known as Cursa has invaded Mario’s world in search of Sparks, a fusion of Rabbids and the star-shaped Lumas first introduced in Super Mario Galaxy. With this new threat, the heroes unite again to explore the galaxy’s many planets to take down Cursa and her minions.

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Enlarge / BRB, sending this “Mario dual-wielding guns” image back in time to blow the mind of 12-year-old me.

Sparks of Hope builds on the foundations of what Kingdom Battle established, allowing it to stretch out and develop its own approach to turn-based tactical combat. With more of a focus on exploring strange new worlds and engaging in combat that offers a greater degree of freedom and flexibility, it all comes together in ways that showcase the game’s exuberant and charming adventure across the galaxy.

With your squad, led by Mario and joined by other Nintendo characters and Rabbids, you maneuver the team across a battlefield to plan out your attack on the opposing forces. By taking advantage of terrain, enemy placement, and the myriad skills your team has—such as Mario’s energy blasters, Rabbid Peach’s rocket launcher, or Luigi’s long-range bow-and-arrow strikes—you can come up with a complex set of plans to take down your foes.

Sparks of Hope Associate Producer Quentin Correggi told Ars he believes that pairing these opposite franchises brings out some unique qualities to both, creating something that feels original.

“Working on [Mario + Rabbids] really enables us to do something never done before with Mario and other Nintendo characters,” Correggi said. “The whole [Mario + Rabbids] franchise is not just about getting these characters together, but about their two worlds colliding, too. That union of the whimsical Nintendo world and the very chaotic world of the Rabbids enables us to do much [with the heroes]. You see that in each setting in this game, too, which shows the variety and what players love about this crossover we’ve put together.”

Free running

Enlarge / Likes include long walks on the beach and tactical RPG combat.

For combat, in particular, one of the significant changes that comes to Sparks of Hope is that you have direct control of your squad of heroes. In Kingdom Battle, you would move a cursor to guide your character to a new strategic location during your turn. In Sparks of Hope, you can freely move your character (within a set range) with the thumbstick before handing control off to the computer opponent.

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After moving, characters can attack foes in their line of sight, assist allies, or pause to set up for a plan of attack in the battle ahead. Much like the original game, skills or attacks take up action points that limit how much you can do in a single turn.

What’s interesting about combat in Sparks of Hope is that freedom of movement introduces a more dynamic flow. This creates some cool moments where you can mix up skills and take advantage of opportunities that can come up on the fly.

In some fights, I felt like I was creating those familiar Mario moments found in his platforming game but within the setting of a tactics battle. One of my favorite moments came during a battle on the ice world of Pristine Peaks. My squad featured Mario, a Rabbid version of Princess Peach, and an original Rabbid character named Edge (whose spiky hair and giant sword were a clear homage to typical Final Fantasy protagonists).

Enlarge / Breathing fire is so last year. Bowser has artillery now.

During the fight, I powered up Mario with an electricity boost and dashed into a cluster of enemies, simultaneously shocking them and taking them out. I then moved to cover and launched a ranged attack with Mario against two more enemies on their last legs, taking them out in a single shot. It was extremely satisfying to feel the fight turn in my favor in such a dramatic and dynamic fashion.

While battles generally felt brisk, at times the proceedings could drag out against new enemies that could absorb tons of damage. Still, I was always able to center myself and get back into the flow. The game’s systems do a lot to reward experimentation, letting disparate decisions come together into wider strategies that are stronger than the sum of their parts. This gives each battle the feeling of an intricate puzzle for which you have to figure out the most optimal and efficient solution.

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A distinct style

Sparks of Hope also does more to develop its own distinct style and setting than its predecessor, whose stages felt more like remixed takes on the Mushroom Kingdom. When moving around with my squad and getting an understanding of the terrain, I couldn’t help but think back to other traditional Mario games, where having a command of the environment and your character’s agility and reach meant the difference between success and failure. In a way, it adds some of the feeling of old-school Mario platform games to Sparks of Hope‘s turn-based combat.

In my chat with Correggi, he explained that Sparks of Hope feels like the game really brings the premise of Mario + Rabbids to life.

“When we worked on the original, we always felt we wanted to do even more with it. We needed to really open the door to the whole tactical experience for new players. At the core of Sparks of Hope, it’s a tactical game, and we want to remain like that, but at the same time, we want to bring as much dynamism as possible. It was tricky to find the balance between dynamic action and tactical gameplay, but the first time it clicked for me was an experience where I dashed into an enemy, launching them up in the air, and had Mario’s weapons attack them while they were flying. I was like, ‘Okay, we really have something here.’”

So far, I’m impressed with what Ubisoft is doing with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. The series embraces the inherent goofiness of a video game crossover between these two stylistically different franchises and goes all in on celebrating their unique strengths for optimism and chaotic good charisma. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously, leading to some truly over-the-top moments where the characters’ unique skills and strategies combine for some exciting Mario-style moments.