|Developer||Ubisoft Milan, Ubisoft Paris|
|Release Date||October 20, 2022|
This year, 2022, has somehow become “Year of the SRPG” for me. Earlier this year I beat the awesome indie game Wargroove, then I finished Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (which had been sitting in my backlog for a very long time), then I experienced the masterpiece that was Triangle Strategy. Having greatly enjoyed Kingdom Battle, and coming off a string of SRPGs, I was very excited when a second Mario + Rabbids game was announced, and I jumped at the chance to review it.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, but I was not expecting one of the best sequels I’ve ever played, and I was not expecting it to compete with Elden Ring and Triangle Strategy for my personal Game of the Year. Sparks of Hope is a definitive Switch experience that cannot be missed, and a master class on what a sequel should be. I was sorely tempted to rate this game as a 10, but there was one VERY Ubisoft aspect of the game that I have to call them out on, and it cost the game a perfect score. More on that later.
Quick note: this review will be mentioning the first Mario + Rabbids game quite a lot, and will use it as a point of comparison. I apologize if this alienates some readers who have not played Kingdom Battle, but I feel obliged to back up my claim of Sparks of Hope being the perfect sequel, and therefore the review will place an emphasis on comparison. With that said, let’s a go!
There’s a lot of cartoony violence in Sparks of Hope. Enemies and allies alike get shot by gunfire, blasted by rockets, surprised by exploding barrels, zapped by lasers, body-tackled by enemies, and much more. There’s never any blood or other graphical violence, and when an enemy dies, their outline just fades to black and they disappear.
I did not notice any vulgar langage in Sparks of Hope.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle had some pretty low-brow humor, and Sparks of Hope is no different. It’s all very childish, and the worst it gets is immature bathroom humor. The very first mission you receive during the tutorial is to find Rabbid Mario’s overalls because someone has stolen them. There are multiple giant toilets across the galaxy, for some reason, and they all have Rabbids playing in or on them. Some statues in the game depict Rabbids with oversized posteriors in some unflattering positions.
Absolutely none to speak of.
The only slightly spiritual aspect of the game is a recurring character who shows up on each planet: a kitschy fortune-teller Rabbid who will open a portal for you to do combat in. Outside of that, the game does get slightly dark in parts. At one point, a Spark gets consumed by Cursa on-screen, and it’s a bit graphic. Two specific worlds could be “spooky” to some.
Sparks of Hope’s opening scenes show us a world of Mario characters and their Rabbid counterparts living in hijynx-laden harmony in the Mushroom Kingdom after the events of the first game. As is to be expected at the beginning of a video game, however, the peace is short-lived. A seemingly cosmic threat named Cursa appears in the sky, bringing destruction and impending doom in its wake. The characters jump into action (and into a spaceship), and take the fight to Cursa. The story in Sparks of Hope is a larger-scope, slightly darker, more mature story than in the first game, and I found it much more compelling and complex than Kingdom Battle’s rather linear, predictable story.
Aiding our Mario + Rabbid friends on their journey are the mysterious, titular Sparks, which appear to be a mix between Luma and Rabbids. In the opening scenes of the game, Cursa is chasing the Sparks across the galaxy to try to consume their energy, to some sinister end. These cute little critters, once freed from the grasp of Cursa’s minions, empower your characters with defensive abilities, elemental attacks, and ways to maneuver enemies around you on the battlefield. You collect and upgrade Sparks throughout the game, giving you more options for battlefield tactics and combinations as you progress.
Sparks of Hope takes place on multiple zany Rabbid planets, ranging from a planet of eternal sunshine and beach parties, to a planet of fall colors and lots of pumpkin spice jokes, to a barren, stormy planet that had been stripped of its resources by Rabbids and abandoned. Each planet has an accompanying Rabbid guardian, which are all as zany and eclectic as the planets they inhabit. Ubisoft did an amazing job of designing the worlds and the characters that inhabit them, making each feel unique and full of life.
The sometimes-literally linear overworld of Kingdom Battle is gone, and in its place is an open world system, complete with roving bands of enemies to fight, side quests to complete, secrets to discover, and shopkeepers to chea–erm, I mean, to buy stuff from for extremely fair prices. Exploring the worlds and trying to find extras isn’t a bore, because every corner you turn has something visually interesting to keep you engaged, and every Rabbid you encounter has something to say, either about what is happening in the story, or about their surroundings.
Don’t let “open world” scare you off if you get easily lost in open worlds, because each planet is a small-scale, open world that is easy to navigate, and fast travel points are never too far apart. It’s a good balance between giving you the options an open world affords, without feeling like a gigantic, empty area with no guidance.
Sparks of Hope’s combat is greatly improved from the first game; so much so that it will be hard for me to ever go back to combat in Kingdom Battle. Gone is grid-based movement, supplanted by free movement within a character’s range. Sparks of Hope allows a character to move as many times as you desire until you fire their weapon, making both mobility and combinations with multiple characters much easier and more fluid. There are ways to ignore enemies’ cover, there are more AOE effects, and there is a better diversity of character archetypes.
Before you begin a combat encounter, you get to choose your party (and this time, Mario isn’t a mandatory member), assign Sparks to each character, and then start blasting. You can use Beep-0 to get an overview of the battlefield and what enemies you’ll be fighting, along with their elemental strengths and weaknesses, to give you a leg up. Be warned, however: the enemies in Sparks of Hope have a few aces up their sleeves that might surprise you.
The variety of combat encounters in Sparks of Hope is a breath of fresh air, from an RPG perspective. Too often, RPG combats all start to feel samey after a couple of hours, and the first Mario + Rabbids game definitely had this problem. Kingdom Battle did had some very different combat encounters, but only in boss fights, whereas Sparks of Hope has three or four very cool, unique combat encounters in every world, and it is much better for it. One level has you escorting a bomb down a very, very long battlefield. Multiple levels give you enemies that you can’t just blast with your weapons, causing you to strategize more. Some levels even turn the combat on its head and have your team defending a point of interest from oncoming enemies. Spaks of Hope affords nice, regular breaks from “kill all enemies” or “survive [x] rounds” encounters, and once again Ubisoft finds a great way to break up the monotony and grind that many RPGs devolve into.
Character customization and upgrading is streamlined from the first game. Buying upgraded weapons and accessories is gone–there are skins you can unlock for each character’s weapon, but they’re purely cosmetic. I loved this design decision by Ubisoft, because the focus in the first game of having to be constantly buying new weapons for each character was tedious to the point of making me want to only play certain characters so I didn’t have to bother with upgrading the rest. Adding to this difficulty was the fact that your in-game performance directly affected the money you got to buy upgraded weapons, which could become a downhill spiral if you’re not good at the game.
In Sparks of Hope, the sole character upgrading and customization is done via each character’s skill tree, and assigning points to skill trees can be as simple or as complex as you want: you can assign points manually, or the game has an option to automatically fill the skill tree of a character. I used the latter option 90% of the time, and it dramatically increased the time I spent in gameplay instead of frozen in analysis paralysis on a skill menu.
Many of the above-listed design decisions coalesce to make the game a more casual, lower-pressure, more accessible game than Kingdom Battle, and I highly enjoyed this shift. Personally, I never go for perfect rank in games that will rank your performance in a level. I don’t care to min-max characters like many other gamers do. I want to play the game, and I want to enjoy the game. Sparks of Hope lets me do that in a way that Kingdom Battle did not, and I feel like many more casual players like myself will experience the same thing. Speaking of casual, the game difficulty in Sparks of Hope seemed to be a touch lower than in Kingdom Battle. I played on Normal difficulty, with one tweak to the post-battle healing my team received—oh, by the way, Sparks of Hope lets you customize multiple aspects of your game’s difficulty, which I found to be a very cool feature. On “custom” Normal difficulty, I had an easier time than I did in Kingdom Battle, and I’m not sure if this is due to the difficulty itself, or if it’s due to the combat being greatly improved and easier to navigate. Either way, Sparks of Hope was a terrific experience as someone who is a very casual SRPG enjoyer.
Sparks of Hope is an exceptional, compelling game, so much that I had to force myself to stop doing all the extras and finish the story so that I could write this review. As someone who rarely 100%’s video games, the highest praise I can give Sparks of Hope is that I fully intend to 100% the game, simply because I don’t want to stop playing it. Sparks of Hope is the epitome of what a sequel should be, improving on the first game in every way, removing pain points, and adding extra depth and agency to the player’s experience. It’s a game that I would easily recommend to anyone initially buying into the Switch ecosystem, and, in my opinion, it is one of the best Switch exclusives available right now.
P.S. – About that review score
So, why didn’t Sparks of Hope get a perfect score? Well, in summary, this screen:
To put it bluntly: Ubisoft pulled a Ubisoft. This screen comes up every time you boot the game up, with no way to completely remove it. There’s an option in the settings menu to not have it pop up, but it didn’t work even half of the time. I still got the login prompt, no matter what I tried.
Brief history lesson, as context. In the weeks approaching the game’s release, there was a leak going around gaming websites that Sparks of Hope would require you to log in to a Ubisoft account to just start the game; this news received so much community backlash that Ubisoft had to quickly make a public statement that logging in would be totally optional, which sated the irate masses. To their credit, that statement is technically accurate, which is normally my favorite kind of accurate, however, it feels like a half-hearted concession when they force a login screen on you every single time you start the game. This is borderline predatory, and Ubisoft should be ashamed. For this reason, Sparks of Hope receives a review score of nine, instead of the perfect ten it would have otherwise earned. It feels like such a shame to dock the game that much for something so seemingly small, but I cannot in good conscience go without calling Ubisoft out on their garbage.
The Bottom Line
Sparks of Hope is a definitive Switch experience that cannot be missed, and a master class on what a sequel should be.
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