"Dynamic" is often a buzzword used in video game marketing to signify improvements and changes compared to previous titles in a series or to games in a genre. All too often though, the word fails to live up to its meaning, but when Ubisoft promises dynamic combat and major improvements in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, it seems to be speaking from the heart. Game Rant recently attended a press event in San Francisco and was able to play roughly three hours of an early build of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.

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There have been several Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope trailers so far, so fans know they set out on a galaxy-spanning journey to save both it and the Sparks (Lumas + Rabbid hybrids) from a dark entity named Cursa. Ubisoft has also revealed several key changes to the crossover's combat, its exploration, and new additions like proper side quests. After three hours, it seems that this marketing only scratches the surface of the title. First impressions are always important, even if there is the question of how the rest of the game plays out, and Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope makes a strong first impression. For this preview, we were able to play through the prologue and through a portion of the first planet, then we were taken to a later portion of the second planet.

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Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle did well to ensure the game had personality. Despite its shortcoming, seeing Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi partner up with their Rabbid halves ensured a unique atmosphere for the original game. All of this is clearly retained, early on, in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope. Whereas sequels often remove or explain some reason the protagonists are newly underpowered, players begin with access to six of the previous main characters in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope (minus Yoshi and Rabbid Yoshi), though they are slowly introduced into the combat again by only beginning with two of the six being usable. The new characters are all introduced later on.

The personality of the first game is retained, with the facial expressions of Mario, the Rabbids, and others really delivering on all ends. At first, it seems kind of odd because the Rabbids can talk this time around. It's luckily mostly limited to short phrases, even when they have some dialogue. We were uncertain when Rabbid Mario first spoke, but the rest of our time showed how smartly Ubisoft went about choosing the actual spoken words. It ultimately adds to the atmosphere of the game after a short adjustment period.

Meanwhile, combat in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was very simplified when it comes to tactics, but this new game definitely breaks it down even further. That's not to say Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is Mario's take on XCOM, but the game is much more in-depth with more systems than ever before - a key sign of a good tactical game. Players are much more involved in movement, for example, because it is no longer tied to a grid, and all players are able to dash enemies who are side by side instead of hitting only one enemy. This means one dash can hit three enemies, and if players have a character like Edge with three dashes, they can deal quite a bit of damage for free.

Tactics-wise, players have to consider free actions like movement, team jumps, and dashes alongside actions that cost "action points," like using a weapon or item, activating a character's special technique, or using one of the two abilities based on the Sparks players equip. Players only have two action points every round and have to decide the best course of action, with the possibility of a wrong choice backfiring never being zero. The Sparks are the biggest new addition here because players will need to synergize a Spark's abilities with the character's strengths and weaknesses, while considering their own playstyle. Sparks do everything from changing damage types for weapons and dashes to creating entirely new effects, like going invisible or generating a shield under certain conditions.

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What's more, it's easy to focus on the "best" options in a squad-based game, but there's no "best" all-around character or squad in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, at least. This time around, players can replace Mario on the team and have completely different synergies. Luigi, who remains a long-ranged character, may not be best on smaller battlefields, while the melee-focused Rabbid Mario may not be the best option when up against the tougher, bigger enemies who react when damaged. Rabbid Rosalina and Rabbid Luigi are good at pestering and debuffing enemies, but they do so differently and could be better used in some situations, never all. So, players are given the option to change their team up every round, and while healing teammates is rather straightforward, players must also manage the health of their team from encounter to encounter and consider their various character strategies.

It should be noted that there are plenty of items to use too, like a POW Block, that change up the combat even more, but perhaps the most notable change is all characters only have one weapon and players don't just buy stronger weapons with a certain ability or damage type associated with them. Players grow stronger by leveling up and better customize their combat style by switching, using, and changing their equipped Sparks. It makes each character more interesting and more customizable, while also adding another layer of tactics to the combat.

If that isn't refreshing enough, one criticism that can be lobbied against Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is the lack of enemy variety. Sure, there are different types of grunt Rabbid enemies, but once players have seen all the basics, that's all they'll really see out of Kingdom Battle. It's hard to judge based on three hours, but it does seemMario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope's enemy variety is largely improved over the past game. Not only are there Mario enemies around, like Bob-ombs and Goombas, but the various Rabbids are much more interesting. Sure, there are still grunts, but it's exciting to see how each combat encounter is unique compared to the first game.

Really, there was only one thing regarding Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope's combat that caught our eye as a small snag. The special techniques are great for tactical set-ups in the game, but every time they are used, a short animation plays. These animations are great and don't last long, but each character only has one animation, and it plays every single time a special technique is used. It grew old pretty quickly during our session, so a full playthrough likely only exacerbates this. However, if this small bit of repetition is the worst element of the game's combat, then fans have very little to worry about.

As many know, the first game also saw players go back and forth between "exploration" and combat, but the exploration was incredibly limited. It was more genuinely a walk from combat encounter to combat encounter. Now, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope doesn't necessarily break from a formulaic story approach to deliver major developments, as far as we could tell, but that approach is as divided up now as the new game's combat is from its overworld.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was all one dimension, with the overworld leading into each combat encounter, but players instead encounter enemies in the overworld now and load into a combat arena. This isn't new to games, but it's used well here to make each portion of the game distinct. The overworld of Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is far less linear and formulaic, and it feels more like a genuine 3D Mario game as a result. There is no platforming since Mario and friends cannot jump outside of combat still, but players never know what they're going to encounter while exploring the map.

Alongside main story content, there is a plethora of side quests and side content. There are areas where enemies are at a higher level than beatable on a first visit to the planet, encouraging players to revisit later. We ran across a level 10 Goomba with a pot on its head combat encounter at level 3, for example, and were quickly punished (in the best of ways) for our bravado in taking them on. It makes exploring each area more enticing, as while that was too high for us to take on quite yet, there were also clearly markers in some areas for new discoveries and quests that we couldn't quite do yet. Mario + Rabbid Sparks of Hope's overworld exploration is a huge improvement over the first game and is truly dynamic in all meanings of the word.

There's a lot still to be seen about Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, and the direction its story, combat, and exploration take through the middle and latter portions of the game can obviously impact its overall quality and reception. But as far as first impressions go, it's hard to make a better one than Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope did.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope will release on October 20, exclusively for Nintendo Switch.

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