I didn't expect my time with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope to start with finding Rabbid Mario's trousers while he was hiding in a bush, but that's just the sort of humor we expect from this bizarrely wonderful crossover. A little juvenile, yes, but oddly endearing. And yet, it's one of the only things that has carried over from the original title, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, because everything else has had quite the update. Going hands-on with a duo of the game's early levels, it's immediately apparent that this is much more of a Super Mario game than I'd expected.
Okay, so it's still a tactical battler, that much is true, but a lot of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope evolution comes from the fact that this is a much less linear game than Kingdom Battle. We're going on an intergalactic journey this time, with the goal of defeating Cursa, a new enemy infecting numerous planets with dark, inky, tentacles. Each planet you land on unfurls like a little explorable hub akin to something you'd find in Super Mario Odyssey or the more recent Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury.
It's not quite an open world, but these planetary hubs are filled with plenty to do to distract you from your main quest. There are side quests to complete, puzzles to solve, new routes to uncover, and characters to interact with. One such side quest on the second planet I got to explore – a snowy place that was home to The Winter Palace – asks me to help a mad scientist whose lab has been invaded by that dark inky stuff I was talking about earlier, known as 'Darkmess'. The brilliant final battle of the quest involved pushing buttons as I moved through the arena to start up wind machines. Eventually, these would push Bob-ombs through the area too, enabling one of my party to trigger it and then lob it into the Darkmess to finally clear the way through.
These planet hubs also allow the core story to offer a little more in the way of playfulness and puzzle solving. The Winter Palace, for example, required figuring out several door puzzles in order to keep moving through the castle. They were simple enough, but added some flavour to the gameplay between battles. It's also brilliant for adding more visual flair and intrigue to the worlds themselves, compared to what we saw in Kingdom Battles.
Sparks of magic
There's just a lot more creativity here with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, and the fact there's an enhanced focus on choice and freedom is clear just from these few early hours I've had with the game. Being able to trigger and then throw Bob-ombs not just at the scenery, but also at enemies is a wonderful touch, and you can also use and throw other items during your turns to change the course of battle too, such as 'POW Blocks' for damaging enemies within a certain radius, or mushrooms for a quick burst of health.
That freedom also comes into play even more through the removal of the grid in battles. I honestly didn't think it would make much of a difference – you're still limited to a certain movement range for each character after all – but it makes planning your next moves feel more organic. I found myself quickly switching between characters to get them into position before even thinking about pulling a trigger. The minute you use your main weapon, you're locked to that position, but until then you can continue using other special moves or movements like 'Team Jump' to get your crew in the best positions possible.
The bunny-eared drone, Beep-O, returns for this title with its own upgrades too – including a tacticam. It allows you to check out your enemies at any point in the battle to find out what kind of weapons they use, and whether they have any elemental strengths and weaknesses. Now, this is where the titular Sparks come in. These Rabbid Luma hybrids are funny little creatures, but each comes with its own elemental attacks that can be used by any of your Mario + Rabbids cast. It might be something that you can add to your main attack, like splash or fire damage, or a temporary upgrade to your dash like an electric wave. However, some also have their own unique attacks that can be used, like a particularly effective
Initially, you can partner up one Spark with each character, but by the time I'd been jumped ahead to the second planet on offer during this hands-on session, each of my characters had a duo of Sparks assigned to them. You only get two action points per round, which you'll need to use the sparks or special moves, so it just becomes a brilliant balancing act of what to use and when. I found myself spending far more time on the prepping and planning stages because of the amount of tools at my disposal. Mistakes still happened of course – the grid-less makes enemy movements also more organic and harder to predict – but I always felt empowered during battle to have a few tricks up my sleeve.
And no doubt that'll only grow too, with a light RPG upgrade system for both the characters and the Sparks. Each battle lets you gain XP but also coins and Star Bits. Coins can be used to buy more in-game items or even keys to unlock new areas on the map, but Star Bits are for upgrading Sparks to be more powerful too. Handily, as you wander around each world, you'll find enemies to battle whenever you fancy it, allowing you to grind a little between quests to make sure you're as ready as you can be. Interestingly, battles trigger Pokemon style too, leaping you to a separate battling space, but also allowing you to get a sneaky attack in before the battle starts with a well-timed dash. It's just another element that makes Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Battle feel more organic and dynamic.
Oh, and did I mention there are new characters to play with too? Not only does Bowser switch sides here, but we also get Rabbid Rosalina. While I didn't spend any time with Bowser during this preview, I did meet Rosalina, and she's a perfect teenager. Mumbly, grumbly, and very annoyed to be doing anything but read her books, but also ridiculously powerful – with a cuddly toy that doubles as a kind of button gun that's simultaneously cute and deadly. Plus, there's an entirely new Rabbid called Edge, who's all goth and armed with a sword that makes them invaluable for close-quarters combat.
I had far too much fun with Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. While Kingdom Battle was a brilliant game, it seems that Sparks of Hope has really found itself. By embracing the strategic battles, but imbuing them – and the galaxy as a whole – with more Super Mario creativity and fun, Sparks of Hope is looking like it's going to be utterly brilliant. I can't wait to see more come October 20 when the game launches exclusively on Nintendo Switch.
I think it's safe to say that it's looking likely Sparks of Hope will become one of the best strategy games out there