I reviewed the original and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and the Donkey Kong Adventure expansion a number of years ago around the time of release. It has been just over five years since the release of what turned out to be one of the best games of 2017. The sequel, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope has finally been released this year and was probably the title I was most looking forward to. My thoughts on the game follow below.
A quick way to describe the difference between Kingdom Battle and Sparks of Hope is that the former was a Nintendo game developed by Ubisoft and the latter is a Ubisoft game featuring Nintendo characters. If you understand what I mean, you can basically skip the rest of the review. Sparks of Hope is by no means a bad game but it is a definite step-down from the original for a number of reasons but there is also much to praise so I will begin with the positives.
One thing that was clear after playing through both the original and the Donkey Kong Adventure expansion was that a sequel would certainly need to shake-up the formula. A sequel that played exactly the same would have had a hard time keeping the gameplay fresh. Sparks of Hope has made a number of changes and many of them are clever evolutions. The battle gameplay in particular has been made more fluid with the removal of the grid-based structure. Characters now have a set area in which they can move indicated by a large circle and movement is directly controlled by the player until the character makes a combat action. Adding to this are new jump pads as well as the return of partner-assisted jumps and pipes making it possible to make large movements in a single turn if properly arranged. This change alone makes possible a number of different tactics and makes the game feel genuinely new.
There have also been changes to the weapons though many familiar weapons still return. Mario now wields two blasters and can select two different targets in each combat move and Rabbid Peach’s main weapon can fly over and hit enemies behind cover. Most of the returning characters have seen changes though many weapons and upgrades will still be familiar to those that played Kingdom Battle. Luigi is still a long-range master, Peach and Rabbid Peach are still healers and many effective tactics from the first can still be used in Sparks of Hope. A general positive is there is now full freedom with setting up the team so it is no longer required to have Mario in every battle or at least one Rabbid or Super Mario character on the team. The latter is a minor change but a very welcome one nonetheless. The titular “Sparks” are also equipable rabbid versions of the Lumas from Super Mario Galaxy that give characters a wide variety of different abilities.
Lastly, the worlds are now much more open and with plenty more to do in each area and each play area is also much larger than the relatively confined areas of the first. There is also a nice visual variety thought it is a shame they didn’t take more advantage of the Super Mario Galaxy influence on the design.
The open world while a welcome change is also the main source of criticism I have with the game. When I describe this as a “Ubisoft game featuring Nintendo characters” I mean that like the Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and almost every other Ubisoft game released in the last decade; you have a large open world with a lot of pointless things to do. So there are plenty of side-quests and distractions from the main game but as I will explain further, there is often very little to be gained by doing them. A lot mainly exist to get the 100% completion in each area.
Sparks of Hope isn’t a seamless open world and actually has six distinct areas that can be travelled to and from in a spaceship. Unlike Kingdom Battle, entering battles isn’t seamless either and has a transition and loading screen similar to entering a battle in a JRPG. The battlefields are also generally much larger but one quickly gets the sense that there has been far less thought put into their design. The first game gradually introduced new enemies and mechanics and each battlefield was designed to make use of different characters, enemies or scenarios. Sparks of Hope still has this in most of the main story battles but many of the optional battles give them impression of being thrown together without much thought.
Sparks of Hope is also significantly easier than Kingdom Battle. There are a few difficulty modifiers but there is no penalty for choosing the easier options. There aren’t even any ratings at the end of each battle so less reason to replay them. I set all the difficulty modifiers to the highest setting from the beginning and still had almost no trouble getting through the game. This also trivialised any of the optional extra content as any further advantages gained would only make it even easier. The weapon upgrades have been replaced with weapon skins and these skins don’t even appear in some of the animated character actions (which I quickly turned off). There are a few clever scenarios such as the one pictured above where you have to eliminate a large group of goombas that can only be destroyed by throwing them off the battlefield. There is also one available in each world that is very similar to the Captain Toad side game in Super Mario 3D World.
Kingdom Battle certainly did have a number of useless collectables but it also gave the player extra challenges after completing each world as well as four secret chapters and rated the player on each completed chapter. Sparks of Hope has none of this and after completing the main game, the only things left to do were to mop up collectables and optional scenarios in each area. None of these which would provide any extra challenge or incentive outside of wanting to complete everything.
Sparks of Hope is also noticeably (and surprisingly) a visual step-down from the original. This is not something I would normally take issue with but this is a sequel to a game that came out five years ago. It has been suggested that this was due to the new open-world structure being more demanding but I find it hard to see how this couldn’t have been done better. There is also a general chunkiness to much of the game and quite a few bugs. Thankfully the soundtrack is very worthy and arguably better than Kingdom Battle‘s fantastic soundtrack.
There are a number of new characters introduced, most notably Bowser who is a genuinely fun to use and plays differently to all the other characters. There is also Rabbid Rosalina who plays more like a replacement to the now absent Yoshi. Lastly there is the new rabbid character Edge who I wouldn’t be surprised to learn was a self-insert created by one of the development team’s female designers. She has a large sword and does play genuinely differently but I generally only used her when I was forced to. The enemies are generally all new with a few sharing similarities with some found in the first game. Probably most disappointing is there are very few good boss fights and the original had a series of memorable and challenging boss fights.
To finish off with a few other complaints. The game thankfully doesn’t make a Ubisoft account mandatory but does obnoxiously ask you to sign in every time you boot up the game. What is it with companies having only “Yes” or “Maybe Later” options? How about just “NO”? This is not a trivial criticism either as this is one of the trojan horses being used to slowly turn products into services and I’m sure it only wasn’t mandatory because of Nintendo’s involvement. Another criticism is the unintuitive interface for options and upgrades. To make any changes you have to go through a series of screens and it is easy even when familiar to get lost in or exit out of unintentionally. I’m making many comparisons with the original but once again, Kingdom Battle was far more streamlined. The final complaint is related to the introduction of limited voice work particularly with Beep-0 and the spaceship A.I. which is more annoying than complimentary.
With all I have said, Sparks of Hope is still a good game but a disappointing sequel. I played through this in the first few weeks of release so there may have been some changes since to make improvements but no update will fix issues I have that are fundamental to the design. Ubisoft seems to be very much focused on the DLC for this which will be released in three parts next year. I could possibly seem myself coming back to the game after a sale in a year or two but as of now, I am done with it. If you played and liked the first, you’ll probably like this but curb your expectations and perhaps wait for the inevitable price drop.