A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see a lot of the gameplay in Mario + Rabbit: Spark of Hope, and even spoke with creative director Davide Soliani to find out what makes this sequel so unique. Since that day (well… since the game’s official release), I’ve been engrossed in this title and very excited about it because it looks like Ubisoft has looked at the original and is really focused on improving and iterating on slower parts of the game play. And less attractive. Of course, this is all just speculative thinking, or rather, since I now had a chance to play some of the levels for a few hours, I might add that it was a pretty unforgettable experience.
First, before I dive into the game, let’s talk about tone. Like the original Mario + Rabbit Kingdom Battle, Hope Sparks brings together Mario’s charm and heroism with the humour and chaos of Rabbit. Heroes and characters based on the Mushroom Kingdom are once again brilliant and flawless, all with the return of the macho bunny Mario, the relentlessly hilarious bunny Peach, and various other new faces to this Ubisoft-centric IP and return support. If anything, it generally feels like Ubisoft has gained a bit of creative freedom in how each character is presented, as each has a deeper and broader charisma than the first game.
This creative freedom can be seen in the game in almost every turn. Combat is a completely different beast than before, and I’ll get to that soon, but just look at the world design and the way you can explore it, hopefully Spark already feels more like a Mario game than its predecessors. Each planet is rendered almost as if it were in Super Mario Galaxy (albeit horizontally rather than ball-level). You can roam at your own pace, exploring the quirks of each location, finding secrets and items far from direct line of sight that provide useful lore or items that can be used in battle or used to level up heroes or sparks. There will also be new characters to meet here, many of which will have side quests and other activities for you to complete, all of which aside from roaming enemies, you can jump into combat scenarios when you engage.
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That’s where most of the subsequent changes come into play, because unlike Kingdom Wars and its very strict turn-based strategic combat system, here you have more openness to approach combat in a way that suits you. During a turn, each character has a specific area where they can move, and you can move freely without worrying about grid space. You can also extend this range with team jumps, pipes, tunnels, and more, meaning you can traverse the battlefield like never before. Additionally, you have the option to interact with certain enemies, such as Bob-ombs, which can now be swiped to handle, then picked up and thrown at enemies during your character’s turn, all without even thinking about using action points to actually attack your opponent.
Here, you can choose to use two of the often objectionable gestures. It might just be attacking the enemy with your weapon, it might be using a special ability, or the newly added ability spark. This adorable Lumas and Rabbid combo gives your hero access to new, element-filled moves like Fire Attack or Water Attack. They are great for defeating healthy enemies that have some weakness to the elements, and also give your hero some resistance to attacks that match the Sparks element type. You might be wondering how to tell which spark is best to bring into battle before the battle scene begins? In the pre-battle phase of Tacticam, you can use Beep-O to study the enemy, so you can change your team or Spark mix before getting into the details of the battle.
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While the returning characters all play pretty much the same, I got a chance to play with some new faces: Edge and Rabbids Rosalina. The latter is a standout character in terms of humor and on-screen presence like cutscenes, but in actual combat it’s more of a hero. He has multiple primary weapons, and can then use special moves to basically neutralize any enemy attack or move for full turns. He plays a more discreet and safe character than Rabbids Mario, who prefers to get into the heat of battle and let his fists do the talking. On this topic, we have Edge, a spiky heroine who wields a sword that would make Final Fantasy Clouds jealous. He fights by tossing this sword at enemies, and then can also spin in place while using his special moves to attack enemies that move around him. Edge feels very strong and capable, and is the kind of character you’d want on a team with Rabbids Rosalina, as she brings a tanky and aggressive presence into battle.
From a development perspective, there are also several different ways of doing this. The per-character skill tree has returned, but it has tightened up the skill points earned by leveling up (experience gained from combat), and equaling one level up – instead of having to get a lot of power the Kingdom Wars system can do Buy an additional orb. In addition to this, you can upgrade your Sparks by consuming Star Bits earned through exploration and defeating enemies in battle to increase the effectiveness of each Sparks ability. Of course, there are also gold coins along the way that can be used to buy items, like mushrooms, in the shop to make the fights more approachable – I recommend this as some boss fights have multiple stages and require you to be very strategic with your actions.
Overall, I found it hard not to like Mario + Rabbit: Fire of Hope. It features an expanded and improved combat system from the original, followed by a supporting exploration offering that makes it truly feel like the best Mario game out there. It doesn’t look or play like a turn-based strategy game anymore. No, it’s pretty much a 3D Mario platformer with strategy elements, and it’s all done in an engaging way. Nintendo will likely have a stacked portfolio in the next few months, but if the rest of the game qualifies for the first two tiers, it could be a boutique when October 20 arrives.