Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle came about like a fever dream in 2017. Nintendo lending Ubisoft its poster child franchise? A Rabbid dressing up as Princess Peach? Mario wielding a gun? Madness. More surprising still, it turned out to be a ridiculously good strategy game – one of the best on Switch. The sequel, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, has seen the general sense of surprise associated with the first replaced with one of expectation. No longer does anyone doubt whether Ubisoft can make a decent strategy game with the Mario licence, and — perhaps more astonishingly — few critics bemoan the inclusion of the chaotic little Rabbids in the Mushroom Kingdom. Five years later, the question now is whether or not Ubisoft has improved upon the formula born from gaming’s most unexpected crossover.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

The answer is as complicated as Rabbids are dense. Much has changed since Beep-O and the Rabbids found themselves crossing dimensions into the Mushroom Kingdom. Despite both being strategy games with light RPG elements, Sparks of Hope plays quite differently than its predecessor, to the point where it feels almost like a different game. Gone are the labyrinthine maps interspersed with battles and block-based puzzles to solve. Instead, Sparks of Hope introduces five vibrant worlds which Rabbids have colonised, full of challenges, quirky characters, and little secrets to discover by solving simple puzzles, which are no longer restricted to the block-based variety. Classic coloured coin challenges, secret stages reminiscent of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and more make for welcome additions.

Mario and friends visit each of these worlds on a quest to stop the mysterious space-tentacle monster Cursa, who has infected the galaxy with Darkmess – yes, mess not ness – which is a kind of ooze that warps our heroes to another dimension to do battle when touched. Idyllic beaches, frozen ice palaces, and fairytale autumn woods need cleansing from Cursa’s Darkmess. This shift to more open locales is a welcome one; we found every centimetre of the dense worlds a delight to explore.

When in this Darkmess dimension, Mario, Luigi, and Peach once again team up with their Rabbid counterparts (and three new heroes) to dash, jump, and blow up Rabbid-themed enemies and a few possessed Mushroom Kingdom baddies, but where the original’s battles played almost like puzzles, with tight, grid-based movement and opponents placed in specific spots for you to clear out within a certain amount of turns, Sparks of Hope plays much looser in both movement and the options available to you.

Heroes now move freely across the map, limited only by their range and until they fire their weapon. Moving your party of three into position to set off a chain of team jumps becomes a necessity to gain the upper hand, though most characters can only jump once per turn. You can otherwise move about as much as you want to perform free actions, such as throwing Bomb-ombs at enemies, before repositioning for an attack. This freedom of movement adds a fluidity not often seen in most strategy games, challenging you to see how much havoc you can wreck on space-faring villains every turn in arenas both sprawling and compact.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

To help facilitate this havoc, each of the nine heroes now has a weapon unique to them. Mario can attack two enemies at once with his dual blasters. Rabbid Luigi throws a frisbee that can ricochet off multiple targets. Newcomer Edge hurls a massive sword that wouldn’t look out of place in Cloud Strife’s closet, hitting twice in a line. All heroes also have an individual ability, though this time around not all were created equal. Rabbid Peach’s Heal feels lacklustre compared to Peach's powerful Team Barrier, for instance. Sparks of Hope also introduces equippable Rabbid Lumas called – you guessed it – Sparks, which have a wide range of powerful effects that negate some of the need for defensive tools.

Even on the highest difficulty, Sparks can trivialise encounters. Each hero equips two at a time. Enemies are strong or weak against certain Super Effects that Sparks can impart to the heroes’ attacks, such as the Splash Effect that sends Cursa’s Stooges and Wildclaws bouncing out of bounds or the Ooze Effect that deals extra damage at the beginning of the enemy turn.

Super Effect Sparks have their uses but some Utility Sparks truly shine. Take the Glitter Spark, which lures foes from across the arena toward the user. Using it frees up all three party members to unload their area-of-effect Sparks and abilities to clear an otherwise difficult battle of entrenched enemies immediately. It surprised us how this combination worked for the many victory conditions thrown our way. Reaching a certain point in a map, surviving waves of enemies for six turns, destroying a certain amount of Darkmess eyes, and boss encounters with special mechanics? No problem. All fell before our mighty Glitter Spark strat.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

While discovering creative combinations or quick strategies to clear battles made us feel like the smartest Rabbid in the colony, we lamented the lack of challenge. Even without abusing certain Sparks, the plentiful battles rarely required us to find a clever way to overcome improbable odds. Rather, any cleverness on our part sped up the inevitable outcome – victory. Not once did our team of three wipe out, and we only lost a single hero in some of the more drawn-out boss battles. Yes, even with enemy damage and health boosted on the highest difficulty.

Still, each time we rescued a new Spark from Cursa’s minions or levelled up enough to unlock a cool ability, such as Mario’s Jump Shot or adding fire to Bowser’s Rabbid Mechakoopas, we were keen to see how we could use them against a respectable roster of enemies. This cornucopia of variety ensured we were eager to move on to cleanse the next world of Darkmess, while solving creative little quests for some eccentric Rabbids along our way toward saving the galaxy.

With nine heroes to assign skills to and 30 unlockable Sparks to equip, clunky menus impeded experimentation somewhat. Irritating loading screens when opening and closing the menus, and a couple button presses too many when switching between skill trees and Spark loadouts, left us sticking with our favourite three or four heroes later in the game. Even when it was clear Rabbid Rosalina’s enemy-freezing Ennui ability would come in handy during a specific battle, we opted not to use her as we were tired of fiddling about in the menu. A way to save loadouts or swap characters without having to pause would have gone far.

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Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Amusing cutscenes that highlight the cast’s personalities – particularly the Rabbids – help keep the adventure entertaining despite our menu-based grievances, and a great soundtrack by the legendary composers behind Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario RPG, and Ori and the Blind Forest did so as well. We made sure to head into the options to turn up the music volume, and so should you. We’d also recommend turning down the voice volume as they’ve given Beep-O a posh, slightly prissy voice that grated on our nerves from the first cutscene onward. We missed his cute little beeps and boops from Kingdom Battle quite a bit after hearing him narrate for the 30 hours we spent cleaning up Cursa's interplanetary mess.

Conclusion

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope’s battles suffer from an imbalance between the vast array of options available and the difficulty – a stark contrast to Kingdom Battle’s challenging, curated fights. This doesn't mean it isn't an enjoyable strategy game in its own right; the battles are less an evolution of what came before and more an impressive shift toward freedom and creativity that, unfortunately, can sometimes trivialise Cursa’s attempts to take over the galaxy. An extra couple of notches on the difficulty meter might have forced us to experiment and dig deeper to find winning strategies. However, Sparks of Hope shines in most aspects outside of these Darkmess bouts. Delightful little puzzles, quests, and memorable locales abound, which yet make this Rabbid-themed adventure a must-play for Mario and strategy game enthusiasts alike.