Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was a pleasant surprise. A charming game that married Nintendo’s Mushroom Kingdom with the chaos of Ubisoft’s Rabbid mascots and crammed it into a game that was, well, pretty much a cartoon interpretation of the tactical strategy series XCOM.
It was an unlikely early hit on the Switch. Ubisoft was able to offer a different kind of game than Nintendo was offering in its first-party titles. Apparently, that was the seed that led Ubisoft Milan Creative Director Davide Soliani to Mario + Rabbids. Talking to Engadget, he said, “[We] should create something that makes sense from Ubisoft’s point of view, something not happening in Nintendo’s catalog.”
Ubisoft fulfilled that brief with Kingdom Battle. Soliani added: “We can match the aesthetics [of Super Mario], using and misusing the elements…. The contrast is the drive.” That’s the context for this sequel, too.
In Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, Mario et al. (and their Rabbid equivalents) face a shared threat, called Cursa. The blended worlds of Mario and Rabbids are being contorted by darkness, but this time it’s a little more galactic. Expect to see varied worlds, à la Mario Galaxy, with the Lumas of that game being transformed into Sparks, elemental sprites that work like summonable magic attacks in the many, many battles.
That may sound new to anyone that played Kingdom Battle, but there are far bigger changes afoot. We’re yet to play the game, but judging from the new teaser and Davide Soliani’s explanation, it’s going to feel different – less of an XCOM tribute and something between tactical strategy conventions and the manic dashing and leaping of typical Mario games.
Your party of three heroes can now move around in real-time, no more grids. You’ll be able to see how far a character can move within their environment thanks to a white outline, but you’ll be able to figure out cover and optimal attacks on the fly. Each hero will get their turn before the baddies get to, well, return the favor. Soliani says this should help the game to feel more “natural”.
Crucial elements will include where you move your hero (as long as you don’t shoot), utilizing items to extend movement and even using some enemies against other enemies – like hurling a Bob-omb towards some unsuspecting enemies on the other side of an area. Like Kingdom Battle, the synergy with other heroes will be crucial in tackling the biggest enemies.
Alongside companion elemental Sparks, which will grow in abilities as your characters do, each hero will have their own unique weapon this time, running the gamut from melee weapons like swords through to dual pistols and even bows. (You can’t have a game in the 2020s without including a bow.)
You’ll be joined by some new characters, including a Rabbid with a sword called Edge. (Dumb, I love it.) and age-old rival Bowser, who’s apparently a heavy-hitter equipped with what appears to be a bazooka.
More freedom in battles is mirrored in the game too. The worlds you’ll explore should feel more open-ended than the areas of its predecessor. Explore planets, take on fetch quests (this is a Ubisoft game after all), solve the major darkness problems of this specific planet – or just do the bare minimum and move on to the next part of the game.
This should all help Sparks of Hope feel a little more contemporary – aided by a pretty incredible array of musical talent. Kingdom Battle composer Grant Kirkhope, who also contributed to Rare’s epic run of Nintendo 64 games, returns, joined by Gareth Croker (Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Halo Infinite) and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy XV). Those are some gaming music heavyweights which should help ensure all these different worlds sound as different as they’ll look.
Judging from the teaser and Soliani’s comments, Ubisoft is evolving Mario + Rabbids at a swift clip, modernizing the battle system and adding further strategic wrinkles and customization to fights. Sparks of Hope could feel like a different sort of tactical battle game, and if they nail the synergy like the first game, it could be just as entertaining.