Disclaimer: Writer is an investor in Nintendo.
Nintendo is famous for being stingy with their IPs, and it’s (sometimes) for good reason. Many people can attest that Nintendo games have some sort of “magic” that just doesn’t really seem to be found anywhere else. Other charming and cartoony platformers can’t hold a candle to Mario, and no dungeon-loving developer can perfectly imitate The Legend of Zelda. There are different theories as to why this strange barrier exists, although I attribute it mostly to Nintendo’s unique focus on intrinsically engaging gameplay (you are kept motivated without constantly receiving rewards) and the overall lack of Western design tropes that are tiresome.
Thus, it was all the more surprising when Nintendo announced that Ubisoft, perhaps one of the most Western-y studios out there, was given the go-ahead to develop a Mario title featuring one of their IPs, The Rabbids. Despite possible concerns, they knocked it out of the park with Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. It cemented itself as an amazing turn-based tactics game with only a handful of unnecessary paid weapon skin packs.
I am therefore happy as ever to play the sequel to that awesome game. The trailers hinted at a bigger story, more engaging combat, and new playable characters. So, does this game hold up to the hype? Let’s find out!
Our adventure begins, as always, in the beloved Mushroom Kingdom at Peach’s castle. The Rabbids from the last game have stuck around, and are having a good time when some star comes falling out of the sky, striking Mario.
…Wait, that’s no star! It’s a mix between Rabbid and Luma, known as a Spark. They are fleeing from some big purple thing in the sky, later revealed to be Cursa, who comes pursuing the Sparks for their power. Because Mario is apparently a model Christian, he’s prepared to defend the defenseless and sets off on a intergalactic adventure to save the universe from Cursa’s evildoing.
While this story certainly won’t be winning any awards, it sets in place a space theme that runs strong throughout the game. In addition to the Rabbid-Luma hybrids, several other nods and references to the Super Mario Galaxy series are present. Just like those games, the different levels are known as “galaxies”, albeit this time much larger and more similar to Super Mario Odyssey’s kingdoms. Chock-full of different challenges, characters, secret areas, and “darkmess” puddles spread by Cursa, each galaxy is suffering in a different way and it’s up to you to clean things up.
I really enjoy this theming when at its strongest, although I do feel the developers could have been more creative with the galaxies they thought up – assuming Nintendo actually allowed them to do so in the first place. You sort of have your general Mario tropes, a grassy place, a cold place, etc. While some galaxies do go further, including the first one actually, it’s nothing crazy. Nonetheless, I found myself enjoying the areas I visited with the upgraded graphics and sleek UI that makes everything look pleasant. I already liked how Kingdom Battle looked, but things are even better here.
In addition to the graphical upgrades, main characters have been given way more personality than the last game, primarily in the way of voice acting. The rabbids used to just say jibberish, and while hearing the same lines over and over can get annoying, nothing beats rabbid Mario going on about pizza or yelling “take it easy!” in a strong Italian accent. Even Beep-O, your robot companion, speaks!
Enemy variety has also been improved – no longer are they mostly just rabbids in costumes (as funny as it was) but they’re truly otherworldly looking. However, they won’t go down without a fight. As with this game’s predecessor, battles are turn-based, meaning they play out like a game of chess – each side has time to plan before making a move, so you’re intended to play carefully and strategically. Both you and your enemies have access to differing attacks and abilities, such as healing allies or ramping up their damage. Options in pretty much all departments have been massively increased since the last game, including greater freedom of movement, the ability to pick up and throw select enemies, and of course the addition of sparks that spawn allies, give buffs, add elemental properties to your attacks, plus more.
Utilizing these new movement options and different abilities of the characters and sparks correctly will often open up opportunities to deal huge amounts of damage and finish battles with a minimal number of turns. Unfortunately… I feel that this level of freedom has a massive downside. Allow me to explain.
In Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, the entire campaign was tightly designed. The game very carefully kept you at the same power level as your enemies. Each battle played out more like a puzzle, and required you plan your moves carefully, especially since you could only move your characters once per turn (now you can move them whenever you want in range until making an attack). Most every battle throughout the whole game felt like a challenge, which kept the experience entertaining all the way through.
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope doesn’t lean nearly as heavy on strategy. For one, it introduces an XP system in which your characters will become stronger whenever they level up instead of at specified intervals. Add in an abundance of optional battles off the main path and overworld enemies that respawn, you’ll find yourself at a consistently higher level than the enemies you are fighting if you choose to tackle plenty of side quests… which you usually don’t want to save for later seeing as they will be mind-numbingly easy if you come back later when you’re even stronger. Yes, returning to find yourselves overpowered for side quests was also an issue in the last game, but at least it didn’t affect the main campaign.
The worst offender of all though is the addition of items that can be used in battle. You’ll find them scattered throughout the world, as rewards from battles, and as purchasable goodies from shops. Seeing as you are showered with coins throughout the game, I never came close to running out of items, which is a shame because they are incredibly overpowered. I won’t mention them all by name but they allow you to do things such as:
- Cleanse yourself of any negative effect
- Start a new area of movement
- Reset all ability and spark cooldowns
- Heal 30%, 50%, 70% or 100% HP
- And more.
Considering the fact that every character has constant access to all of the items at any point in battle, you’re never really at a place you can’t come back from unless something goes terribly wrong. Just like how many college students imagine life, you’re rarely going to be punished for your mistakes. Let yourself get frozen right next to a deadly enemy? Just use a cleansing elixir. Misjudged your character’s range of movement? No worries, start a whole new area of movement with the move boost! While these do take up one of your character’s two actions per turn, they’re comparable to abilities in terms of power so it doesn’t really work as a punishment – you just have more options.
Add in an abundance of sparks and the buffs to movement, it seems like less of the battles in this game require a consistent strategy. Yes, it would be helpful to take a look at your enemy’s weaknesses and your character’s strengths, but you don’t have to. You can pretty much take any character into whatever battles you want and make it work without too much trouble. The only tangible reward you get is finishing some battles in fewer turns, which is less desirable when you factor in the time building specific teams for battles take. There aren’t even special trophies for finishing a battle in a certain number of turns or without a character dying, and those were in the last game!
You may be asking, “Catoons, why are you so upset about these things? Isn’t Mario a kid’s franchise? Shouldn’t the games be accessible?” Well, it’s because all of these things I’ve been talking about happened while playing on HARD mode. Yes, there are easier modes than the one I was playing on and even the ability to turn off damage altogether. If you’re going to have a mode titled “demanding”, maybe it should… actually be difficult? I won’t say that there wasn’t any challenge, and I honestly found most battles quite enjoyable, and sometimes tough, simply by not allowing myself to use items, but it’s upsetting to feel the need to artificially limit myself on the first playthrough.
Suffice it to say, I recommend any newcomers to the series to try playing on demanding mode first, and those who played the past game to do the same while giving the no-items run a try. You can change difficulty on the fly so you don’t need to be concerned if you find yourself regretting your choice.
From a faith perspective
Although it may not seem like there could be an awful lot to talk about here, I noticed a certain trait the characters have not often present in Mario titles. The characters are intent on taking out each and every trace of Cursa, leaving no darkmess around to cause harm. It should be quite clear at this point that darkness is an allegory for evil, or sin. There is no reason to allow any of it to remain, as it would only continue to wreak havoc and perhaps even spread. Similarly, we have no good reason to allow any evil to remain inside ourselves. Paragraph 1865 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes:
“Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil.”
And really, what else could sin lead us to besides more death and destruction? Even the tiniest of sins is a net negative, pushing us away from the source of all that is good and true. It is only upon the complete eradication of all sin entirely that we are prepared to meet God in heaven – without the tiniest shred of a shred left. For the scrupulous out there, this is of course not to say you are unable to obtain heaven with any attachment to sin – that is what purgatory cleanses you of – but rather that the Christian life is a continuous struggle to eradicate all sin, not solely by our own accord but with the help of the Lord by participation with His grace. At no point should we say “I’m good enough, I can stop fighting now” because the sin that remains will, like Cursa, only continue to cause damage and grow.
At the end of the… battle, I think Sparks of Hope is a decently fun but slightly flawed experience. It failed to resolve the power-scaling issue that was also present in the last game, and while it introduced many interesting new concepts, I think the game design struggled because of it. The original game will stand in my mind as the more strategic and prized adventure, while Sparks of Hope is a good time that can be run through more easily.
If you’re interested in picking up this game, I will note that Ubisoft seems to have control over the pricing. That means it often goes on sale so you can probably get this cheaper than most other titles sporting Mario on the cover if you wait for the right time. One of the few western tropes I actually enjoy…
Music: 4/5 (Nice orchestrated pieces but didn’t have the same impact that the zany music did in Kingdom Battle)
Magic/Occult: One of the obtainable items is a charm, and there is a fortune teller you can visit, but she doesn’t do much. Several enemies are themed around magic and use magic powers, and are unwilfully controlled by Cursa. The warden of the first area is viewed as a demigod and is based on several figures in Greek mythology.
Violence: Characters fight with swords and unrealistic guns, the “darkmess” is kinda gross and mushy but no blood.
Sex/Nudity: One mural has a rabbid couple going to a presumed kissing hill, with the female rabbid wearing clothes that show stomach.