For all its qualities, 2017’s Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was, first and foremost, a proof of concept. I mean that as a compliment. Nintendo’s plumber, Ubisoft’s stooges, and simplified versions of XCOM’s tactical battlefields? It’s a bizarre concept to prove, but Kingdom Battle proved it well. And it opened the door so Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, an altogether bolder, deeper, and more adventurous sequel, could stride confidently through.
Sparks of Hope is set in motion when a giant manta ray attacks Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and the cadre of Rabbids who impersonate them. The manta ray, it later turns out, is controlled by an otherworldly entity named Cursa, who wants to spread the inky, plague-like Darkmess across the galaxy, in order to harness the energy of Sparks — mashups between Rabbids and the Super Mario Galaxy’s star-like Lumas.
Thus begins a planet-hopping trek to stop Cursa and save the Sparks. As in Kingdom Battle, missions play out in turn-based skirmishes against a roster of enemies from both titular franchises. Unlike its predecessor, however, Sparks of Hope incorporates real-time elements in its character movement. Rather than commanding your fighters to specific spots on a grid — a la chess — you actively control their movement on the Switch’s left analog stick.
Initial movement range is indicated by a highlighted patch of ground, which you can extend by teammate-propelled jumps, character abilities, and environmental factors. Once you fire a character’s weapon, you’re allowed to spend their remaining action point, but you can’t move anymore, and you’ll take cover if you’re close enough to a wall, fence, or concrete slab.
While this kinetic freedom isn’t the game-changer it might appear to be at first blush — Kingdom Battle’s grid-based movement was already a metaphor for this real-time action, after all — it does make flanking maneuvers and last-minute comebacks all the more exciting. Did I technically end my turn in a sliver of space that a grid wouldn’t have allowed for? Who cares. Luigi just slide-tackled a bob-omb, tossed it into a group of enemies, leapt from Mario’s outstretched hands, hovered to a watchtower, and eliminated an enemy sniper to finish the mission. If it’s an illusion, it’s a damn good one.
The active movement also works on a thematic level, connecting Sparks of Hope to Mario’s 3D platformers. So too does the game’s overarching structure. As opposed to the linear, node-based overworld of Kingdom Battle (which mimicked the world maps of the earlier 2D Mario platformers) the sequel is reminiscent of the mini-open-worlds of Super Mario Odyssey. You explore five planets (four of which are based on the seasons) in search of side quests, collectibles, weapon skins, and mini-bosses. Story missions are usually indicated by inky blobs of Darkmess, but you can also enter minor encounters with wandering goombas and the like.
While a couple of these worlds are overly complex in their level design — the wintry cliffsides of Pristine Peaks are particularly frustrating to backtrack through — the rest exude craft and charm in equal measure. Palette Prime, a cartoonish Sleepy Hollow set in an eternal autumn and overseen by an Edgar Allen Poe understudy, is among my favorite 3D Mario worlds ever. It’s not only vivid and cozy, but also introduces some of the game’s most compelling enemies and mind-bending environmental wrinkles. Battles beneath its arboreal canopy involve evil mages that can heal their teammates and hooded vampires who sap your health to refill their own.
To counter the ever-evolving enemy roster, you equip each of your squadmates with the eponymous Sparks. Replacing the interchangeable weapon arsenal of Kingdom Battle, Sparks grant various abilities and passive buffs. While they begin simply enough — one imbues attacks with fire damage, another increases the defenses of nearby allies, for instance — they soon throw balance out the window, allowing you to build unstoppable forces of nature. After unlocking the ability to equip two Sparks per character, I outfitted Bowser with Ethering (a Spark that grants him invisibility for several turns) and Pyrogeddon (one that calls down a meteor shower in his immediate vicinity). I’ll let your imagination run wild.
Experimenting with different combinations of characters and Sparks is the fuel that pushes Sparks of Hope through its weaker moments — fighting yet another weak squad of goombas just to see a planet’s progression tracker increase by three percentage points can get old — and into its most elaborate missions, which are on par with some of the best I’ve played in XCOM 2 or Final Fantasy Tactics. One standout involved activating wind tunnels in order to push bob-ombs down a labyrinthine network of ice patches and into a final wall covered in Darkmess. Rabbid Luigi’s Frisbee-like weapon was crucial in its function as a ricocheting death disc, and Peach’s shield ability helped the squad weather the worst of the enemy onslaughts. The battle was a delicate balancing act between guiding the bob-ombs, planning my next spot for cover, and eliminating as many opponents as I could in the moments between.
Elsewhere, it’s the “moments between” that lead me to my biggest gripe with Sparks of Hope. I’ll admit that the Series X and PlayStation 5 have spoiled me with their short load times, and I won’t begrudge the almost 6-year-old Switch for not keeping up. Sparks of Hope, though, isn’t cloying because of its load time length, but rather, the sheer quantity of load screens. In a game where the pre-mission planning phase is largely a matter of hopping between menu screens, it becomes a test of patience to sit through a load screen every time I hop between the battle-overview camera and the squad-selection screen; doubly so when I’m backtracking through previous planets and fighting low-level fights in search of one collectible.
In the end, however, this technical frustration pales in comparison to Sparks of Hope’s design boons. As someone who loves the tactics genre, I’ll be the first to admit that it can often take itself too seriously. That Sparks of Hope finds such harmony between strategic depth, cartoonish magnetism, and a fair amount of comedy (yes, as long as we’re being honest here, I think the Rabbids are funny) is no small accomplishment. If Kingdom Battle stood on the shoulders of giants, Sparks of Hope leaps off of them and into an arena all unto its own. It’s an excellent tactics game, by all means. But it’s also a confident Mario adventure in its own right.
Who could have predicted that such an odd amalgamation could elicit such joy? With Sparks of Hope, Ubisofts Milan and Paris have turned one of gaming’s strangest elevator pitches into one of Mario’s greatest spinoffs.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope will be released on Oct. 20 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Ubisoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.