Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope (Review)

Howdy hidey ho!  Having played through XCOM 2 where the core fundamentals of Mario + Rabbids comes from, I was surprised to see this series earn itself a sequel.  I enjoyed the first one (aka “baby’s first XCOM”) but my hopes for Sparks of Hope go up a bit expecting growth in the series.  I mean, let’s face it: you never saw a Mario-branded, turn-based strategy game coming, now did you?


…not all risks are worth taking. This punishment does not exist, here…

If you’re unfamiliar with turn-based strategy games, they’re very slow paced.  Most of your time is spent assessing your situation and making strategic choices.  This is less about action and more about decision-making steps ahead of your opponents.  However, unlike the XCOM series, the Mario + Rabbids series tries their best to make things casual and accessible, which in this game includes the use of items that can entirely change outcomes.  And in that lies something interesting: for all the complexity the game tries to toss at you, along with its new “Sparks” system, the game remains far too easy from a strategic standpoint (difficult settings only change metadata: health and damage).  The entire point of “strategy” games is to teach you risk versus reward where you learn that not all risks are worth taking.  This punishment does not exist, here, and not for the better.  This lack of mental challenge also permeates into the over-world.  Exploration is plentiful and dotted with puzzles.  These puzzles are, for lack of a better word, all rather juvenile.  These juvenile puzzles can be solved with little-to-no thinking, and this permeates even into the lategame.  Is watching these cute characters destroy baddies still fun?  Sure.  But without the proper challenge, the word “strategy” rings rather hollow, and this instead turns more into a turn-based beat-em-up/shoot-em-up.  In summary, this sequel falls in line with its predecessor: they are more like “intro to strategy game concepts 101” courses than anything else, which sadly defeats the purpose of the core genre.


Each planet’s map is larger than it at first appears…

You’ll see the credits roll in about 20 hours or so.  As you can imagine, I took my time and smelled some rosey side quests along the way which includes unlockable bonus challenges as well.  Each planet’s map is larger than it at first appears, and in that also lies plenty more to do if you find yourself enjoying the game.  Across the five worlds, there’s probably easily another 10 hours of side content to do even after you’ve beaten the game.  While something along the lines of multiplayer could have dramatically extended this game’s life (let’s face it, the most exciting “chess” opponent you’ll ever face is another human), the content is overall ample enough even for completionists to enjoy.


…the expected polish level for a “Mario” game…

I sound and feel like a broken record, tired of saying these words, but they keep ringing true: the Switch is just getting pushed way too hard for its own good by just about any game that tries to look modern.  But first, the positives about these efforts: they seemed to have drastically improved the lighting engine.  On top of that the animation is at, if not a little above, the expected polish level for a “Mario” game, right down to Mario’s “Chris Pratt” Star-Lord impression.  This means characters always feel lively and silly like they’re supposed to.  I give credit where credit is due: the animators did a great job.  But then there’s the other end of the scale.  For one, the improvement in the lighting engine seemed to have come at a cost to the texture quality.  And in that lies an offender: framerate dips.  While this is not a core action game, framerate dips are frequent.  This seems to be mostly when alpha effects are in play, something I was actually able to replicate at will.  It also seems that in an effort to push more “open” camera views, the game is held back by system resources in which you’ll easily catch assets being streamed in.  This segues yet into probably the most disruptive thing of all: constant loading screens.  You’ll see a LOT of loading screens, something competing consoles and their games are literally trying to eliminate.  As for the story?  Well, you likely know Mario-branded games don’t exactly have complex stories, but I applaud them for adding a bit more flavor this time around.  I do need to tell you that your response to the Saturday morning cartoon humor and voice acting may vary, though.


You can’t learn or get better at strategy without losing…

I’ve enjoyed the Mario + Rabbids series: both Kingdom Battle and Sparks of Hope set out and do exactly what they intend to: be introductory baby steps into the turn-based strategy genre.  However, they both also markedly make the same mistake: lacking punishment for poor decisions.  You can’t learn or get better at strategy without losing, a hallmark of what makes XCOM so well-respected in the genre.  This is reflected in its all-too-easy puzzles, too.  Fortunately, it’s a healthy amount of content if you enjoy it, and while the Switch’s hardware continues to struggle to push pretty much anything modern, that doesn’t take away from the excellent animation work and improved lighting engine.

I give Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope

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