Tactical RPGs can be depressing. While the gameplay is incredibly satisfying, their stories often revolve around political conflict and various betrayals. Just this year Square Enix has three tactical RPGs on the calendar: Triangle Strategy, The DioField Chronicle, and Tactics Ogre: Reborn. But the combination of challenging gameplay and heavy themes can lead to the genre as a whole feeling hard to get into.
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, the product of Nintendo and Ubisoft’s partnership, is the solution to the tactical RPG genre’s high barrier to entry.
Make ’em laugh
The idea of a crossover game between Nintendo’s star plumber and Ubisoft’s zany Rabbids is not an obvious match. Wilder still is the idea that it would be a tactics-based game. There are so many different pieces on the board that it shouldn’t work — yet it does.
“You are not normally associating tactics and Rabbids,” Creative Director Davide Soliani told Inverse.
But 2017’s Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle threaded the needle and was released to critical acclaim, still holding its own as one of the best tactical strategy games on the Nintendo Switch. During the development of Kingdom Battle as well as the upcoming sequel Sparks of Hope, Soliani says the team wasn’t satisfied with just making a good strategy game, but a welcoming one.
“So why are people sometimes scared of tactical games? Mostly because of the color schemes, sometimes it's because of the control schemes that are very complex.” The near technicolor palette of Mario and the laughable Rabbids are the key to what makes the tactical gameplay of Sparks of Hope go down as smoothly as it does.
It is just fun to look at and experience.
As foreign as it sounds in the genre of unit permadeath and tense decision-making, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope elicits laughter. Choosing your target during combat causes said target to throw their hands up in a cartoonish “You got me!” pose and a shocked expression on their face until you either decide to pull the trigger or spare them this turn.
The traditional comedic double act in entertainment is defined by the “straight man/funny man” dichotomy. The two feed off each other, acting as foils that send the comedy act to heights unattainable by just one of these archetypes. In Sparks of Hope, the Mario cast are the straight men and the Rabbids are the funny men. Moments like Rabbid Peach taking time out of climactic moments to do her hair are absurd, but they are crafted with a perfect understanding of comedic timing that always livens up Mario + Rabbids.
While the original Mario + Rabbids was already an approachable game, Sparks of Hope looks to take this even further and appeal to a wider audience. While Sparks of Hope is good to look at, the approachability only works if the gameplay is equally easy to pick up. Kingdom Battle was a classic turn-based tactics game, and a sequel could have easily repeated this formula but the team at Ubisoft wanted to improve what they had.
In Sparks of Hope combat happens in turns on a battle stage, but unlike Kingdom Battle players can freely control characters within a set movement distance. Outside of combat the game feels more like a traditional 3D Mario game as well, seamlessly blending between exploration and battle. All of this makes combat feel quicker and more active on the player's part while still retaining the tactical core.
In order to let players choose how they experience the game, there is a dialogue choice in the opening minutes of Sparks of Hope that acts as a difficulty slider. This can be changed at any moment in order to adjust to how players are finding combat at any given point.
Sparks of Hope’s combat is deceptively simple. Your party is made up of 2-3 characters and each character has a few special actions. Easy enough. But as you unlock new systems the interconnected web grows ever larger, and bosses will demand you pay attention and learn how to utilize them if you want to play optimally. A new addition is the titular Sparks, which act as equipable items that give party members special abilities.
This blending of mood and gameplay makes Sparks of Hope a worthy follow-up to Kingdom Battle. Yet, Solianis’s greatest joy is when fans use these games as a jumping-off point to get into the genre. He remembers a fan who told him they had started playing XCOM after Kingdom Battle, “That to me was the best compliment ever.”
Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is coming to Nintendo Switch on October 20, 2022.