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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5
Mario + Rabbids: Sparks... 4.5/5
Eiyuden Chronicle: Risi... 3/5
Psychonauts 2 4.5/5
Castle in the Clouds DX 4/5
Ocean's Heart 4/5
Just Die Already 2/5
Sable 2.5/5
Midnight Castle Succubus 4.5/5
Tower and Sword of Succ... 4/5
Thronebreaker: The Witc... 3/5
Battletoads (2020) 1.5/5
Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5

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Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope   Nintendo Switch 

Surprise and Delight    4.5/5 stars

“Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope” (“Sparks of Hope”) is the completely unexpected sequel to the equally-unexpected Switch launch window title, “Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle” which saw one of the vanishingly rare incidents of Nintendo allowing a third-party, in this case the Big Three Western publisher Ubisoft, to make an all-new game based on one of Nintendo’s covetously-guarded IPs. The result was spectacular, but, like nearly all of Nintendo’s other collaborative games, seemed destined to be a one-hit wonder. Thus, the unexpected announcement and release of “Sparks of Hope” in 2022 brought with it both feelings of surprise and delight.

Unfortunately, in the months since release, this sequel hasn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire, leaving the future of the Ubisoft/Nintendo partnership in question. That’s a damned shame, as “Sparks of Hope” provides another healthy dose of excellent Tactical RPG goodness, only hampered by Ubisoft’s omnipresent technical issues.

Presentation
“Sparks of Hope” largely reuses the same visual stylings and assets as its predecessor. That is to say, the highly-detailed character and environmental models used in more recent Nintendo projects are absent, with some less-detailed, somewhat-plasticky-looking models in their place. The designs for the new, original characters in “Sparks of Hope” are generally quite irritating and cringey. The environments are decidedly more open and less linear than the preceding game, though they have little-to-nothing to do with the Mushroom Kingdom. Likewise, while exploring these larger, more sprawling environs, the camera tends to hug too closely to the player’s party of characters and proves uncooperative in the few instances of environmental puzzles where quickly looking around for colored coins before they disappear is important. Unfortunately, the visuals are further hampered by the game engine – an in-house Ubisoft engine known as Snowdrop – producing a significant number of visual glitches. Numerous pieces of environmental fluff – such as songbirds – tend to flicker in-and-out of existence, even going so far as to affect character models, such as Rabbid Mario’s toothpick, which suffers the same flickery fate. I was going to try to play “Sparks of Hope” in the Yuzu emulator, but these visual glitches are so much worse in emulation that I had to use my actual Switch (for the first time in nearly 2 years!).

Audio is mostly similar to the first ‘Mario + Rabbids’ game as well, with an excellent, sweeping soundtrack performed by a philharmonic orchestra, which really captures the essence of “Super Mario Galaxy,” which “Sparks of Hope” uses as its primary ‘Mario’ inspiration. Voiceacting, however, is a bit… much. While in the first game, we typically got Charles Martinet catchphrases along with Rabbids yelling, “BWAAH!” as the extent of the voiced dialog, in “Sparks of Hope,” many of the Rabbid characters say coherent things in English, while NPCs will typically spout part of their dialog boxes verbally, if not entirely. Some characters, such as the returning sentient Roomba, Beep-0, have had their entire personalities turned upside down via poorly-selected voice characterization, while others, such as Rabbid Peach, are at least amusing and consistent with their established personas. In general, I feel like the extra voiceacting did more harm than good with how half-assed it is.

Technically, “Sparks of Hope” isn’t going to win any prizes. Like its predecessor, it crashed on me, though only half as often, giving me 2 instances where I was forced back to the Switch main menu in the middle of a battle. However, simple crashes and bugs that can be fixed by resetting the game aren’t the only problems this time around, as I ran into a repeatable issue with a specific battle that appears on each of the game’s planets. Each planet features one unique survival battle that is always a few levels higher than the player’s party (at least until the player hits the level cap, then the battles are simply equal to the player’s level). These battles are tied to an enemy encounter guarding a unique chest that contains a weapon skin for one character. However, if the player enters the battle, then decides to flee instead of fighting, the enemy in the environment will disappear, allowing the player to grab the chest without completing the battle… but then the enemy will never reappear, causing the player to lose-out on a unique type of coin that only exists in a fixed amount. It’s telling that Ubisoft has become a de-facto PC developer with their own platform, as the arrogance on display in releasing a game with this many bugs to be distributed on physical cartridges could only come from a company that is used to being beholden only to itself.

Story
Following on the events of “Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle,” all of the ‘real world’ connections have been conveniently swept away, and Mario & co. are living peacefully, once again, in the Mushroom Kingdom, while simultaneously coping with the influx of Rabbids – mentally challenged, vaguely-anthropomorphic white rabbits that Ubisoft invented for the “Raving Rabbids” minigame collection on the Wii – who have taken up residence in and around Peach’s castle. An ordinary day is interrupted, however, when a gigantic manta-like creature made of a substance known only as ‘darkmess energy’ (not a typo, that’s dark-mess, with an M) appears over the castle and begins siphoning up various objects from the kingdom. Mario and co. leap into action, only to meet up with a large, female Rabbid named… Edge… who looks like a typical 4th Wave Feminist.

Upon defeating the darkmess manta, Edge informs Mario and co. that the creature was sent by an interstellar overlord known as Cursa, who is assimilating one Rabbid planet after another in pursuit of the titular Sparks: Beings created from the fusion of “Super Mario Galaxy’s” Lumas and, of course, Rabbids. Of course, reaching Cursa’s fortress on the far side of the galaxy will be no easy feat, but it turns out that, after beating the crud out of it, darkmess energy can be purified into a power-source capable of creating interstellar warp conduits. Thus Mario, Edge, and the rest of the gang set off across the galaxy, hopping from one Rabbid planet to the next, liberating them from the darkmess and acquiring just enough fuel to make the next jump.

The Rabbid planets in “Sparks of Hope” feel significantly less ‘Mario’-esque than the worlds of “Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle,” though there are slightly more of them. Instead of the rut-worn ‘Mario’ themes, each Rabbid planet is themed after the four seasons, with an extra a-seasonal desert planet. Likewise, each of the 5 planets the player will visit features a Warden who watches over the Rabbids there, but who is helpless in the face of Cursa’s darkmess invasion.

In addition to Edge, Cursa, and the Planet Wardens, there are also a new trio of villainesses to get in the heroes’ way. These creatures are known as Spark Hunters, and take the form of various deeply unattractive female Rabbids – one is a ghost mermaid, one is a carnivorous plant, and one is quite literally a brick shithouse professional wrestler – who all seem to have some past dealings with Edge.

In general, I don’t feel like the storytelling is quite as good or cogent as it was in the previous game. The Rabbid planets are silly, and the Wardens’ tragic backstories are fleshed out by pieces of artwork hidden around the planet environments, but the ties to the Mushroom Kingdom are very tenuous. This easily could have been a ‘Rabbids Minus Mario’ game and suffered little from a story perspective. Likewise, I didn’t feel like the ‘big plot twist’ was all that surprising, and I predicted the mystery of Cursa’s backstory far before it was officially unveiled.

Overall, “Sparks of Hope” is about a 40-hour experience, like its predecessor. While the story is weaker than it could have been, I still enjoyed the ride and never found myself bored.

Gameplay
“Sparks of Hope” is the natural evolution of the TRPG mechanics we first saw in “Kingdom Battle.” The bulk of the gameplay consists of a series of tactical battles with the player controlling their choice of three characters against whatever enemies Ubisoft decides to throw at them. There are occasional fixed-character battles where the player must use two (and only two) specific characters, and an equally small number of boss battles where the player’s chosen party of three will be joined by another specific character. The final battle, however, is a unique affair in which all 9 characters are in the mix simultaneously, with each team of three acting in sequence. Personally, I loved the bigger battles with 4 characters, and on the off chance that a third ‘Mario + Rabbids’ game appears, would greatly appreciate more large maps with more than three characters active.

While the tactical action in “Sparks of Hope” still takes place on a grid, the grid is now invisible, with characters able to move freely in a more analog manner, only sticking to the grid when the player’s turn ends or when they’re behind cover. As in the previous game the cast of 9 characters each has a unique weapon and special ability, though new to “Sparks of Hope” is the ability for the characters to team up with the titular Sparks to customize their movesets with up to two Spark abilities. In addition to the active abilities granted by Sparks, each also comes with a passive ability allowing for some excellent synergies and combos for players to discover. With 30 unique Sparks to find and recruit, that’s a lot of options!

Unlike its predecessor, “Sparks of Hope” feels much like a traditional RPG, in that the player’s team (the whole team, not just the active members) gains experience after battle, and there are respawning random battles on each planet that the player can ‘grind’ for experience, coins, and star bits, should they feel the need. Story battles usually scale to be equal to the characters’ level, while the battles tied to optional side missions range from fixed-level affairs to challenges that scale above the party’s level until they reach the cap of 30, which I reached right before heading into the final string of endgame boss fights.

Leveling up not only grants the entire team of characters a blanket boost to their stats, but also grants Skill Prisms, which can be freely spent and refunded to activate perks on the characters’ skill trees. Each character has four branches on their skill trees, with one dedicated to Health, one to Movement, one to Weapon Attacks, and one to their Special Ability. Each character can also unlock a Spark Branch on their skill tree by spending a special Gold Prism obtained from optional boss battles, but there are only 5 of them in the game, while there are 9 characters… and the Spark Branch skills are all identical and all crap. Sparks themselves can be improved by feeding them star bits, leveling them up to a possible cap of rank 5, improving both their active and passive skills in the process.

Combat is nearly identical to that in “Kingdom Battle” outside of the previously mentioned minor tweaks. Characters can move freely within their range, activate their Specials, body-slam enemies by dashing into them, or boost each other’s movement range via Team Jumps. The player can freely swap between characters at any time during the turn to nudge their positioning or perform an action. Each character has two Action Points per turn, allowing them to do two things, outside of movement. However, for most characters (with the exceptions of Mario and his Rabbid counterpart), performing a normal attack locks the character’s movement for that turn.

Another interesting addition to “Sparks of Hope” is the item bag, which allows any character to use one of the party’s accumulated consumables as an action. These items include the expected healing mushrooms and debuff-clearing potions, but also include tactical things that can break the game’s balance at times, such as the Shoe item that gives a character extra movement and the Clock item that resets the cooldown on the character’s Special, allowing it to be spammed. Not all characters are created equal, and newcomer, Rabbid Rosalina, is absurdly overpowered, with a Special that allows her to lock-down all enemies within a huge radius for up to two turns (or until they take damage). This move even works on bosses (excluding the final boss), and it tends to trivialize encounters involving a single, tough enemy.

Between battles, the player will navigate through environmental puzzles to reach the next darkmess ‘puddle’ or enemy encounter. These puzzles are numerous, but very well executed. Likewise, Beep-0 gains a couple of active powers over the course of the game that allow the player to reach previously unreachable areas or uncover hidden objects, which adds a bit of depth. These puzzles, as well as all of the optional side battles on a given planet, award ‘Planet Coins,’ which can be spent on a number of unique, one-time purchases at the game’s various vendor-bots. The most important purchase, of course, is a key that unlocks the location of a Spark hidden on each planet, with lore books, star milk, and weapon skins as other options. Weapon skins are, notably, quite silly and pointless, as they don’t have any mechanical effects, but are purely cosmetic.

Ultimately, the only time I wasn’t having fun with “Sparks of Hope” was during each planet’s fishing minigame… in which the player is given a limited amount of time to dash into, pick up, and chuck into a nearby fountain a specific number of so-called ‘sillyfish.’ I did it on the first planet, but was so annoyed by the camera controls that I skipped the rest of them, and their paltry Planet Coin rewards.

Overall
I wasn’t expecting a new ‘Mario + Rabbids’ game to be released on the Switch, but I’m sure glad “Sparks of Hope” got the greenlight. While it’s got more and worse bugs than its predecessor, and a slightly-less-engaging narrative, the revisions to the already excellent tactical battling and environmental puzzles are extremely well done. Yes, “Sparks of Hope” has more issues than its predecessor, but I can’t really lower its final score an entire half-point, simply because I enjoyed the overall experience so much. As it sits, I want to give this game a 4.25/5 score, but if Ubisoft could clean up their act with the bugs and glitches, this game would absolutely deserve the same score as the previous one. Of course, if Ubisoft released a compilation of both games via Uplay for PC, it would be even better.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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