Against all odds, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was a charmingly weird success, fusing Nintendo mega-star mascot Mario with Ubisoft’s less-than-inspiring little rabbit oddballs and throwing them into a turn-based strategy game, of all things. It was an open question then whether Ubisoft, which took the lead on the project, would be able to capture the ineffable Nintendo magic while borrowing some of the company’s most iconic characters. With that question now answered, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope sets its sights higher, managing to not only be a surprisingly good Mario spin-off, but legitimately be better than some of Nintendo’s own recent games starring the plucky plumber.

Like the original, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is very strange. It occupies a parallel version of the Mushroom Kingdom where Mario and his friends casually socialize with their Rabbid doppelgangers, and where many of them are packing heat–albeit in an abstract, bubblegum package. The Rabbids are a little obnoxious and off-putting, but Mario and his friends seem too polite to say anything. When they discover a Spark, a new life form that is obviously a Rabbid fused with one of Rosalina’s Lumas, they immediately know something must be wrong because Rosalina would never allow that to happen to her babies. The implicit acknowledgement that being a Rabbid mutant is a terrible fate got a good chuckle out of me right from the jump.

Now Playing: Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope: Cinematic Launch Trailer

This is indicative of how Ubisoft approaches the overall tone: reverent and respectful of Mario lore, such as it is, while cheeky and self-aware about its own Rabbids creations. Mario and his friends are video game royalty, and its cast includes a literal space goddess. The Rabbids were always made to be annoying; that was sort of the joke. These are not the same, and the game knows it, juxtaposing the two against one another to surprising comedic effect.

The existential strangeness extends beyond the characters themselves, of course. This is a turn-based strategy game, similar to other tactical series like XCOM but just barely recognizable in this presentation, where positioning your forces and choosing when to take cover or press your advantage is key. This time, though, the positioning gets a massive upgrade with the addition of free movement. Where Kingdom Battle used a grid-based movement system, Sparks of Hope lets you run around the environment almost as naturally as you would in any Mario platformer, complete with its familiar feeling of momentum.

This seemingly minor change has a huge impact on how the game handles, making it feel smooth and dynamic. You can move around as much as you’d like until you lock in place by performing an attack command, and within those boundaries is a liberating degree of freedom. You can slide-attack into enemies, organize a chain of jumps off the shoulders of your teammates, or even just double back if you think better of your positioning choices. The ability to swap between your party members means you can go back and forth between movement and action phases with incredible ease. It all feels so natural that I usually didn’t even mind the lack of a jump button, heretical as that may be for a game that feels this much like a Mario platformer.

The other major gameplay enhancement comes from the titular Sparks themselves. These are swappable equipment types, granting the ability to outfit your troops with special abilities. These can range from major elemental attacks to area-of-effect buffs, or even more unusual traits.

Luigi is specced as a sniper, with the longest range and increased damage for faraway shots. I equipped him with Ethering, a Spark that lets you trigger a temporary cloaking device. This felt like a natural fit for him–Luigi’s bow grows weaker when enemies close the gap and approach him, so turning invisible allowed him to better stay out of the fray and at a distance where he can deal the most damage. But I also found it useful for more than just attacking: The cloaking allowed Luigi to bypass smaller enemies to get a better vantage point for a high-priority target during boss battles. And when the goal was simply to stay alive, cloaking for a couple of turns bought me invaluable time to run out the clock.

Bowser, meanwhile, is best at mid-range, so he got Exosphere, a Spark that allows him to boost defense in an area-of-effect. Mario, as my de facto team leader, got Starburst to boost everyone’s attack, and Oozer Master to generate a slime creature that effectively added an AI-controlled companion to our ranks. As in the best tactical combat games, some battles are lost and won in the decisions you make between rounds, as you tinker with different Spark combinations and plan how they can augment your strengths or limit your deficiencies. It’s a flexible system that makes your decisions feel impactful while remaining simple and understandable, like a Mario game should be.

There is much more variety when it comes to exploring the world outside of combat as well. While Kingdom Battle’s overworld was colorful enough and looked the part of the Mushroom Kingdom, it was essentially a straight path and not very interesting to explore. Sparks of Hope addresses this head-on, with five open planets full of environmental puzzles and optional mini-battles. Mario almost takes a page from Zelda in these moments, as the puzzles often revolve around positioning a block or managing moving platforms. These puzzles help break up the pace of battle, giving you some cooldown time to focus on a different kind of problem-solving. They can occasionally veer into the tedious, as you might know the solution but have to move a widget back and forth between locations. For the most part, though, they’re a welcome change of pace.

The combat is still the bulk of the experience, and it’s an excellent refinement on its predecessor. Combat environments are well-designed to take advantage of your movement options, and there’s a huge variety of enemies that can be mixed into new combinations of challenges. Sparks of Hope also capitalizes on the flexibility of its combat and Sparks system by presenting lots of different kinds of challenges and boss battles that frequently force you to think through a new approach or plan your movements that much more carefully. There’s nothing quite like the a-ha moment of solving a difficult combat puzzle, and this is a game that delivers those moments at a regular pace.

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The candy-coated Mario wrapping doesn’t come at the expense of its tactical bona fides. But it is still a Mario game at heart, which means it aims to be approachable for players of all skill levels. The standard “Average” difficulty is well-suited to those who have cut their teeth on other tactical games, while the “Relaxing” mode dials it back while still presenting enough challenge for novices and the “Demanding” mode is significantly harder. If that still isn’t enough, you can tweak individual settings like how aggressive enemies are, whether health is restored post-battle (and how much, if so), and even one toggle setting to make your characters invulnerable to damage.

All of this is complemented by a story that’s funny and even, shockingly, sweet. As the impending Mario movie looms large as an animated take on the classic character, this game shows how you can make a sharp, funny, Saturday morning cartoon out of these characters. When Bowser joins the party he says that the villain, Cursa, stole his army of imbeciles–a laugh-line that actually made me laugh out loud. I often found myself cracking up at the antics of the characters, even the Rabbids. In some cases, especially the Rabbids. I even grew to love the self-consciously serious hero Edge, and not just because her sword-slinging attack was useful in battle and, objectively speaking, badass. But I also felt touched at various moments, at one point even getting misty at its sheer earnest optimism.

Put simply, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is an absolute delight. This is a combination that shouldn’t work and yet it more than works–it excels. When Ubisoft announced Kingdom Battle, the concept seemed so goofy that its success came as a surprise. Sparks of Hope is an improvement in every meaningful way, from the characterization and world-building to combat variety and flexibility to environmental diversity. Ubisoft loves and respects these characters, and has now shown definitively that even something as familiar and comfortable as Mario is still capable of surprising us over and over again.

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