Who is Luigi? The brother. The palette swap. The cringer and creeper, chattering Mario’s name as he quakes and trembles in various ghost houses. All true. But there is another Luigi. The Luigi of the hard stare in Mario Kart. The Luigi who barges you off the road and wants you to know it was personal. And now: Luigi the sniper. Death from a distance. A cool heart and a steady gaze. Luigi winning the game and bringing us all home.
Luigi was the sniper in the first Mario + Rabbids, a game that dared to ask, what if you gave everybody in the Mushroom Kingdom a bunch of guns? That’s sort of an awful question, but Ubisoft managed to provide a surprisingly lovely answer for it: you’d get a knockabout version of XCOM. Mario taking cover. Peach healing. Toad going for overwatch. And Luigi sniping.
This Luigi business didn’t click for me until I got stuck into the sequel: Sparks of Hope. Then it clicked instantly. Luigi as a sniper! Luigi with an attack that does more damage the further away from his target he gets. Stick Luigi up high and he becomes a god: in action, how like an angel, in apprehension, how like…well, stick him on Overwatch and see. Luigi sniping across the map, wracking up 2000 points of damage. Luigi watching as his enemies shatter into candied star bits. Luigi bringing us all home.
Sparks of Hope takes the basic Mario + Rabbids formula, which is to say the XCOM formula, and adds some neat tweaks. A new storyline sees you leaving the Mushroom Kingdom behind and jetting into outer space, moving between a handful of quirky planets that look like discarded stages from the Galaxy games. There’s a nice rhythm here, even if the planets in the Galaxy games were largely defined by the fact that you moved through them with platforming skills, so they became playgrounds, soft-plays, obstacle courses, rather than the stylish set-dressing you tend to get here. Anyway, that rhythm: you arrive and have to sort things out for the locals. Two main objectives per planet if you’re following the questline, but dozens of side-quests if you’re going for absolutely everything.
This part of the game is pretty nice, I reckon. Each planet – autumn, winter, a few others I won’t spoil – has a characterful bit of plot going on. In one I climbed a snowy mountain to release the power of the sun. In another I ventured through a forest and got thoroughly muddled. You explore in real-time, collecting coins, unlocking fast travel points, chatting to locals and solving puzzles with the aid of two gadgets, one of which allows you to interact with certain objects, while the other reveals secret elements to the landscapes around you. It’s fun, whether you’re rerouting water through a cave – doing actual plumbing again I guess – or moving statues around in a spooky mansion.
But this game lives on the battlefield, and it’s on the battlefield that Sparks really flies. Battles here are instanced affairs, taking you away from the map and to a specially prepared area filled with cover, pipes, and other bits of tactical Mario goodness. Switching things up from the first game, the grid system is out, meaning that you can run around each character’s movement area in a much more dynamic way, finding just the right spot to either take cover or get the perfect angle on an enemy. You still have two action points per character per turn, but the free actions return, like dashing through baddies or teaming up for special jumps, and alongside weapons and special attacks like overwatch, you can now spend your action points on Sparks abilities.
Sparks are funny little floating pillow people who you collect as you move through the game. Each Spark can be levelled with star bits, and each of your characters can take two sparks into battle. Sparks are super useful and it’s a lot of fun finding the right synergies. One might add electrical or flame or some other elemental damage to your main attack. Another might do an elemental area attack or make you invisible to enemies for a turn. You manage Sparks cooldowns alongside the cooldowns for your other attacks, and they can change the tide of a battle quite conclusively. A dominating enemy might have a weakness to electricity, for example, or three low-level annoyance baddies might be perched on a cliff perfect for a Sparks’ gust attack.
This last part gets at something that really comes to the fore in Sparks of Hope. Characters are great, each with their own weapon quirks and specials, and the Sparks bring a lot of fun to the battlefield. It’s also pretty sweet to kit your team out with items that allow them to replenish their action points, say, or chuck a POW block around like a grenade. But the real fun here is the way that a game of XCOM slowly transforms into a game of billiards as Sparks of Hope moves through the campaign.
Real talk: when I play XCOM I always play it as a form of American Football. I have these heavy people on the pitch who don’t screw around, and each time I rush them into cover I feel like I’m really moving them up the field, a wall of doom that crushes all before it. But Sparks of Hope is lighter on its feet than that, and more wonderfully chaotic. Fire attacks see your enemies – or your team – racing around unpredictably to extinguish the flames, popping out of cover or maybe making a surprising land grab. Then there are baddies who thump the ground and send your guys rocketing around to land in unusual spots. There are the gust attacks, and at least one level builds its fun around a sort of series of wind turbines. Again and again a new level introduces new things that moves your team and your foes around in fantastical ways. By the halfway point in the campaign I was thinking: it’s not where I place my guys that matters, it’s where they end up at the close of a round.
Well, this turns out to be brilliant fun, tactical and knockabout, exactly as you’d expect if you combined Mario and XCOM. The roster of characters is colourful and quirky, encouraging experimentation, and alongside equipping items and sparks, each character has a handful of skill trees to plug points into as they level. (Characters also auto-level off the battlefield.) Throw in bosses, inventive victory conditions, deep cuts from Mario universe and clever battlefield design and you’ve got something pretty special.
And quite a lot of it too. I’ve finished the campaign but I’m still ploughing through side quests, the best of which give you a really interesting battlefield encounter to pick away at. I imagine I’ll be playing Sparks of Hope over the next few months the way I still play XCOM, which is to say I treat it something like the daily Wordle – a quick battle here and there as I wait for the oven to heat or the bath to run. And while I play I’ll be searching for new character synergies – you knock everyone into the air while he then triggers overwatch – and new shortcuts for defeating certain baddies. More than anything, I’ll be looking for new places to put Luigi so he can eye up the terrain, pick a distant target, and unleash absolute havoc.