Possibly the most charming game in the series.
The Paper Mario games have to be one of the most colorful RPG series out there, yet for some reason I have never really succumbed to their charm, vastly preferring their main competition: the portable Mario & Luigi saga. The dialogue in M&L seemed funnier to me, and the pacing more even.
I had some reservations with Paper Mario possibly replacing Mario & Luigi as the flagship portable Mario RPG, but after catching myself smiling broadly while playing about an hour of the game’s beginning at a Nintendo event in Montreal, my apprehension is gone.
The game opens as citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom attend the Sticker Fest, a celebration that occurs as a Sticker comet passes through the sky and makes wishes come true. Bowser crashes the party and becomes uber-powerful, so Mario has to save the day with the help of Kersti, a talking, shiny crown sticker who imparts abilities, puns, and tutorial help.
As I said earlier, the writing in the game is better than ever. Unfortunately, the version I played was in French with no way to switch to English. Given how the French localization is usually based on the English, though, I doubt the English version is any weaker.
Your first task in the game is to rescue poor Toads plastered against walls and floors by stickers. In one house, you open a cupboard and a stack of paper and Toads fly out. One of the overjoyed Toads thanks you but comments:
“Before locking us inside that cupboard, Bowser took the time to align our edges by tapping us on the table. Who knew he was so conscientious? We could all learn from his example.”
Another Toad, rescued from the back of a house, thanks Mario and says he can now get back to contemplating his own mortality. How can this lighthearted dialogue fail to make players smile?
Once rescued, the Toads open the path leading out of the town for you. You can then use the other thing you have been tearing away from walls: stickers! Littered everywhere, boot and hammer stickers are the tools with which you fight enemies. As in previous games, enemies are visible on the screen and you can avoid them or engage in turn-based combat by touching them.
During a fight, you select one of the stickers in your sticker book: boot stickers make Mario jump on enemies, hammer stickers make Mario hit them with a hammer, and mushroom stickers make Mario regain some health. Unlike previous games, however, once you use a sticker, it is gone from your inventory. I have not come close to running out during the demo, as opportunities to replenish my book were plentiful, but I do wonder what happens when you do.
As I fought battle after battle, I kept expecting a level-up screen that never came. Your only reward for fighting is coins. Your reward for fighting well (hitting extra hard or blocking enemy attacks with timed button presses) is more coins. Once I realized this, I started avoiding the enemies and skipping fights. If this is Nintendo’s way of eliminating the grind of RPG combat, I applaud their effort and I have no doubt I will find it liberating. But they could easily pad the game by requiring you to buy spend tons of coins on items vital to your quest later on, which makes me a little bit apprehensive.
The game is gorgeous in 3D, notably with enemies bouncing off walls and ending up splattered against the 3DS screen when hit with certain special stickers. In and out of battle, the Paper motif is being pushed harder than ever and in clever ways. For instance, early in the game you come across an injured Toad trying to smooth his creased head out. As he walks, his creased corner flaps in the wind. These touches are found everywhere and make the game utterly charming.
I initially was planning to skip the game, but my brief time with Paper Mario: Sticker Star made a believer out of me. I thought I had seen every idea the Paper Mario series had to offer, and was proven wrong in a few minutes. If Sticker Star can sustain this charm for its entire length and avoid some of the more obnoxious pacing issues that have plagued previous games (fetch quests and active attempts from the developer to troll the player), it will easily be the best entry in the series yet.