We head to Prism Island to embark on the Wii U's only big holiday game.
When I first saw Paper Mario Color Splash a couple of months ago at a post-E3 event, it left me intrigued by the possibilities. I wasn’t sure about many of the elements in the title, but I left hoping that it would be worth my while. After playing the final product enough to see pretty much everything in the first two chapters, there are still some things that irritate me, but it improves on Sticker Star in some fundamental ways.
The story of Paper Mario Color Splash sees Mario and friends travelling to Prism Island, a paradise known for its bright colors. Sadly, Bowser and his goons have overrun the island and generally made a mess of things. Bowser flung away the mystic Big Paint Stars like they were nothing and the Mini Paint Stars were spread across the island. His entourage sucked away the color from various spots, inhabitants and objects to stop Mario in his tracks. Now it is up to Mario, the talking paint bucket Huey and a grand cast of Toads to save the day.
This is pretty well-worn ground for a Mario game, and Sticker Star didn’t do much to make it exciting. The dialogue felt dry in most places and it was why I ultimately didn't end up liking it. Although there was plenty of silliness it just didn’t make me happy. I am happy to report that they got the message very clearly for Sticker Star. The scenarios, and with it the dialogue, are more creative than I expected them to be. They represent a constant stream of ideas that they have a lot of fun with. Every level is its own self-contained world with different characters, themes and settings.
Early on in the game, I was taken aback by a scenario in the level Cherry Lake. A group of Shy Guys formed a tower in order to “increase their strength”, or so they claimed. They hold themselves in a very high regard and think that being up high will lower your cholesterol. The foil was a Shy Guy who still prefers to be lonely and show off his own strength. Another scenario I enjoyed saw Mario travelling to the Marmalade Valley where a fossil was being recovered. Something was causing earthquakes to trap the workers, and the source of the problems was funnier than I expected!
The regular gameplay is what you expect from a Sticker Star follow-up, though many of the elements have been improved. The biggest improvement to me are the puzzles. Many puzzles in Sticker Star felt obtuse and irritating, which got old really fast. Color Splash takes a more straightforward approach to the proceedings. It’s more about finding secrets and seeing inconsistencies in the environments, which gives it a more relaxed atmosphere. If something looks odd, it can be walked into to see what’s hiding behind it. The enemies are active in the background, which is a nice effect.
Next to that though, there are two more elements that play a major factor in how the puzzles are represented. First, there is the Unfurl ability. This is activated by hitting a special !?-block that are tucked away in certain stages. Once activated, to the objective becomes finding the block or obstacle with the !?-markings on it and hit it with the hammer. There’s only a short time – 20 seconds – to do this, so a keen eye is critical. When successful, bridges or other stuff of note will appear. In one world, named Daffodil Peak, the block unravels a park ranger's favorite thing, which makes him happy and allows the game to continue.
The other new ability is called Cutout, which Nintendo showed during the Morton Koopa fight in this year’s Treehouse Live. If nothing stands out in the environment, hitting Y may reveal a cutout line. Tracing over the line on the Wii U GamePad touchscreen creates a magical pathway to different places on the screen that are out of reach or seem rather impossible to pull off. At the Chateau Chanterelle, there’s a Mini Paint Star puzzle that involves using the cutout lines to put barn doors back together to open a path to the roof.
The Cutout ability is also used to place Thing cards in the environments. Given the reception of the cards in Sticker Star, bringing them back was a rather bold move on their part. In Bloo Bay Beach, a side objective involves saving a Toad that went on a boat journey. His ship got wrecked and he has no way of returning to the coast. A well placed Fan card will create strong waves that blow him back to safety, and the Toad turns the wreckage of his boat into a surfboard in a cute scene. Like Sticker Star, the cards are picked up, squeezed to refill the color bars, and then placed in the inventory. The cards are still one use, but there is a special place in the hub where they can be repurchased with in-game money.
While puzzles are the main appeal of Color Splash's little worlds, the main goal is collecting those stars. Depending on the stage, there might be multiple floating around. In those cases, there’s multiple passageways to go over and explore. It is also crucial to collect all of them as each one opens a new path on the map to walk across. Some backtracking will be required, as certain characters or objects form important keys to solve puzzles in a different world. It makes the experience very connected to one another, even though the game is divided into levels.
Going through the environments is fun, but there’s another thing to watch out for: things that need their color returned. Some are required to proceed or get a big hint, but some are just there for completion’s sake. Every time you 100% a map by getting the stars and restoring the color, it unlocks the level’s music in a museum for easy listening. In theory this works well, but I had to go way off the beaten path to find some of the locations, or would go off and find nothing. I understand that it’s not required to actually beat the game, but there have been times when it felt like a chore, especially given how much the game encourages it.
The battle system in Color Splash works fine for the most part. Due to the new color using mechanics, battle is where the item management comes into play. Color Splash uses a variety of cards for its battle moves that are collected or bought throughout the game. There’s plenty of offensive options: jumps, hammers, enemy cards, and Things like the fan can all be used. In the early stages, you will need to paint every card in your arsenal, which puts big limits on what can be done. Timed hits and timed defense are major factors, unlike in Sticker Star where it came down to luck a lot of the time.
At first, I was taken aback by how good this battle system felt, but that faded quicker than I expected. The game is quite generous in the money, which you can use at the Point Prisma Card Shop to load up the arsenal. As you move along, you will notice that some of the cards will already be painted in. This removes any serious strain and makes the experience very easy going as a result. While I am sure that some will like that, I am not really a fan. There must a continuous reason to go all out and perform well in every encounter.
There is an element of chance added on with the Battle Spin system, a roulette mechanic that uses the coins. The prizes are all matter of attacks, from a basic hammer down to one of the hilariously broken Thing cards. Well, they are actually replicas, but all have the same earth shattering elements as the originals. And since they all come painted, people who pick up on the timing right away can break the game’s economy incredibly quickly. The Thing replicas in particular can save you a lot of money in the long run. Thankfully, the bosses still provide a challenge even if you have multiple of them in play.
Paper Mario has never looked this good before; Color Splash is one of the best-looking Wii U games, period. The amount of color and graphical charm in this game is almost unprecedented on the system. It’s possible to almost make out what material objects and characters are made of. This is the finest work that Intelligent Systems has delivered and the art direction deserves all the praise. The same goes for the music. There is a lot of variety with jazz, rock, tropical and all kinds of other genres used. The soundtrack compliments the stages so perfectly I make sure to have headphones in whenever I play. The battle music makes me immediately gets me in the mood, even if there is nothing in particular to be excited about.
Paper Mario Color Splash is a far better game than Sticker Star. There are some cracks – the battles are easy, and the colorless spots can be annoying to fill in sometimes. But the little worlds are fun to traverse with puzzles, snappy dialogue and a beautiful presentation. I can just put the controller down and enjoy the little touches that makes this game tick. This is a way more charming package than the Nintendo 3DS gave us in 2012, so I am pretty much on board until the end. It may land with a thud, but right now I have very high hopes for Paper Mario Color Splash.