This game really [insert sticker pun here]!
Despite Nintendo's unwillingness to deviate from the tried-and-true methods of Mario's traditional 2D adventures, they have had no issue experimenting with and reinventing the plumber's paper persona. After the duo of Paper Mario and PM: The Thousand-Year Door, the Wii's Super Paper Mario attempted to apply the paper motif to Mario's classic 2D roots, forsaking much of the RPG system that had defined those previous games. The result was an enjoyable if somewhat forgettable foray that didn't show much benefit from ditching the RPG tropes. Paper Mario: Sticker Star arrives some five years later, with the series still in flux, with a new spin on the formula that brings it closer to the achievements of the first two games while being completely unlike either. Let me explain.
Turn-based battles return to Paper Mario, but with your participation reimagined. Rather than equipping items and learning new skills along the journey, Mario uses a handy sticker collection to defend himself. Stickers, which you can pluck off scenery, purchase in shops, find in "?" boxes, and earn in battle, provide an attack or ability for Mario in battle, and then disappear after a single use. They also come in different styles, from worn-out to flashy, denoting their rareness and power. A worn-out Jump sticker causes a minute amount of damage, while a flashy sticker, which appears to shine and reflect light, causes large amounts of damage.
This reliance on stickers, themselves a finite resource, creates some interesting strategy for players. While traditional RPGs may support simply spamming the most powerful attacks to cut through weak foes, Sticker Star encourages careful management of Mario’s stickers. While using a shiny POW block to dispatch a group of Goombas in one move may prove tempting, that sticker is often better utilized during an encounter with a more powerful foe. Because of this consideration, it is common to use a stockpile of simple Jump and Hammer stickers, which are plentiful and available from the start of the adventure, to deal with common enemies. So, while rarer stickers may be lifesavers in tougher battles, they are no more important than the most common of stickers.
While turn-based battles return, Mario doesn't level up or gain any experience points as he progresses. In fact, his only improvements come from finding HP-Up Hearts throughout the world, which increase his total health by five points. Unfortunately, while these health boosts are an absolute necessity in order to survive later battles, you can only find them through exploration. Unlike Zelda games, which grant Link more health after defeating bosses as well as through discovering secrets or completing side quests, Mario becomes hardier only when he finds these power-ups.
However, finding those power-ups usually isn’t a problem, as the game has you scouring each and every level for "things" in order to progress. From the start, Sticker Star gives the impression of a straightforward affair, featuring a world map not unlike Super Mario Bros. 3. However, the game periodically comes to a screeching halt when it requires a specific item to progress further in a level. These "things" are the real-world items that show up in Sticker Star, like scissors, fans, vacuums, radiators, and more. Lots more, actually. These "things," essential in solving certain puzzles, aren't usually found in your current level, though, leaving you to search every nook and cranny of each available area until you stumble upon the key item. Or, you know, you could just use a walkthrough.
Maybe the excellent pacing of Xenoblade Chronicles, which never left the player confused or wondering where to go next, has spoiled me, but this reliance on "things" is a real pain. I groaned every time I realized I needed a special item to progress, and eventually started resorting to Google. I'm not opposed to puzzle solving, but the fact that these items aren't, at the very least, in the present level is incredibly discouraging. What's worse, the "things" are also necessary to beat bosses. An early boss encounter pits Mario against a giant Pokey (you know, the cactus-looking thing from Super Mario World). The super Pokey has 300 HP and is unstoppable with standard stickers alone. However, if you bring the baseball bat (found two or three levels before this encounter), you can use it to knock out segments of his body, dropping his HP to under 100.
I'd be fine with this if, like a Mega Man game, the "things" merely gave you an advantage, and you could still defeat bosses through conventional means, but that just isn't the case. On top of that, Mario's sticker scrap book can only hold so much at once, so you can't even have all of these "things" with you, just in case. So, unless you read a walkthrough ahead of time, the game expects you to start battling a boss, die, and then return with the required "thing." It's mindboggling, really.
It's a shame, too, because playing the game is so much fun. Easily the most thematically dedicated entry in the series, the game constructs its paper worlds and characters with believability, bending and folding them accordingly. Mario's progress also impacts the environments in interesting ways: a forest world is covered in poison, but once Mario beats the boss, he can return to each level in that world to freely explore and collect items, unencumbered by the poisonous goo. Levels are also surprisingly lengthy and feature some unique settings, such as the aforementioned poisoned forest.
I want to love Sticker Star. The game looks great, the localization is top-notch, and, when things are moving along, it all feels so right. The sticker economy is well realized and forces you to manage your sticker collection well. But the game's obsession with "things" brings it to a screeching halt all too often. This hurdle is easily sidestepped by bookmarking your preferred walkthrough, but it's a shame the game couldn't simply be less obtuse in its puzzle structure. So, instead of loving Sticker Star, I'm left to simply like it.