It's great to see Paper Mario back in action. In the pantheon of Mario games, this series offers up a delightfully offbeat, light-hearted, self-referential take on the plumber's world. The central conceit - that the world and its inhabitants are all constructed out of paper - has given developer Intelligent Systems plenty to work with over the years, and the studio has used that choice to inform every aspect of its game designs. Each new iteration has seen either clever refinements or outright reinventions of the gameplay. So it is again.
Where the last title - Super Paper Mario - moved to real-time combat and placed the ability to flip between a side-on 2D perspective and a 3D world at its core, Sticker Star returns to the storybook presentation and turn-based battles of earlier games in the series, but tosses out most of its RPG elements. XP and levelling are gone, party members are out, and badges have been nixed. In their place? Stickers.
The set-up for the tale is classic Paper Mario. Peach is presiding over a Mushroom Kingdom celebration when Bowser rocks up and makes a grab for the Sticker Star - a powerful magical object. It's - predictably - shattered, the pieces scattered across the land. Better go collect those comet pieces and Royal Stickers, eh Mario? Yes, the premise is as paper thin as the rest of the game, but it's all an excuse for Intelligent Systems to have some fun with its new hook.
Stickers are everywhere in this game. You pry them off walls, buy them in shops and are awarded them after battles. Each is a single use resource, so every time you use a sticker to trigger a move in battle, it's gone for good. Your battle capabilities, then, are entirely reliant on your sticker collection. Despite this, the turn-based battles are very familiar - you'll still be bopping heads, hitting dudes with hammers, skimming shells and so on, and you'll still be using action commands - timed button presses - to boost attacks and strengthen your defence.
By default players can only use one sticker per turn in battle, but they can also spend a few coins to spin a roulette wheel and maybe wind up unleashing two or three attacks. Enemies are attacked in order too, so the first sticker targets the first enemy in line, then the second targets the next and so on. It gives the combat a slightly different tactical feel to previous games in the series.
The system works well, and the diorama-like battle stages integrate Mario's surroundings brilliantly, but you're not going to be challenged. Aside from the boss battles (which we'll get to in a bit), the standard battles are a cakewalk. It's a shame Intelligent Systems didn't use the attack order mechanics to place difficult enemies at the back of the line more often, or dynamically adjust the difficulty.
Stickers are also integral outside battle. With the press of a button, players can `paperise' the world, essentially laying the scene in front of them flat to reveal areas on which stickers or scraps can be laid down. Sometimes these are used to upgrade stickers, but generally they're all about puzzle solving. You might use them to mark a path through a maze or to block ventilation grates that are blowing a gale across your path.
So far we've just been talking about battle stickers - of which there are 96 different types. Sticker Star also has 64 `Thing Stickers'. Yes, that's actually what they're called. Quite apt, I guess, because Mario finds all manner of random things on his adventure and must paperise them to turn them into stickers. Examples? You'll come across a baseball bat, an electric fan, matches, a balloon, a pair of scissors, a goat.
It's the Thing stickers, sadly, that represent the greatest weaknesses of Sticker Star's design. At a basic level they sound like a great fit for the game's puzzles. You lay down a fan sticker to turn the arms of a windmill, a bowling ball sticker to knock down some pins and a scissor sticker to cut a rope. Now, that's fine, but there's often no room for experimentation, so if you need to, say, melt some snow, a lighter sticker won't work, nor will matches. Nope, you have to use the heater. Don't have it? Too bad, you'd better find it. When it's relatively clear what the right object is things are straightforward enough, but I'm willing to bet you're not going to work out when to use the goat without either a) a whole lot of frustration or b) a playguide.
The reality with these puzzles is that you either have the right sticker or you don't. And the game is designed so that the right Thing/sticker could be hidden anywhere. When you reach a roadblock - which you inevitably will - it means scouring levels you've already beaten in case you missed something. Finding secrets and fully exploring levels is fun, so in principle I don't mind the fact that players basically need to find every secret on every level to avoid dead ends. What I object to is the game's refusal to tell the player when they've found everything of significance in a level. This small, simple change to level notation would have made a world of difference. Similarly, if the hint system was in any way helpful, that would also have gone a long way towards making Sticker Star less frustrating.
Thing stickers can also be used in battle, but you generally won't bother for a number of reasons: they cost a lot, they take up too much inventory space and they aren't really needed given how straightforward the battles are. That said, there are fights where they're basically mandatory - boss battles.
The bosses in Paper Mario are absolutely loaded with hit points, and the game practically requires the player use a very specific Thing sticker to beat them or face churning through their entire sticker collection. It won't hint at what that specific sticker is until the player's on their second attempt, either, so the most efficient way to get through each boss battle is to face them three times. Get killed as quickly as possible the first time, fight until you're given the hint the second time, then come back to actually fight a third time with the right sticker in tow. Ridiculous, right? It's a shame too, because these enemies absolutely tower over the player and could have been a blast if the game didn't attempt to shoehorn in a `puzzle' element.
The stickers also have an uneasy relationship with the game's other main collectable - money. Yes, now that levelling is out, cold, hard coinage is in. Beating enemies, finding comet pieces, hitting stuff, it all nets the player coins, which can then be spent on - you guessed it - stickers. This is all well and good for the affordable battle stickers, but in order to make the currency system meaningful, Intelligent Systems has made the Thing stickers significantly more expensive. This discourages experimentation, particularly when - amusing animations aside - they prove ineffective in battle, or are simply taken away from the player when they're not the correct solution for a puzzle. It's galling.
It also leaves the entire Thing sticker system in no man's land. Why aren't there more puzzles that aren't essential for progression, but also make use of these stickers? And if the game is going to discourage experimentation, why have so many Thing Stickers in the first place? Give us something else to collect that's actually important.
On top of all this, in a game that's so tongue in cheek, it's baffling that the central puzzle hook is built around such dull household objects. Oh great, I just found a high heel, an upright vacuum and a newspaper. Why would I care? And why would I want to populate the game's sticker museum with such pedestrian items?
To be clear, I'm all for Intelligent Systems making sweeping changes to the gameplay with each Paper Mario title. Too few developers are willing - or able - to take that kind of risk, so it's refreshing to see the studio attempt something so different. The unfortunate irony, however, is that the Sticker Star's new systems aren't intelligent.
It's also worth pointing out that while the gameplay is a complete reinvention, Intelligent Systems has definitely played it safe with the setting. This is a classic rendition of the Mushroom Kingdom - albeit with a fantastic paper twist, so don't expect a Thousand-Year Door level of invention in either the visual design or story beats.
Of course, Sticker Star does get an awful lot right. The presentation is fantastic, and executed with a wonderfully light touch. Intelligent Systems (and its translators) have a knack for offbeat characters and naturalistic, comical dialogue, and the game is imbued with a compelling sense of energy, giving everything from the animations in combat to the timing on a piece of physical comedy, real vivacity.
The world itself is bursting with secrets and brimming with fun riffs on the paper concept too. It's a joy exploring the paper forests, caves, mountains and pyramids, and there's always a surprise in store. One moment Mario is deciphering hieroglyphics to solve a puzzle, the next, the Egyptian-inspired paintings of classic foes are peeling themselves off the walls and challenging the player. Hell, even the simple act of prying a sticker off a surface has been polished to within an inch of its life - the animation, the timing, the sound effect; it's genuinely perfect.
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In spite of all my criticisms, Sticker Star is still compelling to play and a great deal of fun. The game's infectious spirit and sense of humour is irresistible, and it's big, too - you're not beating this one in a weekend. It's just a shame that putting stickers at the heart of the game didn't turn out to be the master-stroke it so readily could have been. Paper Mario fans will enjoy Sticker Star, but ultimately it's just as notable for its failures as its successes.