Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Paper Mario: Sticker Star - Thoughts

The fourth entry into the Paper Mario series is what I might call a beautiful mess. Fans were understandably excited at the initial unveiling as it appeared to be a return to form after the divisive Super Paper Mario. However the previews for the game turned these opinions on their heads; gone were experience, badges, allies, items—nearly every gameplay staple was removed, save for the active jump & hammer options. Alternatively introduced was a sticker collection system, where attacks are dictated by the sticker you use, destroying said adhesive in the process. This distilled combat into a very simple (yet expansive) system where sticker management was the metagame and each combat scenario felt like a puzzle in resource management.

I delved into the experience long after fans' disappointment had been preached across various message boards, finding myself fascinated by the criticisms and hyperbolic vitriol regarding the entry. What I popped into my 3DS felt very true to Paper Mario in style, shrunk down for the handheld format: endearingly crisp visuals, charmingly crafted dialogue, and a lush, jazzy soundtrack. Apparent was the care and attention you'd expect from Intelligent Systems' pedigree, and while it wasn't a sequel I think anyone was expecting, it still held true to what made Paper Mario appealing in the first place.

But the creases began to show as I marched on.

Since stickers are your only weapon against Bowser's forces they are graciously sprinkled throughout the land, sold in shops for cheap and commonly dropped by enemies. You have a limit on the amount you can hold, with better stickers usually taking up more space in your scrapbook. As mentioned, the encounters are about optimization since you want to get rid of your foes with as few moves as possible, preserving your strongest abilities for emergencies or bosses. A roulette wheel becomes available later on to allow the use of multiple stickers, but this costs coins and any unused stickers at the end of the battle are discarded—an interesting little quirk that can change the tide of battle with a lucky roll.

Overall it's an uncomplicated system that gets a lot of milage thanks to the large variety of stickers available. I find that it retains basic MP conservation mechanics from RPGs but substitutes the "numbers" management for items instead (which are usually stockpiled de trop in most games anyway). The lack of experience points is unfortunate but understandable as you find better and shinier stickers throughout the journey, along with cardboard hearts to permanently increase your HP. By the end you'll definitely be more decked out than how you started the journey, your scrapbook transformed into a terrifying grimoire of warfare.

The game goes awry sometime after the first world however, once you realize that having a full scrapbook means that enemy encounters are completely pointless (especially if you've been keeping a good eye on your coins). You'll find yourself making a beeline for exits and sighing whenever a baddie bumps into your behind, their presence only serving to drain your stock. Not only that but the big boss encounters, where you'd expect your sticker arsenal to be put to the test, are especially baffling as they meander between frustrating and laughable. Nearly every boss has a "trick" to them that completely negates challenge from the fight, making these the simplest encounters in Paper Mario history, yet without these "tricks" the fights go on for an insufferably long amount of time. There's some neat ideas here like the world 3 boss that attacks to a spicy rhythm, but you'll struggle to find an enjoyable middle ground where you can do more than 1 damage but less than 30.

There are "things" that you can find throughout the land too—household appliances and tools that can be converted into special stickers. Unfortunately the game doesn't tell you what these do, and using certain ones in battle (like the fishhook) can result in a waste of a turn. Furthermore some of these stickers are needed at random points in the game, almost ensuring that you should bank all of them rather than test out their effects (although you can "buy them back" for a somewhat reasonable price). These were a hassle to deal with and I wound up keeping a walkthrough open to spoil which maps needed which "things" after feeling like I was wasting my time otherwise. Indicating what stickers are "level specific" or "boss specific" might spell out the solutions to the game's puzzles but I think it would've been a better idea than the current "trial and error" implementation. That, or at least finding a quicker way to turn the "things" into stickers without having to run back to Decalburg and mash through text every single time would've helped.

The locales and inhabitants are crisp and colorful but perhaps most saddening to me is that there are nearly no new characters introduced; allies, enemies, and themes have been lifted from prior Mario titles outside of the sidekick/guide Kersti (who came across as more irritating than amicable). Old foes and similar settings do have some new tricks up their sleeve yet fall short of feeling as fresh as something like the X-Nauts from The Thousand-Year Door or Count Bleck's twilight hideout from Super Paper Mario. "Freshness" may not seem like a necessary inclusion but the lack thereof dampens the spirit of the game, making it out to be somewhat uninspired entry in a series known for its peculiarity.

After finishing the story and closing my 3DS, I could understand the disappointment many eager players had for this game. I think it's far from being classified as "garbage" as it presents itself competently, but the gameplay doesn't hold up well compared to its brilliant predecessors, meandering off course yet not capitalizing on the ideas it brings to the table. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is worth a try if you're a big fan of the series but know that you might wind up putting it down and not coming back.

Images obtained from: mariopartylegacy.com,  Nintendofeed.com, destructoid.com, forbes.com

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