As the Mushroom Kingdom celebrates the traditional Sticker Fest, and the Sticker Star descends from the heavens to distribute her blessings…wait…do I really have to describe the plot? This is a Mario game for goodness’ sake. You already know that Bowser is going to drop in, kidnap princess Peach, break the Sticker Star in multiple fragments and leave it up to Mario to solve the whole mess.
It’s a simple sort of story, as usual for Mario games, but the fans of the series don’t seem to mind, and haven’t since the early eighties, so who am I to judge?
This time around Mario won’t travel alone, but he will be accompanied by a sticker fairy named Kersti. She will teach him the secrets of the stickers, and basically acts as a walking…ahem…floating tutorial. Nonetheless, she’s probably one of the most interesting and fun characters of the entire game.
If you’re used to Paper Mario games, you’ll feel right at home with the peculiar art style of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, but if you come from the more traditional titles featuring the mustachey plumber that looks Italian as much as I look like Alanis Morissette, you’re in for a surprise, and a treat.
The entire Mushroom kingdom is presented in 3D like a giant papercraft model, while characters are designed as walking cutouts that stand out nicely over the background. The overall effect looks colorful, stylish and ultimately absolutely gorgeous.
In addition to that, the simple and perfectly defined looks of the world and of the characters match the 3D capabilities of the 3DS perfectly. I can easily say that this is the only game that I played with the 3D slider all the way up, and probably the game on the platform that makes the best use of the whole feature.
Fluid and varied animations complete the graphical presentation, and add even more luster to the overall looks, creating one of the most visually charming titles on the platform. It’s simply a joy to watch and experience, and the Mushroom Kingdom has never been so interesting to explore.
The audio aspect of the game provides much less in terms of novelty, with a somewhat rearranged collection of nostalgic Mario tunes, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone, and since the series has always played over its tradition quite heavily, fans will most probably be pleased.
Gameplay is where the music really changes since the previous Paper Mario games. RPG elements are gone… I pause emphatically for the millions of RPG fans’ voices that will suddenly cry out in terror and will be suddenly silenced (I am one, so I understand).
There’s no party system and any kind of leveling and progression (besides a few bonuses that raise Mario’s hit points permanently) is replaced by stickers, that play the main role in almost every aspect of the game.
You can find them scattered around the worlds, often in quite secluded puzzle-like locations, buy them or drop them off enemies, and each of them represents a single-use attack that can be launched during the turn-based battles (that otherwise reflect quite closely the classic JRPG battles).
When it’s your turn to attack you can chose a sticker from your collection (or more, thanks to the spin system) and Mario will deliver the corresponding attack, whether it’s a hammer strike, a classic jump-on-the-head or other, more exotic attacks from the series’ lore.
When a sticker is used, it disappears from your collection, creating a quite interesting risk/reward system that will force you to use your stickers wisely to avoid hairy situations, especially at the beginning of the game, when the space in your sticker album is really limited.
On the other hand, it also creates a slightly unpleasant drawback as it encourages the player to be overly stingy to be on the safe side. As a result, many will restrain themselves excessively, turning combat into a less appealing series of jumps and hammer blows, while the cooler attacks remain indefinitely hidden in the darkest recesses of the sticker album for future use.
Combat is made a little more varied by the importance of pressing the A button exactly at the right time when an attack is executed, in order to cause additional damage. Jumping on the head of an enemy or hammering him just with the right timing just before a battle will also let Mario grab the initiative.
Boss battles also tend to feel a bit on the scripted side, as most of the times they involve the use of the right “thing sticker” (a kind of rare sticker that represents various utensils) at the right time, obliterating the enemy instantly or almost. If you fail once, the system will suggest what kind of sticker you need as you retry, but the “shortcut” tends to detract from the depth of the battle itself.
Stickers are also useful out of combat: at any moment you can “paperize” the environment, turning it into a flat picture. At that point you can attach stickers freely to it in order to replace missing parts, open secret doors or trigger a variety of specific effects that make exploration challenging and interesting.
Exploring the levels is quite complex in itself, as there are a lot of secret areas that can be reached via classic platforming, in addition to several minigame-like portions that add a good degree of variety to the whole game.
This reliance on exploration has a drawback, though, in the fact that often you absolutely need certain stickers to progress, and they may be hidden anywhere, even quite far from the area you’re exploring. This triggers a whole lot of backtracking that can become very frustrating since your enemies will respawn.
It’s definitely not unlikely that many will find themselves stuck while they comb every level for that obscure sticker they need to move on. This may not be a negative if you’re absolutely fond of blind exploration, but most people will just go look for a solution online to avoid throwing their 3DS against a wall. I sure did (go online, I didn’t throw a console against a wall…yet).
Despite the risk of frustration coming from the solid possibility of getting stuck, exploring the various levels of each world is, at least the first time you do it, extremely pleasant for fans of both platforming and puzzles alike. As usual they showcase that awesome craftsmanship in level design that Mario games got us used to, and the glorious papercraft art style makes discovering mew areas absolutely charming.
While Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn’t a perfect game and the sticker system can be a bit hit and miss (but it mostly hits the mark) compared with the classic RPG elements of the previous chapters of the series, it’s an absolute joy for the eyes, an extremely competent puzzle-adventure, and simply a very fun overall experience enriched by a contagious sense of humor.
If you can stand some frustration and backtracking (or if you don’t have qualms about looking online for a guide), this title will provide you with a long, deep and fulfilling experience. In addition to this, the fact that it’s probably the best example of a 3D-enhanced game on a platform that bases a large percentage of its charm on the 3D effect gets very near to make Paper Mario: Sticker Star a must-have for every 3DS owner.