Star power with a few sticking points.
Intelligent Systems has long been one of my favorite developers. Though they’ve contributed plenty of classic franchises to Nintendo’s library over the years (Famicon/Advance Wars, WarioWare, Fire Emblem, Tetris Attack, and, most recently, Pushmo), my appreciation for their work has long been rooted instead in their unconventional ideas. Rounding out the hardcore-leaning segment of the Nintendo lineup has long been their legacy, and that’s something we enthusiasts can get behind.
Even with a series like Paper Mario, which initially bears the markings of a casual-grade RPG, Intelligent Systems has managed to emphasize a completely separate property of the franchise’s novelty: its creativity and refusal to submit to the conventional wisdom of modern role-playing game design.
Traffic is uncommonly light on the Toad bridge today
As did its predecessors, Paper Mario: Sticker Star once again seeks to shake up the franchise template without betraying its common foundations: that everything is made of paper and paper derivatives, including our hero, Mario, who must regularly exploit this reality to battle Bowser and save the land. This time, the story centers on the existence of powerful stickers called Royal Stickers, sought by both Mario and his sidekick Kersti following the crashing of the annual Sticker Fest by none other than the likes of Bowser. Bowser is after the powerful Sticker Comet, which his evil efforts manage to break into six pieces, spread throughout the land.
The game world is tied together by a World Map, something which Mario traditionalists are sure to appreciate. In contrast to previous Paper Mario entries, the world map is now the hub world for all other areas in Sticker Star. However, you’ll still be revisiting previous areas quite frequently to locate items, find secondary exits, and purchase supplies. There is a central town (called Decalburg) which will be frequented by Mario throughout the adventure, but like everywhere else, it’s just another dot on the map.
The gameplay within levels, meanwhile, is presented from a 3-D isometric perspective with a fixed camera angle. Levels range from short (less than 10 minutes in length) to quite long (well over an hour), with a little over 30 full-blown levels in the game. Intra-level progress is saved with each return to the map, which is good, as you’ll be doing a considerable amount of backtracking throughout your adventure. Enemies and stickers still regenerate upon each visit, however.
Mario's patience is as thin as his body
Sticker Star sees a return to the traditional turn-based battle systems of the first two Paper Mario games—but this time, the gameplay is fundamentally different. Rather than choosing from a preset (and static) array of techniques, your battle choices are now governed by the stickers you are carrying, each of which is good for just a single use. These stickers are distributed throughout the game environments and can be acquired by peeling them off walls, hitting “?” blocks, and defeating enemies. This approach is an interesting alternative to the usual limiting factors imposed by modern RPGs (such as magic or skill points). You’ll quickly learn to conserve those stickers which are most powerful for when you truly need them.
The stickers range from the familiar jump attacks and hammer attacks to fire and ice flowers, spiked helmets, turtle shells, POW Blocks, and healing stickers such as mushrooms. There are various grades of strength for each sticker which are indicated by its finish: nearly every normal sticker also has a corresponding Shiny and Flashy version, both of which are more powerful and harder to come across. There are also larger-sized iterations of many stickers (i.e., a “MegaFlash Hammer”) that are much rarer and much more powerful.
Larger isn’t necessarily more desirable, however, as inventory space is also scarce. The differently-sized stickers consume varying numbers of inventory blocks (think Diablo or Resident Evil), and you are limited to a certain number of pages of stickers at any given time. As a result, you’ll often find that you need to sacrifice some stickers to make room for better ones, and it can be a bit nerve-wracking when you’re deep in a level.
Who knew some objects possessed a Z axis
There are also special stickers which play a large part not only in battling enemies, but also in puzzle-solving and progression. These stickers are created using bizarre and out-of-place 3-D objects descriptively-named Things, which are hidden throughout the various levels. Once you obtain a Thing, it can be brought to a special “slinging” station to have it transformed into a usable sticker. From this point, it consumes a (usually) significant portion of inventory space, and can be selectively used either in battle or in special parts of the game world to solve puzzles and open the way forward.
This brings us to the next central aspect of Sticker Star: paperization. Beyond the aforementioned battle changes and the usual Paper Mario idiosyncrasies, Sticker Star allows the player to directly manipulate the game’s environments (in predetermined ways) using paperization. At any point, pressing Y flattens the current view and allows Mario to interact with the game worlds using either stickers or just simply his hands. Where a sticker can be placed, a dotted outline is revealed in paperization mode (though it doesn’t indicate which or even what type of sticker to use). Elsewhere, you’ll find rips and folds in the backdrops which can be pulled off, flipped, and reattached to open a path, or other times picked up as a “scrap” to be used in another area later.
As you might imagine, this makes for some interesting, and sometimes quite challenging, puzzles. Such solutions as reversing the direction of a ramp or swapping a dead-end wall with a door elicit appreciable sighs of gratified relief once you finally figure them out, but the journey there isn’t always a joy.
This would be one of the easier puzzles, obviously
The main problem is that the game fails to provide any sort of useful hints system to help guide you through the more obscure situations. While your sticker companion Kersti is meant to fulfill this role, her advice rarely extends beyond such matter-of-fact declarations as “We need to find a way through” or “Surfside Harbor is where we should be.” Being at the harbor might be half the battle, but if you happen to be missing a critical sticker that you should have picked up somewhere in a previous level, you’ll never hear it from Kersti—or anyone else in the game, for that matter.
Before you assume that this is actually a desirable thing, let me assure you that it isn't. There are two forms of difficulty: fair and unfair. Your humble reviewer is hardly of the variety that would ever complain about a truly challenging game that is wholly fair. Sticker Star's negligent design clearly crosses the threshold into the annoying category, however. It simply gives the player far too many reasons to quit playing, as deciphering what should come next is far too inconvenient for most players to even bother with it.
The game desperately needs a more direct system for hint-dropping in situations where the player is just completely lost. It’s this oversight which resulted in my getting stuck in at least three different spots during the game for at least an hour, fighting against the weight of my eyelids as I endlessly retraced my steps in search of whatever it was I must have missed. The other half of this problem is that you’re also required to be carrying whatever special sticker (or type of sticker) is needed to progress within your limited inventory space—and if you aren’t, the only solution is to walk all the way back out of the level and head to Decalburg to obtain it.
The compensatory factor to consider through all of this, however, is the existence of the internet—a luxury which we reviewers cannot claim during our pre-availability play sessions of games. In other words, once Sticker Star has hit store shelves, the answers to such frustrating mysteries will only be a click away. Still, the lack of a better-balanced system for advising the player in situations where a solution has been overlooked or is otherwise unclear is a significant omission.
As always, the gimmicks are well-exploited
Beyond this notable source of frustration are other occasional irritations as well, but nothing which isn’t already familiar to fans of the series. It’s no secret that Paper Mario has always possessed a sadistic type of humor which seems to suggest that it sometimes delights in the player’s misery. While this might be funny at times, it doesn’t always translate ideally in the form of gameplay. Sticker Star isn’t as transparent about the joke beneath the task as its predecessors, but it still features a couple of extremely long-winded sequences, one of which in particular is sure to make you yearn for better pacing.
One final enigma is the removal of EXP from the battle system. On the bright side, given the controlled availability of particular grades of stickers, this doesn’t really affect the feel of the game, whether in terms of overall difficulty or balance. But it does remove most any incentive to participate in battles, which is unfortunate when they’re so often easy to avoid or escape from. The only benefit of fighting battles in Sticker Star is the acquisition of gold and any incidentally dropped stickers—there is no inherent progression to be made by actually defeating enemies, which is a strange design for an RPG indeed. Some concern has also been expressed over the omission of partners in Sticker Star, but the variety of play provided by the novel sticker system mostly offsets any regrets surrounding that.
Tougher varieties of enemies can be "shiny" as well
If you stick with the adventure, however, you’ll find a mostly enjoyable collection of environments dotted with a few really interesting outliers (such as vehicular levels and intermediary mini-games). Provided an internet-enabled device is kept handy for consultation during frustrating sections, Sticker Star is diverse enough to hold the player’s interest even in spite of a few bland stretches. And it’s the really creative stuff—such as the Rube Goldberg-like stage 1-5 and a few later areas that we’re forbidden to talk about—that make it worth experiencing for fans of the series.
One area where the game certainly doesn’t lack is presentation. The environments—including plains, desert, forest, ice, jungle, and volcanic—are all as colorful and contrasting as the classic around-the-globe game design mandates. The music varies per environment and is predominantly small ensemble jazz, but it’s no afterthought. Most of the songs feature live instrument leads draped across high-quality MIDI accompaniment that really suits the game well. The major boss battles each carry their own themes as well, and antagonists are always escorted by their own personal tune (I particularly like Kamek’s). The 3-D also works quite well and is rarely annoying. I found myself playing with it on most of the time—an uncommon choice.
Finally, the writing and translation work is, as always, top-notch. While they didn’t have walls of text to digest this time around (see: Super Paper Mario) and the adventure is considerably more cohesive than Super Paper Mario, the localization crew has once again done a great job. Characters carry personalities all their own, and some of the poetic-speaking toads are truly entertaining. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not Sticker Star would maintain the classic series humor—something which is one of its hallmarks. It does, but it also backpedals a bit from the sheer randomness of Super Paper Mario. There are still surprisingly creative interjections throughout the adventure that will please fans, but for the most part, Sticker Star is back to the more predictable and structured design of the first two games. And that’s not a bad thing; in many ways, the game is better for it.