Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review - Just a Bit Disappointing

You know what I love? Paper Mario. Who doesn’t love Paper Mario? Paper Mario is the best. The original Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64 was the first RPG I ever played, and I enjoyed the crap out of it. It’s still near and dear to my heart to this day, and its beloved sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, is probably one of the greatest RPG’s ever made. And while Super Paper Mario wasn’t quite the true sequel most of us would have wanted, it was still a dang good game in its own right. People can fawn over Super Mario RPG or the Mario & Luigi games all day long, but the only Mario RPG series that’s ever grabbed me by the throat and never let go is Paper Freaking Mario. Paper Mario is amazing. Paper Mario is glorious, Paper Mario is…

…one of last year’s most divisive and widely disappointing games. One of many, actually, if the opinions of Resident Evil and Assassin’s Creed fans are to be valued. Oh, and Final Fantasy fans. Please don’t forget the Final Fantasy fans. But where does the widespread disappointment come from in the case of Paper Mario: Sticker Star? Is it merely fanboyish rage in the face of change as fans are still forced to wait for the ultimate sequel to the GameCube classic? Or is there something truly wrong with this game? Did Nintendo, one of the most revered game developers out there to this very day, actually screw up?

Eh…a little.

Well, let’s start with the story…the – ehm – small sliver of something they call a story, anyway. Basically, there’s a festival to celebrate the coming of the Sticker Comet, then Bowser typically shows up and ruins everything by touching the thing, causing stickers to scatter everywhere. These include the “Royal Stickers”, which grant a lot of power to whoever wears them and Bowser, naturally, gets one. Then he captures Princess Peach in a move that’s almost as old and repetitive as the jokes about how old and repetitive it is. How wonderfully paradoxical! But then! Mario meets a sentient Royal Sticker named Kersti and joins up with her to travel across the lands, searching far and wide for the rest of them so that the Mushroom Kingdom can be restored to its usual state of peace and happiness.
GOTTA CATCH EM ALLLL~ (haha i r funni)

Sticker Star’s story is about as basic as it gets for a Mario RPG – of course, Sticker Star is barely an RPG, but I’ll get to that. Yeah, remember how Thousand-Year Door and Super Paper Mario had awesome storylines that actually tried to break the usual Mario mold in some ways and had tons of charming characters and even a bit of narrative depth? Heck, even the original Paper Mario, for as simple as the story was, had tons of great characters that kept the whole journey interesting. Well, say good-bye to all of that. Instead, you get an annoying crown screaming at you for the entire game with maybe two or three well-written NPC’s along the way that still don’t really do all that much. The individual worlds of the game – replacing chapters – don’t even follow their own funny sub-narratives anymore aside from a small one in world 3. Put simply, the storyline is simple at best and vapid at worst, and while having a more minimal storyline isn’t inherently bad per se, when the series’ standard for this sort of thing is much higher, it feels like a major step down.

But the presentation, on the other hand, is excellent. Sticker Star is likely one of the most visually interesting games on the 3DS to date. Unlike other games in the series, where, in-universe, the whole paper thing is nothing more than a cool visual gimmick, Sticker Star literally presents its world as one made entirely of paper and cardboard. This not only leads to some neat environmental graphics, but also to some unique designs for bosses and other enemies and rather unconventional interactions with characters and the scenery. One of the game’s most prominent gameplay mechanics, in fact, involves finding or even tearing off pieces of the game world to use somewhere else. The 3-D effect is also extremely well-done and even works with the game’s environments. Not only does the greater depth add to the platforming elements, but it also adds to exploration, occasionally revealing (with the help of a careful eye) hidden passages and other such secrets, making exploration feel more rewarding than ever before. Oh, and the one thing just about everyone can agree on is that the soundtrack is simply gold. It’s memorable, it’s well-composed, the instrumentation is wonderful…it’s pretty much awesome.

Now, the gameplay is the most divisive aspect of this game outside of the minimal storyline. As you would probably expect, it’s just a bit different from the other Paper Mario games. The RPG elements have been neutered quite a bit – practically the only thing that ever serves to remind you that you’re playing an RPG-inspired game is the separation of battle screens from overworld screens. There are no more experience points, no more leveling up, no more partners – aside from Kersti, who barely counts – little character interaction, and there is only one town in the entire game. Overworld navigation is also your typical Mario fare, and levels end when you find Comet Pieces. The battle system has also been completely overhauled, now focusing on what else but stickers! But is this all necessarily a bad thing? Well, personally, I don’t think so. At its core, Sticker Star actually comes as a refreshingly original take on the genre and on the series itself. There are times when it really doesn’t work, which will be covered in a bit, but let’s talk about the ways in which it does first.

So, first of all, about that battle system? I…actually rather like it. It works thusly: You find various stickers on walls and floors as you go through the game’s areas. By peeling them off, you get to take them and after that, they go in your Sticker Book, whose capacity increases every time you get another Royal Sticker. Every ability and attack you use in battle will be used with these stickers, and once you use a sticker, it’s completely gone. However, enemies tend to drop useful stickers when killed and you can also buy them from the shop at any time. Still, if you don’t have any stickers useful for your situation, there can be problems. This is the reason why the game no longer uses experience points – you’re always allowed to run from battles and you’re under no obligation to fight enemies, but doing so can lead to good rewards. For instance, fighting enemies is the best way to earn coins, which are used to buy better stickers and also to activate a timing-based slot machine in battle. Matching two or more pictures on said slot machine will allow you to use more stickers in a single turn. Battles are still heavily timing-based; to use attacks effectively, you will have to press the “A” button at the right time during each attack sequence to either get more hits or do more damage.

A lot of people don’t care for this battle system, but if you know how to use it, I personally think it’s rather general. Originality aside, it adds an extra element of inventory and resource management to the game that usually isn’t so emphasized in RPG’s. It makes you think about just when and where to use certain stickers, since it won’t be so easy to get it back once you’ve used it, while at the same time often forcing you to use certain stickers when you’re thrust into a battle. At the same time, you’re always finding more to use, and if you find you don’t have any, you can just run away. Exploring areas to find new stickers is always fun and even rewarding as you find a lot of the best ones this way. This sticker system also gives you a much more diverse range of attack and defense options at your disposal while at the same time limiting you to what you have in your inventory. And like I said, player input has not been forsaken, and the one-use-only nature of the stickers encourages you to maximize their power as much as possible. It’s a strange beast of a gameplay style – deep and expansive, yet also very restrictive. Whatever the case, it’s new, it’s interesting and I quite like it.

The level design is another thing I found myself enjoying quite a bit. While Sticker Star finds itself returning to the 3-D adventuring style that Super Paper Mario abandoned, it does some different things with it. Worlds are now separated into sections a la typical 2-D Mario platformers, but Sticker Star finds the time to ensure that every area has something unique about it. For the first couple of worlds, the level design may come off as more simplistic and less detailed than that of its console older brothers, but by World 3, I found myself consistently appreciating the variety of unique obstacles and mini-games every level threw at me. Platforming elements are also incorporated very well and, as I already mentioned, show off the strength of the 3-D effect.

What really made the level design so compelling for me, however, was the Paperization mechanic. I touched on this briefly earlier in the review, but it deserves more elaboration, since it’s something you’re going to be using a lot. Basically, with Paperization, Kersti transforms the world around you into a two-dimensional sheet of paper and allows you to manipulate it in certain ways. This is used for a lot of puzzle solving in the game. Bowser’s minions have left much of the world out of whack, flipping objects and pieces of scenery on their sides and ripping them out of the very landscape and putting them somewhere else. Using Paperization, you can pick up these objects or pieces of scenery yourself and put them in their correct place, which is often required to progress. The process isn’t complex, but there are times when using it effectively will require an observant eye, looking out for things that look suspicious or out of place. The general rule is that if you’re stuck, you probably have to use Paperization. Other Paperization puzzles require you to place specific “Thing” stickers – real world objects you find in the game that are converted to stickers – in the proper place in order to solve them. While the place that the "Thing" sticker goes is conveniently outlined, it’s up to you to figure out which to use. The game does give you hints at times, but others, you just have to use your brain.

But for as cool as all this is, this is where things start getting a tad problematic. See, remember how I said that you can only use stickers once in battle and then they’re gone? Well, that extends to the “Thing” stickers, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to the Paperization puzzles’ trial and error nature. Using the wrong Thing in the wrong place could completely deprive you of the opportunity to use it at a point that you would actually need it, and if you don’t have the right Thing, you’re going to have to buy it from the shop or backtrack to find it. But that’s not the only problem that arises from the sticker-based system. Alas, folks, this is it. This is where we get to the negative part of the review. All enjoyment stops here, ladies and gentlemen. Without further ado…sigh…this is it. I’m not happy about this one bit, but there are some things about Sticker Star that I have to admit are simply asinine.

Only a few paragraphs ago, I mentioned that I really liked Sticker Star’s battle system, and well…I do…in concept more so than in execution. As it is, when the battle system works, it's great, but when it doesn’t...egh. The major problem we see in Sticker Star is that the game refuses to give you any sort of choice outside of your sticker selection. By that, I mean, you can’t target specific enemies when facing off against a group. You’re always going to target the first one regardless of what enemy types you’re going up against and there is nothing you can do about it. What makes this is a problem is that the sticker system coupled with the variety of enemy types can lead to some rather unpleasant situations. For instance, several enemies in the game tend to change stances, which will change what kinds of attacks you can use on that enemy. That’s fine. But say that you lack the proper sticker for one stance. Logic would dictate that you would use that turn to attack the other enemies, but nope, you can’t simply jump behind that guy because this game said so, even though you were perfectly capable of doing that in the previous games.

What the other Paper Mario games also allowed you to do was to skip your turn or simply defend if the situation didn’t permit you to do anything effective. Sticker Star, the game that would easily benefit most from this, doesn’t let you do this at all. Combined, this all led to a lot of wasted stickers and even otherwise unnecessary overkill, in which I was forced to use a good sticker I might have been able to save for a better time. With these limitations, the battle system becomes more restrictive than was really necessary and it just proves a cheap hindrance.

And speaking of “cheap”, can I tell you something about this game’s boss design? It’s downright baffling. I honestly fail to see how Nintendo of all developers could design bosses so utterly despicable. These bosses are down there with some of Sonic Team’s worst, and it’s all because of the obnoxious handling of the “Thing” stickers. A lot of the bosses literally require you to have just the right “Thing” on hand to even stand a chance, and if you happen to use it at the wrong place or at the wrong time, you’re basically dead. It's not just "Things" either - it extends to normal sticker types, too. There was another boss that required me to have a bunch of "Spiny Hat" stickers to kill. It just so happened that when I first fought it, I didn't have enough and, consequently, I died. The ones that aren't like this still tend to be downright nasty. Kamek, a recurring boss in the game, has a tendency to replace every sticker in your whole inventory with sandals, and the fight plays out with you beating her senseless with them. It’s funny until she flies up in the air, meaning you can’t reach her, and like I said before, you can’t simply skip your turn. And those sandals? They are literally taking the place of other stickers in your inventory. Once you use that sandal, the sticker you had before is gone
This one is dumb, too.

And then we have the final boss with Bowser, which I personally believe will go down in history as one of the worst final bosses in video game history. Even Persona 3’s final boss could potentially feel less hopeless. That’s not something I say lightly, especially of a Paper Mario game. See, the fight’s second phase is, in a sense, luck-based the first time you face it. The first phase is so freaking long and difficult that you won’t see a second coming, but it does. And by that time, you’ve probably used most of your stickers and are potentially on the verge of death.  And here’s another great thing about it: if you run out of stickers during this boss, then you are simply crap out of luck. You can run away from bosses (although that’s not exactly easy), but not from the final boss, oh no. My experience with the final boss of Paper Mario: Sticker Star can best be described as being beaten over the head with a water bottle until you lose consciousness, and then waking up to find that there’s still twice as much beating to be done. Oh, and the ending was simply lame. As a matter of principle, I won’t give any spoilers, but there’s not much to spoil anyway. Yeah…
This is an experience I never want to have again.

So what’s the best way one can describe Paper Mario: Sticker Star? In short, it’s kind of a mixed bag. When everything comes together, it can shine, using its original gameplay mechanics and level design to provide a very different and fun sort of almost-RPG experience. And yet, for everything it does very right, there’s something it simply does wrong. The battle system is really cool, but makes some absolutely ridiculous decisions. The Paperization is fun to use, but the trial and error “Thing” puzzles are simply tedious. The levels are great, but the bosses are downright terrible. And finally, the story is simply lackluster compared to every other RPG in the Mario franchise. It’s really not hard to see why so many people were disappointed in this game, and, to be honest, I…kind of am, too.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this game isn’t worth playing, either. For all of the problems I had with it, I did enjoy most of the time I spent playing the game and I walked away from the experience feeling glad that I had it. I can’t recommend it without reservation, but I can say it’s at least worth more than just a rental. In fact, Sticker Star is fairly long for a 3DS game – I personally took about 20 hours to beat it. The good outweighs the bad here; it’s just that when the bad shows, it really shows. I’d say you should probably check it out at some point down the line. Just don’t expect anything top-notch.