However, when they stray from their RPG strengths, Paper Mario games lose some of the appeal. For example, Super Paper Mario maintained the copious (copious) dialogue of its forebears, but put aside turn-based battles for awkward platforming.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn't as dramatic a departure as Super Paper Mario. It's still a turn-based game, and in fact has some of the most interesting battle mechanics in the genre. It's still delightfully funny and precious. But it's been compromised by the awkward addition of unwelcome elements from adventure games.
Now that it's over, I'm glad I played it, but I was not always glad to be playing it. Sticker Star turns every attack Mario performs in battle – every action of any kind, in fact, except running away – into a consumable item, specifically a sticker kept in Mario's album. There is in fact a narrative explanation for this mechanic, though I trust you can all suspend your disbelief and accept that Mario uses a sticker to swing a hammer.
I knew Intelligent Systems was onto something with this from the start, because it scared me. Years of playing RPGs have ingrained the importance of item conservation into my play, and I always end up with 99 potions, elixirs, tinctures, bombs, etc. when I complete any RPG. Here, you have to use the items you pick up, because that's all you can do. I did not think I would get used to it. Breaking that long-held habit allowed me to approach turn-based battles with fresh eyes, choosing my attacks based not just on effectiveness, but ease of replenishment.
Levelling up has also been streamlined, to the point of being basically nonexistent. You can pick up "HP-up hearts" that increase your maximum HP by 5 points, and you'll happen upon stronger stickers (including "shiny" and "flashy" ones that feature a really cool "shine" effect that uses the 3DS's tilt sensor to change the lighting) as you travel, but you'll never explicitly gain experience and levels. At a certain point, the game will just decide you're strong enough to stomp goombas without triggering the usual battle sequence – said point coinciding nicely with the moment I didn't feel like trifling with any goombas.
The narrative that explains the sticker mechanic also explains why Mario partners with a bossy crown-shaped sticker named Kersti (... get it) and fights against goombas, Bloopers, and other traditional Mario enemies who have been driven mad with power by applying "Royal Stickers" to their paper heads. Together, Mario and Kersti explore relatively novel parts of the Mushroom Kingdom, like a maze-like forest with a sign warning you to "Be Careful Not To Become That Guy Who Got Baffled (x) Times," where x represents one more time than you've already gotten lost; a pyramid that features Egyptian-style art of Toads and Koopas that must be seen; and, perhaps best of all, a sudden Snifit game show that challenges you to "Snifit or Whiffit." It's rare to see new and exciting locales in a Mario game (exceedingly so with the advent of New Super Mario Bros.) and this does a good job of keeping it fresh.
It's a good thing I never had to grind for experience, because I was already spending more than a few frustrated hours aimlessly wandering without advancing the plot. The exploration in Paper Mario: Sticker Star involves a lot of puzzle-solving, in which you're expected to find hidden ? blocks by jumping and hammering the environment, and to alter the environment by "paperizing" or flattening the world and placing stickers in special locations.
Unfortunately, those hidden ? blocks are often easy to miss – even when you know where you're supposed to be aiming – so you end up with plenty of false negatives and think you're in the wrong spot.
The sticker puzzles have even bigger problems. For one thing, they rely on adventure game logic – or, in other words, you have to know what the designer thought would be a good solution to a particular problem. You'd think a jackhammer would wake up that sleeping Wiggler, but no, only one specific loud item will do the trick.
For another, the needed items – which are actually stickers that you make from three-dimensional "things" that have mysteriously landed in the two-dimensional Paper Mario world, to the confusion and terror of all – are often hidden in hard-to-find spots, like secret exits behind some shrubs. Not only did I not know which item to use in some situations, I didn't even know the item existed.
The exploration and puzzles are interesting when they aren't completely obtuse, and it's fun to peel up part of a level and place it somewhere else to change the setting. But there were about three situations during the game where I just did not know what to do next, and scoured previously completed levels for literally hours, growing increasingly furious with the wasted time.
As soon as I got past those frustrating spots, I was happy again and ready to explore and collect stickers. Not everybody will get stuck in the same spots I did, and not everybody will take as long to happen upon the solutions. The internet will help correct these inherent problems in the game design, even if it is unfortunate that the internet's intervention is required. In other words: the existence of FAQs will automatically improve the game.
In and of itself, though, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is an enjoyable, usually easygoing, funny RPG, with some unfortunately frustrating elements affixed to it.
This review is based on a 3DS download of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, provided by Nintendo. It is also available as a retail cartridge.
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