Despite my love of cartoonishly violent action movies, I'm kind of tired of shooting dudes in the face in video games--I've spent a little too much time doing it over the last month. Believe me when I say that it's a real relief to play an exceptionally-designed game that challenges me, rewards me for exploring, has great writing, and doesn't make me look down another damned sniper scope. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a breath of fresh air in this all-too-serious holiday gaming season, and is one of the most innovative and downright fun RPGs I've played in a very long time.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Paper Mario games are turn-based RPGs, save action-platformer Super Paper Mario on the Wii. Much like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and the Mario & Luigi games, there's plenty of emphasis on exploration via inventive platforming and hectic, timing-based battles using very familiar items. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the first Paper Mario title to be released on a handheld system, but it manages to be just as fun and engaging as previous entries in the series, and stands second only to the GameCube's amazing Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door.
It all starts out the same--Mario, Princess Peach, and a bunch of Toads are attending a Sticker Festival to view the Sticker Comet, which can grant wishes. Of course, Bowser shows up and blows the festival to hell, shattering the Sticker Comet and sending its pieces all across the Mushroom Kingdom. Somehow in the melee, Bowser manages to grab Peach (f**king again, seriously--kidnap Toadsworth or something) and Mario sets off to rescue her while cleaning up Bowser's trail of destruction. Mario gets his own Navi of sorts in this game with Kersti the Sticker Fairy, who drops occasional hints and provides sarcastic commentary.
We've been there and done that a thousand times, but Sticker Star proves that you can have the most familiar story in the world, but good writing is what really makes it click. Mario's just an observer to a crazy world that's in shambles, and you get to do a little bit of everything, from Good Samaritan housecleaning to cold, Taken-level revenge (with shiny stickers).
Every Paper Mario title changes things up a bit in the gameplay department--Thousand Year Door added new companions and new abilities, Super Paper Mario was a straight-up platformer, and now Sticker Star removes party members and handles all combat with expendable single-use stickers. Every action in combat, from standard Jump and Hammer attacks to healing Mushrooms and more advanced, screen-clearing attacks each use one sticker apiece. Each sticker can also be made more effective by learning attacks' individual timing to maximize attack or healing power. At the start of each battle, you can also spend coins for the chance to do two or three attacks per turn, but it's not nearly as broken as it sounds--Sticker Star is all about being economical, and balancing what you have. You have limited space in your Sticker Album, very slowly gaining new pages, and you'll find stickers randomly on the field. What do you keep? What do you toss? What do you use in battle just to make room?
Battles themselves are a cakewalk, at least at first. The game gives you time to get comfortable with the battle system and the necessity of having to use your finite resources before throwing its big guns at you, forcing you to decide whether you want to slug it out turn-by-turn, or spend coins to try and clean things up quickly. Boss fights will leave your Sticker Album depleted, and in the rare instance where you have to do multiple boss fights in a row, you'll have to scramble to try and eke out a victory with incredibly limited resources.
You'll also end up using stickers during the exploration and platforming parts of the game--at times, you can use them as markers so you don't lose your way, but in most instances you'll be using Kersti's "Paperize" ability to make stickers' abilities affect the world around you. Sometimes it's simple, like using your Fire Flower or Ice Flower stickers to refill somebody's garden. Other times, it's not as simple, and that can be a problem for some people.
You see, in most of today's video games, you're very clearly told what to do and where to go. "Go to the top of the tower," "find and speak to this person," and it's all marked down. Sticker Star doesn't do that.
Like, at all.
There are only very vague hints given, and no objective markers. You'll have to thoroughly explore every area, try every trick you know while testing options you wouldn't normally think of to reveal all of Sticker Star's secrets. The game rewards thoroughness and thinking outside the box, but it can be pretty daunting (and just a little bit frustrating) when you're simply thrown into a world and told to get through it. But at the end of it all, it's pretty rewarding.
There are those of you who won't give this game a fair shake because it's a Mario game, or because it's not a typical JRPG. Honestly, truly... that's your loss. Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a smartly-designed game that lasts, but doesn't drag. Its gameplay is fun and strategic, its story is a joy to experience thanks to the game's sharp dialogue, and above all that, it actually trusts the player to play the game. In today's world of hand-holding game design, that's really saying something.
+ Inventive and creative battle system rewards calculated risk-taking and intelligent item management
+ This extends to the exploration and overall quest structure, which requires keen attention to detail and thinking outside the box
+ Wry, playful sense of humor livens up the game's "been there, done that" story
+ 3D is purely cosmetic, but it can turn the game's visuals into a beautiful pop-up storybook
+/- Quest objectives aren't marked at all--while it makes for a challenging and rewarding experience, it can bore and frustrate some
- Occasional needless backtracking and fetch quests, but that's common to most RPGs