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Paper Mario: Sticker Star - 3DS Review

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Paper Mario: Sticker Star

3DS | Nintendo / Intelligent Systems | 1 Player | Out Now
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10th December 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

The final achievement of even calculated risks can be hard to predict, particularly when linked to a recognized pedigree. As floored as some may get over potentially shattering changes, these are often a necessary evil to keep the spirit of a franchise aglow. Judging from how many responded to Super Paper Mario, I was quite surprised by Nintendo's decision to once again venture into territories previously unexplored, but from where I stood, the proposed creativity behind this 3DS-bound entry was very refreshing to observe. Conceptually, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is quite the innovative departure, bringing together principles not often associated with this series or the RPG genre and developing them to create an attraction that intrinsically references the roots it derives energy from. But let me tell you, Sticker Star is a real piece of work. Despite having ingredients that show signs of trying to excel, the game ends up fostering, without restraint, one of the noisiest and incoherent dynamics I've ever seen in a Mario game. With heavy insecurities and a rather vehement propensity to disrespect, I can assure you I never expected a direction quite so mind-boggling.

    Sticker Star opens up with the prelude to a once-mysterious (to us, at least) observance known as the Sticker Fest. Mario, Peach, and the rest of the Mushroom Kingdom all gather to observe the passing of a heavenly body known as the Sticker Comet. Miffed that he wasn't invited, Bowser attempts to tap into the power embedded within the Comet for himself, while Peach, in true Peach fashion, just stands there and practically invites him to bring the festivities to a screeching halt. The result is utter catastrophe, with the Sticker Comet being split apart and Bowser being crowned with untold power. When you awake, you meet Kersti, a guardian who aims to restore the Sticker Comet back to its usual state through reassembling the now-scattered Royal Stickers. And so begins your epic quest!

Carving out a path for yourself on the World Map, you'll travel to five different lands in search of these emblematic pieces. Generally the level progression is of a linear fashion but the use of an overworld does make it so there's breathing room to navigate without feeling forced to go places. In addition, some of the levels you'll visit will feature two goals in a way that called to my mind the likes of Super Monkey Ball. Along the way, you'll meet up with various members of the Mushroom Kingdom -- or more precisely, Toads -- who often display their own characteristics by delivering lines of poetic verse, trembling over an accident, or having a mellow spirit. Elements of Super Paper Mario's engaging plot have carried over here, where we once again see NPC's being used to entertain and induce laughter, albeit it's not as extensive as what's been done in the past. Starting out in the central hub of Decalburg, the repair work instigated by the aforementioned disaster will move at a pace in line with your story progress, with attractions and kiosks being added over time, such as flagpole banners with achievements attached to them.

    Before all that comes to pass, you'll quickly come to realize there are stickers littered wherever you go -- on paths, walls, environmental objects, and landmarks. These serve as the main thrust behind the game's overarching vision, acquiring a subtle ingenuity to it in the way of its catering to a D.I.Y mentality and accentuating this with the thrill of discovery and collection. Determining the rarity index are Flashy and Shiny classifications that also serve to differentiate standard, less-powerful stickers from the rest. There also exist what the game calls Thing Stickers, which are basically assorted household objects that can be used to solve puzzles out on the adventure field or to form a special attack in battle. The nature of these feels like something out of Art Attack, if not a science fair, and these unusual entities become a means by which the game charms you. To give you a taste of what you'll encounter, you can unleash a fury of thumbtacks, use a copper teapot to start a flood, or enlist the help of dancing scissors and turkeys. It's really out there, in a WarioWare kind of way, and makes for a rather memorable component of the execution. Adding to the non-conventional approach is the decision against party members, instead concentrating on Mario's singular role as both he and Kersti come up against Bowser's army. Some may be bothered by this, but I personally welcomed the change for the reason that the game gives largely mundane objects added flavour. And the sooner you can get past this initially uncomfortable decision, the sooner you can embrace all that Sticker Star houses within its creative vision -- in theory.

The world of Sticker Star is wired with the same pop-up aesthetic characteristic of the series, and here it is brought to a new layer of definition in the way of added surprise and wonder. Cut-outs, loose pieces of cardboard, and other props all serve an assisting role in the exploration, providing footpaths or windows into new areas. 3D is used to great extents in both open and closed areas, providing dynamic viewpoints that are engaging in their presentation, in line with the intensely charming and eye-catching production values. Also with great strength of its own, the soundtrack for the game is one of originality that first comes out with a smooth, jazzy feel that will have you jumping in your seat, then later blends other styles into the mixture to create an upbeat and at times mysterious allure. 

    As far as the adventuring component is concerned, there are plenty of lovely surprises to be had as you move further and further away from the grasslands at the outset. There are early signs of such, with things like a full trash bin and pencil-drawn doors, which prove precursory to future developments which include cleverly concealed, easy-to-miss openings that test your level of awareness. More importantly, there is a surplus of surprises to the level design that will either catch you unawares or engage in a memorable fashion. I wouldn't dare spoil some of these moments of brilliance, because there are times where the formation of it is very much puzzle-y in nature, displaying outside-the-box thinking. Just know that if you enjoyed the brief diversions and distractions of past titles (such as what Chuck Quizmo brought to the table in the original Paper Mario), then you'll no doubt find these to be lovely and in good taste. 

Now, one important note about Kersti is that she isn't just your guide and mentor for when you're not sure how to advance. She's also the source of the game's paperization technique and the Battle Spinner. First, paperizing will take a freeze frame of the immediate environment view and transport Mario to a dimension where he can place stickers to, say, cover vents spewing poisonous fumes, or to collect, re-arrange and affix scrap pieces such as bridges and doors into their rightful place. The interaction might seem a bit extraneous at times, but the mechanic itself connects back to the game's vision and can rightfully be seen as a positive means of influencing the landscape. The Battle Spinner is a slot machine that can enable the use of two or three attacks on a single turn, and supply an item to be used right there and then when three of the same symbol line up. You can affect the outcome of the cycle by using coins, and this is especially a blessing during boss battles, albeit overusing it will leave you more or less coin-deprived by the end of it all.

    As for the core principles of the battle system, the timing mechanic from past titles has been retained, and there are some new things like the crumpled status effect (double the damage intake) and the provision of coins for every hit past the 0 HP-mark. Some environments will have an impact on the battle scene, such as the poisonous swamps or deadly quicksand, prodding you to act decisively. The only complaint I have about the physical setup is how it tricks you into thinking certain moves are doable when they are guaranteed to miss. There aren't any preventative measures put in place to shield you from that. Aside from that, the system is accessible and fun and doesn't do anything gravely offensive on the surface.

    With all this in mind, it's pretty apparent from a creative perspective that Sticker Star is far removed from anything attempted before in the series. Hardcore fans may dismiss the game as being too focused on a single layer, but the fact is, the translation of the vision has given rise to some unique properties that are welcome changes. That being said, this is the part where I'll essentially be flipping the switch because despite my love and appreciation for the concept and all the freshness it adds, there are some serious flaws so pervasive that it would be irresponsible of me to forego highlighting them.

One of the critical areas that must be addressed relates to the heightened presence of strategy, and this is brought on by the leveraged collect-everything-in-sight mindset and the disruptions posed by the varying sizes of the Thing Stickers. If there's one thing Sticker Star does well, it's the way it takes you back to a time where you might've collected stamps or stickers of your own, making you feel like a kid in the process but in a captivating way, as told by the surrounding battle system and the nature of the map layouts. Behaving not unlike a scout as you scavenge and hunt to the limits your album will allow, the resulting dynamic is one that naturally makes players feel increasingly attached to and possessive over their collections. And under such a scenario, you'd expect the game to reward smart players, but it in actual fact contributes more to recurring, deep-seated problems than it does elevate a sense of empowerment. As a result, not only is the creativity greatly stifled, but players are led to experience a range of emotions that are absolutely being manipulated by unintelligent design.

    One of the absolute worst yet highly telling problems with Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the fact that it assumes far too much of the player and, moreover, begets a painful spirit of miscommunicated ideas and fronts. You're often expected to have a certain sticker on your person as if you know what's coming, with an example of this being when you need six stickers in order to gain access to the desert world, one of which is a Poison Mushroom Sticker that isn't available in the Shop. Evidently, I wrongly came to the conclusion this was only going to hinder me, and so I ended up selling it. When presented with this condition of requiring this or any other uncommon sticker, you have to remember the exact level and spot where you found one and go on what is essentially an imposed side-quest trying to find another one.

There are a ton of places where you're asked to paperize and place a specific Thing Sticker to solve a problem before you, such as a raging sandstorm. None of the Thing Stickers come with descriptions, so you pretty much have to guess what each of them do. The size of the outline where these stickers need to be places isn't in itself a reliable indicator of the type you need, since even a small Watch Battery Sticker will need to be applied to a big box. You can use your power of reasoning to try and get a clue as to what's required in situations where it's not as obvious, but this can often lead you astray because it's not so cut-and-dry, causing you to take unnecessary risks with planting irrelevant stickers.

    The only way to know for sure what each one does is to use them in battle, but since these are of the more rare variety and require you to, again, return to a specific place in the game to retrieve these for future use (or give coins to a shady vendor), it ends up being that the unfolding experimentation cancels out aims to conserve stickers for when they are sorely needed -- which, inconveniently, may not even be in your possession when the time comes, or will, again, prompt deliberation due to the confusion. If you're getting the impression this is a tad hard to follow, this is how you'll end up feeling as these begin to plague the experience and affect your process.

    What I'm speaking about here penetrates to all components of the game, not just the adventure field, and you can bet there are indications of this beyond what's just been described. Continuing with this faulty expectation on the game's part of having things in your possession, the boss battles also suffer from this intrinsic problem of having players use up resources thinking it'll do them good when they won't be poised to eliminate the enemy without a specific item. There was one rather eye-opening encounter where I didn't find out until after I had completely used up my sticker supply that it was highly unlikely I could defeat this enemy without a specific Thing Sticker. I ended up being 14 HP away from defeat, but at a great cost and expense to me. This set me back terribly, and thinking I could salvage what was lost after the humiliation and great frustration of running out of stickers (and over 1,000 coins), I had to search the surrounding area out of desperation, trying to find stickers I didn't already peel off the walls. When I went back to finish the boss off, he had returned to full health as if nothing ever happened...only I was still in a pretty sad state.

It's incredibly depressing to, first, discover all your hard-earned stickers were put to waste, and then all the more aggravating when you have to completely exit the level you're in, start from scratch and go back to earlier areas to replenish your stock, before again going through the hassles that led up to the confrontation. You can't behave retroactively in the immediate sense, putting you in a confining position simply for not carrying a specific sticker you had no clue would be required of you. You can imagine, then, why it feels like such a huge slap in the face when, after getting back on your feet and finally defeating the boss, Kersti more or less says, 'Oh, by the way, those valued stickers you used up... Yeah, you could've avoided that altogether if you had more smarts.' It may appear to the untrained eye there's a risk/reward system at play here, but it's less noble than that. It's a flawed oversight on the game's part, and truth be told, the sense of "strategy" is a masquerade until you reach boss fights, at which point you'll realize your limited, in-progress album is no match unless you carefully weigh each match, but that in itself expects you to know beforehand what the best approach is so as not to waste stickers needlessly. I find this to be lunacy and incredibly crushing to one's overall spirit.

    As bad as it is to feel so often that your odds have been jeopardized for little fault of your own, the level designs have their own share of frustrations that only further this effect of how greatly the flaws overrule the creative and inspired direction. As you get further in the game, it places a surprisingly substantial reliance (for the bad) on chance and being super observant to pick out a tiny opening, covered paths, and other narrow finds, and it's often the case that progress is being stinted to a place that isn't satisfying to overcome, instead feeling rather demoralizing. I wouldn't say the lack of coddling is the main reason behind the game being as unsettling as it is, as that's not it at all; rather the continued lack of stabilization serves to drive players to unrequited upset. It seems to me the engaging mechanics have been soiled by a design direction that cared more for the development of the base concept than the perceptions, uncomfortable spaces, and attitudes players would be forced into.

It is indeed a rare thing to discover framerate issues in a modern Mario game, but there's quite a bit of that happening in Sticker Star as well. I don't think I'd ever describe these cases as being severe, but they are definitely noticeable in portions of both Worlds 3 and 4. The absolute worst is when it gets to the point that it greatly affects the Battle Spinner during certain boss battles, and though you may appreciate the added benefits that come with that, I don't think that's kosher. I also spotted one small glitch where a Spiny walked through a wall and was only partially visible, so take that as you will.

    It kills me that I can't go to town in praise of Sticker Star for superb translation of its vision. I still have a fondness for the creativity behind it and I believe this could've been a stellar creation and even highly engaging for kids had the design not lost control. Sadly, the particulars carry intrinsic flaws that run deep enough to damage the fun factor, flow, and progression, with the overall balance being so off it produces gaping tears in the construction. Tantalizing players in manners that have a violating effect on the game's vitality, Sticker Star shocks to the degree that it will be more tolerated than celebrated, exhibiting a vexatious display of having too many problematic quirks to be remembered for its moments of greatness.

20/30 - Okay/Average

Gameplay 5/10 - Original premise, good exploration and battle system with some issues, serious flaws, unintelligent design and faulty expectations
Presentation 8/10 - Unique visuals with moments where aesthetics seep into gameplay, memorable soundtrack, framerate acts up and can disrupt
Enjoyment 3/5 - Creativity and experimentation is great but is stifled in many places, significant amounts of frustration for little fault of the player
Extra Content 4/5 - Various secrets to uncover, achievements present for completionists, minimum 20 hours in length

Equivalent to a score of 67% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

Paper Mario: Sticker Star
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