|11-09-2016, 05:34 PM||#1|
Illusion of Time
Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: Surrey, British Columbia, Canada
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Review: "Paper Mario: Color Splash"
Preface: I'm working on a video version of this review, so you just get a wall of text here for now. Image embeds at some point in the future.
For as much as they tend to play it safe and stick to what they know, Nintendo has their hand in a lot of different pies nowadays, and they use the familiar to experiment with the strange. At first, the Kirby series was the test bed for the more wacky ideas, and often the more memorable entries were such experimental ones. As the company approached more and more genres, occasionally creating new characters and series to tackle them, Nintendo began to have a conundrum: by falling back on their tried-and-true mascot so often and giving Mario so many hats to wear, Nintendo accidentally gave him two separate lines of products with the same core idea. That being the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, both tackling the RPG.
Mario & Luigi would continue to embrace its core facets, leaving Paper Mario to assume the mantle of Experimental Series. The Kirby series was proof that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as Paper Mario strayed from its roots, its future as a beloved series became more and more tenuous. It is in these uncertain times that we receive Paper Mario: Color Splash.
For some, this may make or break their impression of the game, but we must begin by confirming Color Splash is very much a successor to Sticker Star. If you haven’t stopped there, then let me add that Color Splash is also one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a Mario RPG, and it’s no thanks to the RPG systems at play. And this comes from someone who finished Sticker Star in a much worse place than when he began.
Color Splash begins on a stormy night when Peach comes to Mario’s door with a distressing letter...a blank letter that, when unfolded, is a Toad devoid of color and life. Mario, Peach, and her escort then venture across the seas to investigate and come across a ruined city. For the rest of the opening, Color Splash leverages an ominous soundtrack, visual stylings, and some witty writing to evoke a horror game before switching back to traditional series fare. This is only the first of a multitude of scenarios where the game is confident enough to go outside of its comfort zone, and it does so often and well.
In fact, the writing is maybe the best part of Color Splash—the exact opposite of Sticker Star and its non-story. The game is surprisingly funny, not just in that the jokes are plentiful—which they are, rest assured—but the writing is sharp and clever and loves to reference previous games and its own ridiculousness. At first, I was pretty bummed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of characters in the supporting cast are Toads, and I stand by the notion that the game could have used a more diverse cast in terms of race, but said Toads are given tremendous personality, and there are also other amazing characters like Huey. The Toads ended up being fantastic characters, and they are put in a variety of situations and roles such that they feel like vastly different characters. The search for the Mountain Sage comes to mind as an early example, or the recurring Roshambo Temples that are always good for a laugh at the absurdity of the spectacle. The Mountain Sage ends up just being yet another Toad, nothing special about him, save for the gags that he brings. Similarly, since Color Splash uses the same stage-based framework that Sticker Star used, the stages themselves feature vastly different scenarios and designs that make for a rich experience that affords the sort of hijinks that players have come to love from the Paper Mario series.
Speaking of, the stages are really well-designed for a number of reasons. As stated previously, the stages themselves are nicely varied in style and color as well as in layout—there aren’t many stages that are totally horizontal, purely vertical, or entirely a gimmick. Some stages are puzzles, some are platforming challenges, and some ask you to explore heavily. My favorite stages, however, are the ones that defy your expectations, and this happens regularly for Color Splash is quite the subversive game. For the most part, as you run, jump, and paint your way through stages, the camera is at a fixed perspective; occasionally, if you confirm some suspicions that you might be able to explore a nook or cranny, the camera will swivel or zoom to reveal a special treat. Other times, the game sets you up to expect a certain outcome, such as the same simple roadblock multiple times in a row, only to throw a curveball when you least expect it; now and then a seemingly-innocuous ramp might just collapse so the game can exercise its wit a little more and give you a more fun way up. I was constantly surprised by what the stages had to offer and didn’t ever get bored of them.
There are a couple downsides to the stages, however, and it lies in how they’re used: as the game progresses, as was the case in Sticker Star, you are often asked to trek back and forth between stages in order to accomplish goals, and there are no checkpoints to alleviate this issue, meaning that you’re walking back and forth through the same geometry. Occasionally, and bogglingly, that means you have to walk through the entire level just to do the exact same thing that would end the level normally only for it to trigger something new because the level has been completed before. This thing usually happens with the repeated Rescue Squad events, where a Captain Toad is waiting for his subordinates who are off slacking—sometimes in the same stage but usually in future stages. It’s a bummer, but at least the stages are quite beautiful and artistically strong. The other, infrequent but far more irritating, issue is that the game occasionally forces you into a sequence where failure means game over. Instantly. Restart from the last time you saved. You are usually thrown a save block before the sequence, but failing it means you have to replay all the dialogue up to that point before getting another go.
People who made their way through Sticker Star may wonder why the Things weren’t brought up as a concern, and that’s mostly because aside from the incredibly long attack animations they are mostly a non-issue. They remain a necessity to advance in certain fights and sequences, but it’s generally clear what Things you need, and what are there for fun. In case you ever get confused, you can now also go to an NPC who tells you if you have all the Thing cards you need to advance at the next roadblock, and hints what you might need if you don’t. Save when Kamek turns all your cards into copies of the same exact Thing during a battle, making the battle an even slower slog, the Thing system is now thankfully fixed.
Speaking of battles, the RPG mechanics that the game chose not to abandon entirely unfortunately bog down this otherwise joyous experience. Littering the stages are enemies that initiate battle when you come into contact with them and Color Splash sadly takes inspiration from Sticker Star for its combat. Worse yet, combat is somehow more slow and cumbersome than the previous version! You still rely on collectables for your combat actions, this time cards instead of stickers, which are a finite resource—though actually managing to run out would be a tough endeavour as you are rewarded with cards for just about everything. More likely, you will be forced to use some of the cards you had hoped to save for a boss encounter in some generic battle because you lack other cards that could do the job, such as not having any regular jump cards when dealing with spiked enemies. You might also be sifting through your stack, looking for something to get rid of just so you can pick up some new, intriguing cards…a lot.
The problem with the system in this game isn’t the cards, however, but the multi-step process it takes to play just one. First you have to navigate through a horizontal list of your up-to-99 cards, instead of the grid-system in Sticker Star, and then you have to hit a button to advance to the next step. The second phase asks you to add paint to the cards, which powers them up and draws from your refillable paint meter, and then press another button to confirm. Finally, and inexplicably, you have to swipe up to re-finalize your cards and actually get into the action commands that are standard to Mario RPGs. How this interface managed to make it through without being significantly streamlined is my biggest question because it makes encounters take forever. Bear in mind that combat still yields very little reward (granted that’s an improvement on Sticker Star’s no reward) of some paint, which may only cover the costs of battle, coins (which you only use to get more cards, to get more coins, to descend into a recursive hell), an occasional card, and Paint Hammers. Paint Hammers function as a sort of experience system wherein collecting them fills a meter that then slightly increases your maximum paint reserves when filled.
While the addition of a pseudo-experience system is nice, the fact that battles take so long means that it’s almost always more trouble than it’s worth to engage in combat. After the first two hours, when the combat had worn out its welcome, I found myself trying my best to not engage any enemies on the field that weren’t explicitly in my way so that I could focus on the more enjoyable act of exploring. The game, however, likes to leave ambushes in many of its stages that are very hard to avoid, sometimes even if you know they’re coming, and enemies are very fast when chasing you down if they see you. Had the older battle systems of Paper Mario or Thousand Year Door, or even the action system of Super Paper Mario been used, this would not be a problem at all; if the current combat system had been excised of one or two layers of menus, this also would not be as much of a complaint.
Turning back to the last major component of the gameplay, which is thankfully far better implemented than the combat, is the painting mechanics. Mario can swing his paint hammer with the touch of a button, which drains one of the primary-color-meters slightly depending on the color needed to be used, and fill in spots or characters in the environment that have been drained of color. Characters often have something interesting to say, while spots award you money and cards. You can refill your paint meter by using your regular hammer to smack just about anything in the environment from trees to flowers to benches to rocks…or combat, if you hate yourself. The duality of this system means that you enter into a rhythm of obsessive-compulsive painting every spot you can see, smacking anything that might yield paint, alongside the traditional block smashing. The mechanic loop is simple but very effective and surprisingly gratifying. Thankfully, your resource management is not such a problem that avoiding combat means you run out of paint often, with your smaller reserves.
There is a single problem with the system, which stems from the fact that you are given a percentage that shows how many of the colorless spots you’ve repainted. Getting 100% in a stage yields rewards in the game’s museum, and a flag on the world map, but finding all of the spots is usually a tough task due to some devious placements. While occasionally aggravating, this normally wouldn’t be an issue since you can always come back later, but partway through, the game introduces the Shy Guy Bandit—one of the most antithetical characters in the game. Every so often, the Shy Guy Bandit appears on the world map, places a marker on a random stage, and moseys from where he spawns to that stage. If you fail to reach him in a certain amount of time and fight him off, he resets all the colorless spots in the stage. If you had 100% completion in the level, then you don’t lose any museum rewards should he get his way, but you do lose the flag; if you don’t have 100% completion, then you’re even farther away from reaching that goal. It’s a maddening addition that only serves to frustrate, and I can’t understand why it was implemented, particularly because you really want to paint everything you see! Not only because the whole thing an addictive gameplay hook that awards you with tangible goods, but because the world you interact with is just so gorgeous and the colorless spots tarnish that.
If there’s one area of the game that was spared no expense and finely crafted, it was the visuals. Following in the footsteps of Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Yoshi’s Woolly World, Color Splash doubles down on its material-based art direction. Whereas the first two Paper Mario games had a paper motif and mostly just kept it as a motif or sometimes gag-source, Color Splash’s characters and objects are paper. Characters are constantly drifting on the breeze, the cardboard that makes up the ground gets rolled up and crumples, and turning sideways makes one able to slip through cracks—just to name a few instances of the world’s pulpy instantiation. The series has always looked good with its style, but Color Splash really takes it to a new level, and the increased resolution offered by the Wii U helps tremendously. What really sells it, though, is the vibrant color palette and lighting; go figure a game about painting has good color use, but the game really pops. Travelling through the forests in search of a professor and his pet Chain-Chomp, I mentally paused and admired the great greens I was walking through and the light sprinkling through the treelines onto the ground. Another time was gawking at the sheer majesty of the Roshambo Temples. It isn’t just the technical side of the visuals that are so impressive, but also the animation and specifically how charming it is: characters animate really well and ooze personality with plenty of plenty of camera movement and effects to top it off. This extends to the Things as well—real-life objects that have mysteriously found their way into the Paper Mario world, like a house fan that blows the world around, or a piggy bank that dances a jig—though being somewhat low-poly does them no favours visually.
It’s not often that games look unequivocally good, which Color Splash does, and it’s even less common when that’s paired with a great soundtrack. Color Splash has a lot to live up to when considering the soundtracks in the rest of the franchise, and while it may not surpass the bar, it surely meets it. The game has a lot of range in its soundtrack and a lot of it in general. The number of songs is enormous considering how Spartan other parts of the game are, and there isn’t a track I can recall that I actually disliked. There are jaunty songs, songs befitting a more spooky game, rustic tracks that harken back to desert areas of yore, mellow melodies for wandering in the groves, and some surprising referential tracks that only make sense when you come across them organically. Again, I have to bring up the majesty of the Roshambo Temples but this time because the music is awesome.
All in all, Paper Mario: Color Splash exceeds all expectations I had for it: the writing and story were not only there but great incentives to keep going, the visuals were always a delight to behold and made the well-crafted stages even more fun to explore, and the soundtrack was gorgeous. The adventure will take a decent chunk of time to get through, so it would surely be a great investment for anyone with the time and interest. If you’re specifically coming for a traditional gameplay-focused RPG, then you might be out of luck on that front but if you were on the fence—perhaps because you’re wary of Paper Mario’s recent track record—then rest assured that there’s definitely enjoyment to be found in the world of Color Splash.