Hilarious dialogue, gorgeous paper-like visuals, engaging combat
Vague objectives, some aimless backtracking
In a lot of ways, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a return to form for the series. After a brief detour into trans-dimensional platforming with Wii’s Super Paper Mario, which eschewed many of the role-playing trappings associated with the franchise for a more streamlined design, Sticker Star embraces its RPG heritage, placing a renewed emphasis on item management and turn-based combat. This is sure to come as good news for fans who were disappointed by the series’ Wii outing, but that isn’t the only notable aspect of the game; Sticker Star also introduces plenty of its own innovations to the fold as well, making it a truly unique take on the series and not just a simple retread of its past glories.
That isn’t to say Sticker Star completely abandons the platforming experiments of Super Paper Mario, though. All throughout the game you’ll notice vestiges of the Wii title still lingering in the game design: areas are now divided up into distinct “levels,” which are laid out on a world map reminiscent of Super Mario World; Mario no longer gains experience points by defeating enemies, having instead to find the appropriate items to augment his abilities; and party members have been excised completely from the title, leaving the plumber to tackle the world’s problems by himself (well, to an extent). This makes Sticker Star a sort of melange of Super Paper Mario and The Thousand-Year Door, taking the best aspects of each, culling any extraneous elements, and melding them together into an adventure fit for a portable platform.
Much of the success of this marriage hinges on the game’s defining new mechanic, stickers. As you can gather from the title, stickers play an important role in Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Not only are they your means of engaging enemies in combat, replacing the various badges that have long been a staple of the series, but they even form the heart of the game’s storyline. Sticker Star begins on the eve of the Sticker Festival, a kingdom-wide gathering to celebrate the arrival of the Sticker Comet. The Sticker Comet is said to grant the wishes of those who gaze upon it, but as per usual, Bowser seeks to harness this power for himself, disrupting the festival and laying his hands on the fabled comet. This causes it to split apart, scattering countless stickers across the Mushroom Kingdom, and bestowing him with the Royal Stickers, six special relics of immense power. Ever the hero, Mario is tasked with retrieving these stickers and stopping his nemesis from conquering the world.
It’s a fairly simple tale, arguably the most straightforward of any Paper Mario title to date, but it’s livened up with the series’ characteristic charm. The writing in Sticker Star is absolutely fantastic, featuring plenty of humorous dialogue and likeable characters. Kamek in particular really comes into his own in this adventure, taking up the role of antagonist while Bowser recedes to the background. (Without spoiling too much, there’s one particular exchange involving sandals that had me cracking up during play.)
While the writing in Sticker Star is one of its most immediate highlights, its gameplay is just as compelling. The new level structure does a fine job of breaking up the traditional Paper Mario design into more of a portable-friendly experience, segmenting each town and dungeon into distinct stages. Likewise, the sticker mechanic adds a novel twist to the combat, making it more engaging than ever before. Each of your stickers is depleted on use, forcing you to manage your inventory and really consider how to end each battle as quickly as possible. As an added incentive, you’ll be awarded with a “perfect bonus” each time you clear a skirmish in one turn, which will net you additional coins to spend on more stickers or to use on the battle roulette. And thanks to how plentiful stickers are in the game, you’re never at risk of running out of them during combat, avoiding the one pitfall that could have undermined this whole mechanic.
It’s also refreshing to see Sticker Star so fully embrace its paper motif, creating one of the most distinctive visual styles of any video game in recent memory. Each environment looks as though it’s been crafted out of cardboard and construction paper, and non-playable characters even crumple and crease when they collide with other objects to reinforce this theme. The stereoscopic effects are also quite stunning, adding a palpable sense of depth to the locations. The game really does feel like a virtual diorama, and you’ll want to play it with the 3D on to enjoy its art direction to the fullest.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues that mar the overall experience. As fun as the title is, Sticker Star can also be vague in its objectives, often leaving you without proper guidance on what to do next. This is hardly a game-breaking trait– for the most part, you’ll be able to make your way through the adventure with little difficulty– but there are instances when you’ll find yourself at a loss for where to obtain a particular item, or worse yet, times when you’ll enter a boss battle without the proper sticker in tow.
Sticker Star also relies a bit too heavily on backtracking, which can slow the pace of the game considerably. This isn’t quite as bad as previous entries in the series; the new world map ensures that traveling to past levels is a fairly quick process, so you’ll never have to slog through long stretches of terrain to reach an area you’ve already visited. Still, combined with its frequent lack of direction, this can really mire the adventure down with some aimless wandering.
Those issues aside, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is still another fantastic entry in its series, and easily one of the best 3DS releases of the year. The game retains the charm and wit of previous Paper Mario titles, and its new sticker mechanic makes combat even more engaging than before. There are a few pacing issues, particularly with the vagueness of some of its objectives, but that hardly matters in the grander scheme of things; you’ll be having too much fun playing Sticker Star to really mind getting stuck– no pun intended– now and again.