Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

"Despite my complaints, this is a good game. These issues just stop it from being a great one."

I'm going to list a fair number of negative things over the course of this review, so let me start out by saying that I'm a big fan of both the Paper Mario series and the Mario & Luigi series. I gave Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door an Editor's Choice when I reviewed it, and placed it on my personal 5 favorite RPGs of all time in 2015. Dream Team didn't quite make it to Editor's Choice territory for me, but I still gave it a great score. And I'm one of the minority who actually liked Sticker Star, although I'm willing to admit that the fun I had near the end of the game may have caused me to be kinder to it in my review than the overall game merited. I actually waited a bit between finishing Paper Jam and writing this review to make sure I didn't do the opposite this time.

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is the joining of those two long-running series, although its gameplay is mostly based on the Mario & Luigi games. That core does make for a good game, and fans of the Mario & Luigi series will probably enjoy most of this game, but I have a lot of problems with it. I've tried to make the tone of this text match the numbers I'm putting to the right of it, so please accept my apologies if I am not wholly successful in that effort.

Paper Jam begins when Luigi knocks a book off of a shelf in Peach's castle. As it hits the floor, the characters and terrain of Paper Mario's world fly out, including the paper versions of Mario, Peach, and Bowser, but not Luigi. The two worlds' Bowsers immediately team up and kidnap the two Peaches, a Mario cliché so overused that even the Peaches comment on how tired of it they are. Of course, Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario also team up to rescue them and stop the Bowsers from using the book (this game's magical MacGuffin) to take over the world, and that's the meat of the story that carries us all the way to the end... just like it has been in so many Mario games in the past.

During their captivity, the Peaches have a few amusing conversations with each other in which they discuss their "not this again" reaction to the plot as well as their desire to wear something other than that pink dress, get a different haircut, and have a little more control over their own destiny. These chats are brief, but they are a definite story highlight, and they stand in contrast to the game's treatment of Luigi. He gets zero respect in this game — in fact, it's a running joke that he's a coward and a loser, and for me, it got old fast. Still, joking about how badly your game needs a new story is not a good replacement for actually giving your game a new story. That said, story is probably not what most gamers come to the Mario & Luigi series for, so although I would prefer something better, Paper Jam's weak story is not the end of the world.

As in the Mario & Luigi games, the titular characters in Paper Jam run around the game's world in a single-file line, and you need to press A, B, and Y in order and with the right timing to make them jump up stairs or over obstacles. X lets them all jump at the same time and cover a bit more ground, but not jump as high. As the game progresses, they unlock abilities that gain them access to territory that is initially locked off, like being able to tunnel underground or transform Paper Mario into an airplane and float across large gaps. This is a standard mechanic in the Mario & Luigi games, so I'm used to it, but the addition of a third button makes a big difference in the awkwardness of execution, especially when the more difficult jumping puzzles come into play. It doesn't make the game unplayable in any way — just adds some artificial difficulty.

Combat is affected by this issue as well, primarily when it comes to the crucial activity of defending against enemy attacks. In previous games, you've only had two characters to worry about, but this time around, you've got three, and that makes a big difference when the time comes for a split-second reaction. There are a number of enemies whose attacks I've never managed to get the hang of, and although I must admit that dodging is not my strongest suit, I do feel like having only two characters to watch has to be easier than three.

The good news is that Paper Mario is the least targeted and most powerful of the three playable characters. In battle, there's not just one Paper Mario — there are a whole stack of him, and when an attack hits him, the copies take the damage for him. Until they're all destroyed, Paper Mario's HP doesn't go down at all, and even if they're all gone, he can use his turn to return the stack to full instead of attacking. (Fortunately, I got him a piece of equipment that gave him one copy each turn, which kept me from having to spend turns making copies very often.)

He's good on offense as well — when Paper Mario does a jump attack, he gets to hit the enemy once for each copy he's currently got, and when he does a hammer attack, his copies split up to attack every enemy in the battle. In other words, every turn, Paper Mario can either deal a bunch of damage to one enemy or an OK amount of damage to every enemy. He's not so strong as to be overpowered, but he is strong enough to take some of the sting out of screwing up that dodge with regular Mario for the fifteenth time.

Unfortunately, it can't really take away all of the sting, because this game suffers from some very unpleasant difficulty spikes, particularly in its boss battles. You go from destroying your enemies without much trouble on one screen to getting killed in two hits on the next, and when you get to the boss fights, the problem only gets worse. Aside from the "mess up one dodge and die" mechanic, many boss fights keep with the game's theme of team ups by having you fight multiple bosses at once. In those battles, you must be careful to knock out both bosses in the same turn, because if you don't, the surviving boss will throw a revival mushroom to their companion and bring them back up to what you can only guess is full health, since the game doesn't tell you how many HP they have.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that Paper Jam spends its last few hours putting you through a gauntlet where you repeat several of those boss battles, one after one, without a break to refill your health in between them. It's small comfort (but at least some comfort) that when you fail and die (because you will), you only have to start over the boss fight you were on at the time, not the entire sequence. And the series does end before the final boss fight to allow you to heal up, buy items, and grind for levels if you feel that'll help.

The frustration of this sequence is why I had to give myself a break between finishing the game and writing this review. It takes any good will Paper Jam had earned for its other merits, puts that good will in a nice little pile, and sets fire to it. After losing the final boss fight a few times, I was so sick of it that I took the game up on its offer to retry in Easy Mode. I know that if I had fought the fight a few more times, I might have gotten the timing down or managed to whittle down that invisible HP bar enough to win between turns spent healing myself. But I just didn't have the patience to go through it again.

One last frustrating thing about gameplay, then I'll move on: there are just too many ingredients in Paper Jam's recipe. I have only covered about half of the mechanics in the game. I haven't talked about battle cards and star points. Or Bro and Trio attacks. Or the minigames where you chase down paper Toads. Or papercraft battles (I hated them, and you have to play all of them in reruns as part of the late game gauntlet). And I haven't talked about using Amiibos... although I probably should. This is one of the games on the New 3DS that can use Amiibos, and one of the few games that actually stores data on the Amiibos themselves. They can only store data from one game at a time, so if you want to use them in this game, you'll either have to buy some new Amiibos or allow Paper Jam to wipe out the (probably) Smash Bros data you've already stored on them.

Each Amiibo can store a few dozen "character cards" that you can use in battle (one card per Amiibo per battle) without using up a turn. These cards have a variety of effects from giving you a random item to filling your HP and BP to hitting all enemies for a certain number of points of damage. I bought a couple that I'd had my eye on for a while just because I like the figures, and I used them fairly often to heal up, but I decided that I really don't like it as a gameplay concept. It's a powerup you pay real money for by purchasing a new 3DS and Amiibos, and the game reminds you from time to time if you haven't paid for that powerup. Obviously, this isn't as blatant a cash grab as things like the Skylanders series or Lego Dimensions or Disney Infinity, but those games at least have the merit that you go into them knowing that's the kind of game you're purchasing — one where you'll have to buy more toys to get everything out of the game. (Full disclosure: I have a bin full of Skylanders in my basement, and Lego Dimensions was under my tree last Christmas.)

OK, that's enough grumping. As I said above, despite my complaints, this is a good game. These issues just stop it from being a great one. If you can hit the buttons at the right time, the characters do what you want them to do. The combat system is built on a solid foundation — it just has a lot of extra junk tacked on top. And as you level up, you get to pick a perk for each character every so many levels from some really attractive options like doubling your counterattack damage or recovery item potency, or adding more copies to Paper Mario's stack. Things like this really do help keep you going despite the frustrations.

The game also looks and sounds good, despite throwing together characters and environments with two different styles. For example, if you keep an eye out, you find places where Paper Mario can squeeze through a crack to pick up items. And the music is good stuff, although I only really had the attention to spare for it once I had beaten the game and unlocked a music player on the main menu. Sadly, there are some important flaws in these areas as well. I've never loved the series of beeps used for Paper Mario world characters' speech, and the pidgin Italian Mario & Luigi speak always feels more than a little mocking and bigoted. I'm not Mr. PC, I just think there's a point where you cross the line from "we tried to do something and fell short" to "here's a stereotype, laugh at it." And in battle, if you set the 3D off or even up to the halfway mark, it just isn't enough to help you see whether an enemy attack is headed for Mario in the back or Luigi in the front. Regardless of the game I'm playing, if I set the slider farther back than halfway, I can't get the images to line up, so I don't know if that problem would go away if I turned it on all the way.

I almost wish I didn't like these series so much, because then I might be better able to look at Paper Jam as a game that's good but has its flaws. Instead, I see it as a game that's flawed but has its good points. If you like the Mario & Luigi games, you'll probably like Paper Jam, although it likely won't be your favorite. If you like the Paper Mario games but not the Mario & Luigi games, you won't like Paper Jam. As for me, I had some fun with it, but I was ready to put it down well before the closing credits rolled.

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