Paper Mario takes a step in the right direction with the great-looking Color Splash, which continues the series’ trend of moving away from its RPG roots in favor of new gimmicks -- this time paint instead of stickers -- that add a unique twist to its turn-based combat. The gameplay has some much needed sprucing up after the ambitious but poorly executed Sticker Star on the 3DS, but the paper-thin story lacks the depth and resonance of some of Paper Mario’s earlier games, causing it to feel as two dimensional as its main character.
Paper Mario: Color Splash's focus is all in its title; this take on the RPG-turned-action-adventure franchise sees Mario equipped with an endearing talking paint can sidekick, Huey, to bring color back to the paint-drained land of Prism Island and regain the six stolen (by Bowser, of course) Big Paint Stars. The inventive paint mechanics seep through the entire game: battles require item cards -- called Battle Cards -- to be powered up by colors, and completionists will feel compelled to fill in every colorless spot throughout the levels.
There's still the same quippy humor the series is known for, with some pointed meta-references to the Mario franchise and some literal potty humor that involves a roll of toilet paper, and Huey is a companion I found myself emotionally attached to by the end of the story to a degree that surprised me.
Not Just Sticker Star 2
As someone who was disappointed with Sticker Star because of its subpar story and the way its lack of quantifiable experience failed to incentivize battles, Color Splash makes some much-needed tweaks that cause the many, many battles with grunt enemies feel like a worthy time investment. There's no traditional XP-based level system in Color Splash, but it does smartly implement an experience system where the more you battle, the more you can increase your paint storage. As you progress, you also earn upgrades that increase your health and how many cards you can hold.
Color Splash made some much-needed tweaks
Because the turn-based fights are conducted with some cards that need to be powered up with paint -- and the more powerful the card, the more paint you need -- Color Splash becomes much easier once you can carry more paint. Because I battled the majority of enemies I encountered, I had quadrupled my paint storage within two hours of starting Color Splash and rarely found myself in a situation where a lack of paint prevented my progression.
Color Splash isn't out to make paint, Battle Cards, coins, or health scarce. Despite the reliance on paint and Battle Cards for most of the gameplay, Color Splash finds an intuitive way to make those resources readily available. Pretty much everything in the courses, from trees to boxes to flowers, provides paint when whacked with Mario's hammer. Colorless spots around the levels beg to be filled in, and when you oblige them they produce coins and, more often than not, Battle Cards. The lower your health, the more likely hearts are to spawn as well. These are smart systems to balance the battles and paint demands, though Color Splash could have benefited from more than one card shop (at the main hub of Port Prisma) and more readily available save blocks throughout the levels.
The Battle Card system isn't immediately intuitive. Color Splash primarily uses the Wii U gamepad for battles, though it also serves as a menu screen. Once a battle starts, the action shifts from the TV down to the gamepad, where you pick your attack from a deck of Battle Cards. It's a fairly convoluted process to actually queue up an attack: first you select the card you want, then you move it up from the deck to your hand, then fill it up with paint if it's not already, and then you flip it up to the TV to use in battle. Fortunately there's an “advanced controls” setting that streamlines the process and, ironically, makes the process simpler, but even so it's a system that takes a decent amount of time to get used to.
Then there are Thing Cards, which are the natural progression from Thing Stickers and once again, they bring real-life 3D objects into the world of Paper Mario to allow you to overcome obstacles and defeat bosses. Things – like a plunger, a fire extinguisher, and lemons – are scattered throughout the courses and need to be "squeezed" to be transformed into cards. Do they necessarily make sense within the world of the game? Not really. Are their bizarre cutscenes when they’re played fun to watch regardless? Absolutely.
The biggest flaw with the Thing Card system is the way they're integrated into boss battles as a win button. Using a boss’s corresponding Thing Card at the proper time is the only way to beat the majority of them, so without the correct card you have no chance and with it you're overpowered. There's no strategy involved; you either have the correct Things or you don’t.
There are other new mechanics, including a cut-out tool, which allows you to literally cut out portions of the screen to access seemingly impossible to reach areas, and "Unfurl," which involves hitting a specially marked block and then a corresponding object to progress farther through the level. Each of these leans into the paper side of Paper Mario in new ways and varies the level design, though they ultimately don't add much beyond an imaginative new way to get from point A to point B.
A Paper-Thin Story
Color Splash is by far the most beautiful game in the Paper Mario series, offering gorgeous textures that play into the three-dimensionality of the diorama-like paper world. There's rich detal in the crinkles at the edges of cardboard walls, and clever flourishes in the art direction, like having hedges made of puzzle pieces.
But Color Splash offers up a simple, overly familiar story – one reminiscent of early Mario games – about little more than saving the princess, capturing the castle, and defeating the turtle-shelled bad guy. That speaks to the progression of the Paper Mario series away from the more story-driven RPG installments, toward the action-adventure-oriented Sticker Star. If fun gameplay is what you're looking for, Color Splash has it in droves; if you're looking for a memorable story in your Mario adventure, then you're likely to be let down.
Color Splash offers up an overly familiar and simple story
The early levels follow a straightforward progression: you navigate through the course until you reach a boss at the end and recapture the Mini Paint Star. The majority of the levels require repeat playthroughs to find multiple Mini Paint Stars, some of which open up new areas and others which connect pre-existing ones -- ultimately, Color Splash wants you to find them all, which gets frustrating when you realize how often you need to retread old paths.
Things really pick up after you rescue the first two Big Paint Stars, though. Developer Intelligent Systems made the smart choice of switching up the level design in the second act to focus more on problem solving rather than simple battling and linear progression. These courses have more playful objectives, from finding ghost Toads in a haunted hotel and resolving their unfinished stories, to navigating a pirate ship through untrustworthy waters. One level even throws Mario into a retro course that's a blend of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Paper Mario, which was a definite highlight.
This section shows the most ambition and offers a great amount of gameplay diversity. It was a joy to return to for repeat playthroughs -- something I found myself doing more often than not to find Thing Cards I missed and capture the multiple Mini Paint Stars in each level. They reinvigorated the campaign for me, which stretches into the 35+ hour range depending on how much of a completionist you are. When the third act reverts back to a more straightforward and streamlined level design, with the final battle being very linear, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is a step in the right direction for the series after the 3DS’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, continuing its shift from RPG to action-adventure game while also introducing some smart changes to its battle system. The beautiful Wii U graphics and playful humor stay true to the spirit of the Paper Mario franchise, but the story is straightforward and a bit bland. Inventive level design in the second act offers some much needed diversity to some of Color Splash's otherwise linear gameplay before the disappointing third act regresses into simple and uninteresting battles. Though Color Splash still isn't back to the high points of the first three games in the Paper Mario series, it's a strong step in the right direction.