|Release Date Jan 22, 2016
There's plenty of charm in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam — it just keeps getting caught in the rollers.
Those who like a dash of RPG with their Mario games are undoubtedly familiar with both Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. These series' layer Nintendo's most familiar characters with slightly more guided storytelling and all the stats, gear, and turn-based combat that any min-maxer's heart could desire. Aside from the clear aesthetic differences, Mario & Luigi has generally provided much larger spaces to explore while Paper Mario has kept things much more condensed. Both offer good, clean fun for the most-part, and have an entertaining array of mechanics to keep things fresh.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam fuses the two series, dragging Paper Mario and his superflat friends and foes into the three-dimensional world of Mario and Luigi while combining some of the more recognizable elements from each. In many ways, Paper Jam is exactly what you might expect based on that description; it's an RPG with a good sense of humor, a colorful atmosphere, laced with some things that will feel familiar and some that are brand new. But what makes for a novel premise and an enjoyable early-game isn't necessarily enough to carry Paper Jam past the 20-hour mark.
For the majority of Paper Jam players will be rolling with a party of three characters: Luigi, Mario, and Paper Mario. Luigi and his 3D brother can share gear and join forces for powerful Bros Attacks that depend on reflexes and good timing to execute well. Paper Mario is a slightly different beast. He has the lowest health and defense of the three by default, but since he's made of paper he has the ability to copy himself, stacking multiple clones that help him absorb damage and make his attacks more powerful.
Paper Mario can also instigate Trio Attacks, where all three characters contribute to a move which, much like Bros Attacks, can require a fair amount of good timing to pull off well. Then there are the battle cards, which can be deployed to grant various bonuses and effects without spending a turn. Certain amiibo can also generate new battle cards so long as you have a blank card in your inventory, but you can get along perfectly well without them.
Paper Jam's various attacks, dodges and counters all involve some aspect of timing your button press just so in order to get the most out of them. This can be straightforward and getting it right is satisfying, but with so many different enemies and so many different attacks, the timing aspect can be difficult to master. Learning the necessary patterns comes from repetition, but I found myself dealing with each enemy type for such a short window that it was often better to hold down the emergency block button than to fumble my way through dodging or countering.
Assist mode can help with this to some extent by showing exactly who an enemy intends to attack, but the timing is still left up to the player. This was what had me snapping my 3DS closed in irritation more than any other element of the game.
Paper Jam's compromise here is Easy Mode. When Easy Mode is active, it makes characters much more durable and telegraphs the timing needed to succeed with special attacks. You can adjust the difficulty in the Options menu as you would expect, but there's also an option to switch modes with a single button press while you're looking at your Bros and Trio Attacks, making it straightforward to ease up on the challenge as needed.
Since bonus challenges (which yield special tokens for certain achievements in battle) can't be completed in Easy mode, it's simple enough to play normally and swap into the easier difficulty only when you need a little help completing some of the trickier attacks. But Easy Mode still won't help with countering or dodging. Likewise, while you can review and practice your attack techniques at any time — even in battle — there are no opportunities to practice dealing with enemies or specific attacks that might be giving you trouble.
But at the same time, Paper Jam never lost its ability to entertain. Frustrating as it can be, the game still has a ton of character. At this point Nintendo understands how to play up the idea of physical materials (whether they're crayons, clay, yarn or cardboard) within a game world well. It comes up in puzzle and challenge mechanics, it comes up in story vignettes, and it comes up in combat.
Paper characters get crumpled and creased in much the same sense as 3D characters get tripped or burned, and the attacks of paper enemies vary tremendously from their non-paper counterparts... Not to mention the ways that the pair can interact. A 3D Ninji can fold a Paper Ninji into a shuriken and throw him, for example, which isn't possible when there are only 3D Ninjis staring Mario and co. down. Then there are the papercraft battles, where the player pilots a towering cardboard version of various classic characters from the Marioverse in an effort to take down a similar cutout monstrosity piloted by the enemy. Every one of these battles is a little bit different, and they last just long enough to satisfy before dropping you out into the world again.
Paper Jam's not afraid to toy with expectations or break out of its own framework to throw players for a loop. Things get a little meta when a toad is hiding behind a NPC's dialogue box for instance, or when an enemy steals elements of your UI. Although it's very easy for games to lean too heavily on their wink-winking and nudge-nudging, Paper Jam hits a sweet spot.
But Paper Jam's biggest asset occasionally cuts the other way when its clever gimmicks and unique moments make the sections that drag stand out more. Some boss fights last just a little too long. Some one-off challenges go one layer too deep. While I was backtracking through previous areas for the third time it was hard to ignore just how many aspects of this game had simply worn out their welcome. Much of that boils down to tedium; what's clever the first time a player encounters it only becomes more and more rote as it repeats.
Paper Jam's cute and punchy moments are offset by its frustrating repetition
With a good pair of scissors Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam could be cut into a cute and punchy little RPG adventure. As it is, the game's repetition and occasionally frustrating systems undermine what would otherwise be an absolutely delightful meeting of worlds. Those desperate for a dose of Mario could do far worse, but it's hard to look inside this machine without seeing what's gotten tangled up inside.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam was reviewed using a pre-release retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews