Paper Jam is held back by the fact that, under its rock-solid elements, lies a crossover that never truly blends to produce awe-inspiring results
The Mario and Luigi series is built on the premise of pairing up the two brothers and launching them on a role-playing quest filled with humor that is self-referential, fourth-wall breaking, and outrageous. Superstar Saga, the franchise’s genesis, spent its running time establishing, with astounding success, the pillars that would serve as the basis for its future installments: action-packed battles that require reflexes and timely button presses, and meticulous exploration sprinkled with puzzle solving; both activities that, to achieve originality, naturally – and brilliantly – took advantage of the partnership between the titular duo.
Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team, the original’s three sequels, then, used those solid basics as a starting point and added increasingly wacky ingredients to the formula. Partners in Time had Mario and Luigi working along their young selves thanks to the appearance of various worm holes; Bowser’s Inside Story forced Bowser to collaborate with his two nemeses due to the fact he accidentally swallowed the pair after consuming a very unusual mushroom; and Dream Team transited between the real world and the insane landscapes and scenarios that popped inside Luigi’s mind whenever he fell asleep. Paper Jam follows that same formula of adding external elements to the firm association between Mario and Luigi, only, this time, a bridge is built between the two RPG realms within which Mario exists and Paper Mario ends up being invited into the fray.
The event that triggers the unlikely crossover happens when a clumsy Luigi, aided by one of the many Toads that inhabit Peach’s Castle, tries to fix a hole on one of the building’s rooms. The absolutely straightforward task gains disastrous outlines when Luigi, fleeing from a mouse, bumps onto a shelf and inadvertently knocks down the book in which the Paper Mario universe exists. The characters within, both good and bad, spill out onto the tridimensional Mushroom Kingdom and cause havoc: confused paper Toads run around desperately and clueless to what in the world has just happened; enemies that roam the wilderness meet their flat counterparts; and both Bowsers join forces to kidnap the two princesses that now exist.
Paper Jam has, as its launching pad, one spectacular and intriguing concept; after all, although both the Mario and Luigi saga and the Paper Mario quest share the same genre, they implement completely different concepts and mechanics that make each part stand out on its own. The crashing of these world onto one another, then, is a prime opportunity for developers to go all out and pull off all sorts of surprises. Unfortunately, while Partners in Time, Bowser’s Inside Story, and Dream Team do succeed in mining their premises and coming out with some true gems, Paper Jam never achieves the same level of brilliancy when it comes to the exploration of its core idea.
It is not that the game is bad. The title is, in the end, supported by the humor, the charming visuals, the frantic battles, the beautiful scenarios, and the blend between platforming, puzzle solving, and RPG-like exploration that has been boasted by the series since its inception in 2003. The problem is that the paper elements that it introduces do not affect the gameplay and the plot, which is a Bowser-kidnaps-Peach tale with no twists whatsoever, deeply enough to make it stand out. Instead of being a significant step into yet another new direction, Paper Jam lands as a work that is shy and borderline uninspired; a standard Mario and Luigi where Paper Mario is tagging along for the ride.
Divided into segments with commonplace settings such as beaches, plains, and forests, the overworld is tackled piece by piece – with some eventual backtracking – as the brothers try to make their way towards Bowser’s castle and often fall victim to his many traps and obstacles. Its greatest victories are how everyone single region fits together perfectly, forming one huge mass of land that feels connected; and its environmental puzzles that have players exploring the connected subareas that form a specific location in order to figure out how to proceed.
Often, the trio’s objective while advancing through an area will be gathering a bunch of scattered Paper Toads so that they can come together and help the heroes overcome some major block on the road. To do so, little mini-games are frequently triggered once certain spots are reached, those range from battling enemies and rescuing Toads within a certain time, finding the sneaky mushroom-men who are hiding in fear around a certain area, simply running after the desperate creatures, or performing fun and simple activities that would be right at home in a Mario Party game. While their quality is irregular and most of them seem to have been haphazardly sewn together onto the game, the majority of those mini-games are great, and they add a good deal of variety to the standard gameplay.
As far as the exploration goes, Paper Mario’s contributions – whose simple nature highlights the lack of ideas developers had for using the character – are squeezing into tight spaces, allowing Mario and Luigi to glide, and helping the brothers along with moves they already performed when on their own, such as hammering rocks or burying underground.
As it was the case in other Mario and Luigi games, the overworld is packed with enemies that – when touched – will cause players to be transported into turn-based battles. Both attacking and defending require timely button presses, a fact that keeps gamers on their toes at all times and makes those combats potentially engaging even to those who tend not to like these kinds of battles. In the former, precision will vastly increase the damage that is delivered; in the latter, good timing will allow the heroes to avoid hits altogether. Since foes tend to pack quite an offensive punch, learning their attack patterns is not a matter of winning battles with ease; it actually tends to be the difference between a Game Over screen and victory.
Paper Mario additions to the skirmishes, while not awe-inspiring, are more significant and fun than the elements he brings to the table out in the field; more importantly, they are rather valuable strategically. Some complex enemy attacks will drastically change the battle’s perspective and force players to use the combined forces of the trio to stay clear of the incoming hits. Besides, Paper Mario can freely spam a certain limited number of copies of himself: when he is hit, those copies will take damage and stop him from losing HP; when he attacks, the damage done and the number of foes hit will be proportional to the number of copies available.
Finally, just like Mario and Luigi can execute powerful “Brother Attacks” that are visually stunning and that, if all actions are performed correctly, deliver mighty blows to foes, Paper Mario can transport all fighters to the Paper realm and, with enemies turned into sheets of paper, smash them through numerous varied attacks that demand that the buttons Y (Paper Mario), B (Luigi), and A (Mario) be pressed at the right moment. Those complex and thrilling moves are a blast to execute and add a great degree of action to the combats, making the battle system a clear highlight of the game and even among all RPGs.
Sadly, the combat is slightly marred by the narrow variety in the enemies that are encountered. While boss battles are unanimously great, epic, challenging, and surprising; regular battles end up becoming dull after players spend a certain amount of time in each region. All of the game’s areas have a type of foe that is very predominant, and once the strategy to avoid its attacks is properly mastered, most struggles will be automatic wins even considering all enemies have paper versions with partially distinct moves.
The final influence the world of Paper Mario has over the Mario and Luigi universe is in the Papercraft Battles that punctually happen across the adventure. Directly inspired by the Giant Battles of both Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team, they are far more immerssive than those, as they replace the borderline on-rails feeling of those two with a free-roaming terrain where two enormous robot-like toys made out of paper utilize a series of moves to destroy one another. Every combat is built around a new twist given that, as the boss and player-controlled papercrafts change in shape, different moves are added to the formula.
When it is all said and done, Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam is a game that is able to be – at the same time – well-done and somewhat disappointing. Its basics are rock solid and hold up just fine throughout the quest, which should take somewhere between 25 and 40 hours for players to complete, with the latter time being reached by those looking to collect all hidden stats-enhancing beans, activate all blocks, and rescue all paper Toads. Its visuals are almost flawless, with their only issue being the lack of remarkable scenarios; the soundtrack is very good, even if the tunes that play out in the field do not match the flooring quality of the in-battle songs; and both the battles and the exploration are fun.
Its problem, however, is that its integration with the Paper Mario universe feels half-baked, as if its developers came up with an intriguing premise but failed to deliver the goods. What could have been a gameplay-altering experiment that brought new breath to the franchise, something that the concepts of its three predecessors were able to achieve, winds up resulting in just a few scattered elements that pop up here and there but that are neither well-integrated enough to make much of a difference nor carry enough weight to have the impact that was expected. To those new to the franchise, Paper Jam will certainly be impressive; to those that have been following the two brothers tackle this humorous version of the Mario universe since Superstar Saga, the game will likely feel like it does not do enough things differently in order to justify its concept.