Mario RPGs tend to have similar battle mechanics. Even back on the SNES when Super Mario RPG debuted, the battle system incorporated reaction button inputs to either deal more damage with your attacks, or to reduce/negate an opponent’s. So it makes almost perfect sense for the two ongoing Mario RPG franchises to join forces in a grand mash-up.
Our tale begins when Luigi finds an old book within Princess Peach’s castle that accidentally opens to unleash the inhabitants of the paper Mushroom Kingdom. Unfortunately for everyone, this included the paper version of Bowser, who quickly allies with his other self to begin a joint invasion of the Mushroom Kingdom.
It’s a charming little story that while light-hearted in nature has some call-backs to previous titles in the two series’ history. Interaction between Paper and “real” versions of the cast is occasionally fascinating, especially on the villains side. That said, the narrative goes through the motions; it has a few great gags, but ultimately isn’t a challenging plot.
Taking place in the Mario & Luigi universe, the game has some wide open spaces that are full of charm and variety. This latest adventure takes the plumbers across deserts, tropical islands, haunted woodlands, and frozen mountains, and you interact with both normal and Paper denizens throughout. Music and sound are appropriate for the franchise, but the main battle music is the worst kind of earworm. It’s catchy, if a little hard on the ears.
Everything in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. is done in threes. Exploration, for example, acts pretty much as previous games in the Mario & Luigi franchise, only this time Paper Mario is along for the ride. You still need to navigate each area, using the abilities of each brother to bypass certain areas, but now they involve Paper Mario turning into something like a drill bit, or a paper airplane.
The big lifesaver is the dash, which allows you to jump with all three brothers at the same time while also speeding up movement. What could have been a disaster of sluggish controls is negated by this one new option. Aside from jumping on or whacking enemies with the hammer, you can now dash into them to initiate combat, adding to the options for ambushing foes.
Combat is turn based, still using the same core mechanics as Mario RPGs have had since their inception, but the reason they still work is that they’re engaging to play. Memorising enemy attack patterns and perfecting your own moves means you’re not just picking options from a list. Now with Paper Mario included in the mix, the number of characters to keep an eye on increases to three.
While the Bros. Attacks only require Mario and Luigi to be active, Trio Attacks require all three plumbers to be active to initiate. Generally these are harder to perform reliably with a bigger chance to fail them entirely, but have the potential to deal massive damage. Paper Mario can also help when it comes to boss battles when enemies perform rather theatrical attacks, such as chasing Mario and Luigi with a bomb that they must destabilise by using Paper Mario as a boomerang.
Later on you get access to Cards, which require Star Power that is accumulated through successful attacks or dodges to build up. You can build a deck of ten of these Cards, ranging from healing a lot of HP to damaging foes several times at once. They add another tool to the battles, making them more manageable when dodging attacks is tricky.
However, I’m not sure how I feel about the use of Amiibo in the game. Amiibo Attacks are gained by scanning an Amiibo in against Level 1 or Level 2 cards. Once you scan a compatible NFC into the 3DS, you gain random a new attack to add to that Amiibo’s roster. Each card list depends on which Amiibo you scan, with the effects being unique to that character, and this is where things get a little murky, as you are able to use one Attack per battle per Amiibo scanned. For example, I have a Bowser and Yoshi Amiibo, and must scan them each once per battle if I want to use their abilities.
You can also gain Duo Attacks, using more than one Amiibo to generate the attack, or shiny forms of the attacks by scanning the same type of Amiibo into the game and generating that card. It’s quite obviously trying to encourage you to build up an Amiibo collection, but is also completely optional and not necessary to completing the game.
Occasionally when the story calls for it, the game enters Papercraft battles. Piloting a gigantic papercraft character, these feel like driving a tank more than anything else, stomping through the area and using the attacks unique to the particular model you are playing as. You have to be wary of the power meter, which can be recharged via a rhythm mini-game in the arena. It’s surprisingly fun, and it’s a nice break from the turn-based combat that takes the bulk of the game.
As your main objective is to bring back Paper Toads, the majority of the side quests found in the Lakitu Huts feel like mini-games that ask you to rescue them. They could be hidden, they can run away from you, or they can even be captured by enemies you must fight. This is easily the weakest mechanic of the game as it more often than not feels like padding, with little variety in what you do.
I was having a lot of fun with Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. up until the final act. The game suddenly throws boss battle after boss battle at you like it knows that its days are numbered. It’s a desperate tactic that made the game, for the first time, feel somewhat stale. Things picked up with the final battle, but this sequence felt like the worst kind of padding.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. sadly falls flat on its face at the final hurdle, but is a light-hearted and hugely enjoyable romp up until that point. There are great nods to both Mario & Luigi RPG and Paper Mario franchises, and the three protagonists make a great team in this 3DS RPG. Questionable decisions around the use of Amiibo and the mini-game side-quests can’t be ignored, but the charm of Paper Jam Bros. can’t be understated.