It wouldn’t be quite right if the Nintendo Wii U’s swiftly wilting release schedule didn’t feature at least one more callout from that most famous of plumbers. With the indomitable Intelligent Systems at the helm, Color Splash is the latest instalment in the Paper Mario series, taking the baton from the 3DS’ adhesive-based Sticker Star. Many of the series’ fans will be wondering if things have changed for the better after the controversial handheld outing, but this is a reiteration rather than a revolution.
Color Splash begins with the macabre discovery of a folded-up, colour drained Toad in your mail. With a touch of detective work, the postmark leads you to Prism Island wherein you find the main port deserted and it’s main tourist attraction the Colour Fountain deeply lacking in paint, with various parts of the town also having been sucked dry of colour. It’s here that you meet Huey, a talking paint can who serves as the guardian of the fountain, and he sets out with you on a quest to regain the paint and re-colour the land.
The primary action you’ll be undertaking as you wander through the different lands is re-colouring the colourless items or scenery, with your reward ranging from a handful of coins to a raft of cards to use in combat. The issue is that the game is far too finicky about how much of the item needs to be covered in paint, and as a 2D character on a 3D plane, positioning yourself in order to strike the area properly can be frustrating. It should be a joyful and easy mechanic, but it’s largely a royal pain in the backside.
Combat will be relatively familiar to fans of the last Paper Mario title, though this time instead of stickers it’s cards and paint, with your attack moves provided by whatever cards you are currently holding in your deck. The turn-based action sees you trying to dispatch enemies, with standard cards that range from jumps and hammer blows through to captured enemy types that you can then turn on their associates, while some of the special attack cards unleash spectacular, and often amusing, attacks from 3D objects.
As in a number of the previous Mario RPG titles, combat requires some keen timing to make the most of it, granting additional damage or allowing you to block with a well timed press of the A button. The flaw here is that the card selection process is slowed down by the ability to ‘paint’ uncoloured cards to differing degrees, boosting the strength of the attack. It takes some of the immediacy away from the flow that a turn based system generally boasts – it can be sped up, but only at the expense of the checks that make sure you don’t do it wrong.
In addition, the painting mechanic offers no real sense of how powerful your attack is going to be, and when combined with the bonus damage you can inflict, the whole combat system feels inaccurate and too prone to guesswork.
As with various other RPG’s you’ll find yourself trying to avoid the encounters with enemies. They slow you down considerably, and when you’re backtracking through a level – as you often will be – they are a persistent hindrance. They do serve a purpose though, with successful battles earning you coins, cards, paint and upgrades to your paint hammer, which allows you to store more paint at any one time.
You do have access to a few other techniques that aid you in your quest, including Cutout which allows you to take a pair of virtual scissors to the Wii U’s touchscreen and cut a section out of the background so you can traverse it on a 2D plane.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is a fantastic looking game, and once again it shows that Nintendo and Intelligent System’s art direction is second-to-none. From the paper characters undulating in a storm, to deformable level furniture and paper clouds held up by string, the aesthetic is carried through beautifully. There’s been genuine care and attention lavished upon every single character and item. It’s not as avant-garde as fellow papercraft title Tearaway often was, but it’s no less arresting, and certainly feels more solid.
One of the game’s key assets is its humour, offering a light, enjoyable tone that won’t have you rolling in the aisles but will prompt the odd snicker here and there. It’s also very self aware, in a way that I’ve never recalled from a Mario game, and long-time fans will be rewarded with plenty of extra in-jokes. All in all, it keeps proceedings fresh throughout, which helps to offset against some of the less successful design decisions.
There will be times where you are royally stuck, but a swift tap of up on the D-pad will bring your trusty paint-can sidekick out to give you a hint. Sometimes these are a bit too vague to be too much help, but he’ll generally point you in the right direction.
Once you get into the flow of the game, you begin to understand how everything is gated, and just how important it is to re-colour all of the blank spots in each level. You also have to make sure you’re well prepared for what battles lie ahead, so return visits to buy more Battle Cards from Port Prisma are often essential – at least if you want to be sure about what you’re carrying in your deck. In a pinch you can use coins to buy cards mid-battle, but it’s far from ideal.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is a wonderfully realised game with plenty of humour to keep you smiling throughout. However, it’s hampered by some annoying design decisions and carries the legacy of Sticker Star – both good and bad – which many series’ fans may find problematic.