You’ll be amazed to know that Paper Mario does not start with Princess Peach being captured. Instead – in what is a frankly sinister and chilling opening for a Mario game – you’re mailed a folded up, colourless Toad, with the postmark on the forlorn paper character leading you to Prism Island, and the beginning of your adventure.
Arriving in Port Prisma, you’re greeted by a worryingly empty town, with its key tourist attraction the Prisma Fountain turning out to be dried up and empty. It’s here that you meet Huey, a magical floating paint can, right before the tone takes another horrific turn and the Toad who has accompanied you is attacked by a Shy Guy, sucking all the colour from Toad with a straw. Mario’s intervention coming a little too late, with the staccato jabs of the soundtrack’s strings making for a harrowing scene.
Here’s where you jump into your first taste of the turn-based combat, and fans of the 3DS’ Paper Mario: Sticker Star will be right at home, with a few small differences now that you are powered by paint rather than stickers. You start out with a number of battle cards which appear on the gamepad’s touchscreen, each of which contain a type and number of attacks. Primarily these are jumps and hammer blows, but new card types will appear throughout your adventure expanding your arsenal.
Some of these cards have yet to be coloured in, and having been imbued with the power of paint by Huey, you can re-colour them to power them up to their full potential. Interestingly you can power them up to a lesser extent, though at this early stage it all feels a little undefined. I mostly just used uncoloured attacks or full strength ones, though I’m sure as time goes on you’ll get used to the nuances of the different power levels. Once you’re done painting the cards you flick them from the touchscreen to the main display and make good your attack with a simple tap of the A button.
As in previous Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi and Mario RPG games, timing is key to being effective in combat, and you can earn extra attacks by tapping A just as you hit your opponent. Likewise you can block a lot of damage by tapping A again just as they’re about to retaliate. It certainly helps you to remain engaged in what could otherwise be a somewhat mundane combat system.
Luckily for your Toad compatriot, Huey has bestowed the power of paint upon you and your hammer, letting you smack characters or scenery to fill them with colour once more. With one smash, Toad is brought back to life. Re-colouring various parts of the world is key, not only for collecting coins, but also because the newly revitalised section will often release a battle card at the same time. Each area has a paint-completion percentage, with 100% granting you another Paint Star, though the actual action of painting in a blank spot can be a little fiddly at first.
Your primary task becomes collecting Paint Stars, which in turn fuel the Prisma Fountain, and as you journey about the world you’ll solve some light puzzles and put your newfound abilities to work. One of the key abilities you need is Cutout, which allows you to remove a section of the scenery and then travel across it. Using the touchscreen to draw along a perforated line, you then traverse it on the gamepad, allowing you access to previously unreachable areas.
The charming paper aesthetic has a wonderful solidity and reality to it, from the paper characters gently fluttering in a breeze to the way parts of the scenery move and behave. The only mild disappointment is that it feels like it lacks the magic of other similarly themed games, particularly Sony’s Tearaway, with Nintendo’s emphasis on solidity and quality perhaps diminishing a little bit of the magic.
Either way, Paper Mario: Color Splash boasts an enjoyable lightness in tone that won’t have you rolling in the aisles but will regularly raise a wry smile. It’s often quite knowing and aware, with both modern-world and game-related references sometimes surprising you with a snark that you wouldn’t expect from the big N’s iconic mascot.
With plenty of quips firing off in all directions, it seems as though Color Splash will be guaranteed to amuse when it finally releases over here next month, though it doesn’t look to have stepped away too far from Sticker Star’s gameplay which may mean it has its work cut out to appeal to long-term series fans. As ever, Intelligent Systems have put in some fantastic work and Nintendo can rest easy that if this does turn out to be Mario’s last Wii U adventure he’s going out in style.