There isn't much territory left for the Mario & Luigi series to explore. Nintendo's series of handheld RPGs have gone across time and (literally) inside two of its main characters and is now going into the fifth game of the series. But if they've all had one thing in common, it's that they've been wildly funny. The Mario & Luigi style of comedy hits as hard as ever in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, offering a hilarious adventure that retains the simple, accessible Mario & Luigi RPG style, even if it doesn't go too far out of its way to innovate.
As its title implies, Paper Jam introduces another aspect of the Mario world, as the bumbling Luigi gets careless with one of Princess Peach's pop-up books, inadvertently releasing the Paper Mario universe onto their world. It's an interesting idea, if only because it paints the idea of a Mario multiverse, with parallel dimensions that act independently of one another. But it's in playing around with the two worlds' differences and constants where the Paper Jam writing truly shines.
Anyone that has played a Paper Mario game knows that the series revels in its concept. Paper Mario can fit into tiny cracks and fold himself into paper objects. One of the first scenes of Paper Jam sees Mario and Luigi confronted by a Paper Goomba, who they simply approach and crinkle like a piece of trash. There's another scene where Paper Peach responds to the usual princess kidnapping (an idea that even the two princesses have come to recognize as a total cliche by now) by pointing out that she can literally escape anytime she wants by walking in-between the bars. There's no shortage of paper-style humor in play here.
Then there are the scenes where the two worlds' counterparts interact with one another that highlights just how clever the game's writing is. Paper Bowser and his minions are often at odds, since their egos clash over who's better and who deserves to rule. Peach and her paper counterpart converse during their captivity about wanting change in their lives. Bowser Jr.'s just happy to have a playmate. The interaction between the two worlds' characters is a joy to witness, but it's not the only bright spot in Paper Jam's writing. The writing team has remembered a good number of ancillary Mario characters and not only gave them screen time, but also gave them some time to shine. Toadette, in particular, is a revelation, as she breaks out of the shallow concept of "Girl Toad" and actually becomes an honest-to-goodness fleshed-out character with distinct traits of her own.
The paper concept also extends into the Mario & Luigi RPG gameplay, but the formula, as a whole, is largely unchanged. It still operates on the principle of turn-based combat, with timed hits adding extra damage and counter opportunities. The big addition here is Paper Mario, who plays by his own rules and is able to make multiple copies of himself during battle. His copies allow him to score multiple hits, as well as absorb damage from enemies. That'll often come in handy during big battles, since there are times when he'll be the last plumber standing and will need to revive the 3D heroes.
The addition of Paper Mario allows for the addition of Trio Attacks to go along with Bros. Attacks. These are inventive ways in which the heroes can exploit the paper idea to deal heavy damage. One such attack involves flattening an opponent and flying it like a kite before Paper Mario meteors down with his hammer to deal massive punishment. The trouble here is, like the Bros. Attacks, they're only as effective as a user's precision and if the user can't master some of the finicky timing, the attacks hit about as hard as a paperweight.
The more theatrical addition to the battles involve boss sequences that see the bosses chasing Mario and Luigi from the background, at which point they can save themselves by grasping on Paper Mario in paper airplane mode, who players control with the Circle Pad. These are the most inventive of the new elements and also the most stressful, as the bosses deal huge damage if they hit. For a game that mostly recycles what's already worked, this is an admittedly cool addition.
There's another new feature that involves using Battle Cards for quick perks in-battle, an idea that can be extended to Amiibo figures. While it offers up some nice bonuses, for the most part, I found the addition a bit flat, as it didn't really impact the course of battle or shake things up in any significant way.
While much of Paper Jam will be spent grinding to level up each character, there's also a vast chunk of the game dedicated to exploring the overworld that's rapidly filling up with cardboard landscapes. The new overworld abilities that utilize all three characters offer a nice way to explore this new territory, though getting all three characters to jump across gaps can be a bit of a pain.
But the newly-cardboard set decoration works as a backdrop for new Papercraft battles, which helps mix up some of the action. But unlike some of the series' earlier attempts to infuse such variety (the giant Bowser battles of Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story come to mind), the Papercraft battles don't feel intuitive or streamlined. All too often, you'll be recharging your Toads and smashing into opposing papercraft in hopes of the best. The camera, in particular, can be a nightmare to control.
Speaking of Toads, that's the other big takeaway from Paper Jam and that's that you'll spend a lot of time hunting down Paper Toads to help build these monstrous papercraft. And while the relationship between Toadette and her Paper Toad minions can be described as a bit Tron Bonne-ish, the Paper Toad mini-games quickly wear out their welcome, especially in the game's closing hours when it's looking like the end is in sight.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam can get a bit grindy at times and drag on at certain times, especially the first time where it looks like the game's end is at hand. But there's more than enough masterfully comedic writing to carry the day, between the sight gags, fourth-wall-breaking references, and Luigi's pratfalls. While that can be used to describe most Mario & Luigi RPGs, it's tough to maintain comedic consistency in video games, so Nintendo and AlphaDream definitely deserves some props for managing to wring out a few smiles.
This review is based on a Nintendo 3DS retail copy provided by the publisher. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam will be available January 22 at retailers and through the Nintendo eShop. The game is rated E.