Paper Mario: Color Splash is not another Thousand Year Door. I feel this needs to be said straight up, as if you go in hoping for another Paper Mario with a turn-based strategic party battle system, you won’t find it. Color Splash is only an RPG in the loosest definition and expecting that does the game a disservice. Color Splash is another thing though; a ridiculously well written, incredible looking, joyous sounding romp with a tedious but dynamic battle system.
Color Splash’s writing is absolutely its greatest asset. The Paper Mario series has always been laden with comedy and the latest instalment continues the tradition. I was taken aback by just how much I enjoyed so much of the character interaction in the game. It felt like nary a line of dialogue went by that didn’t make me grin from ear to ear or even laugh to myself out loud. There have been complaints about Nintendo’s localisation teams leaning too heavily on meme culture at the expense of writing being timeless and humour is of course objective, but to me they never crossed the line into trashiness. More than anything else, I kept playing in anticipation of the next giggle.
Color Splash’s overarching story though is paper-thin. Mario arrives at Port Prisma by boat after receiving a letter of distress. Upon arriving, he finds that some devious baddies have been literally sucking the colour from Prisma and the surrounding region for nefarious purposes. The Paint Stars which normally create a never-ending flow of paint to keep the world colourful have been removed from their place and thrown to the ends of the world and so of course Mario must journey to find them, restoring colour to the world along the way. The story is for want of a better term, video-gamey, but it serves as a vehicle for the rest of the game to progress from and mostly gets out of the way in favour of moment-to-moment gameplay. The smaller stories of characters you meet, which sometimes span over a few events are far more interesting than the obligatory ‘collect these things and there is a bad guy!’ of the main story.
For all its flimsy story, Color Splash takes the paper concept and absolutely nails the visual presentation. In past Paper Mario games, the characters were all made of paper but they moved around a more regular 3D world. Taking a leaf from Tearaway’s book, every single element of Color Splash’s world is made of some sort of papery material. Buildings and caves might be corrugated cardboard, map paths are laid out with shiny wrapping paper, levels can fold and unfurl during puzzles and story events. The materials are brightly coloured and textured with a genuinely tangible appearance. Being shown in 1080p helps the texture of each material stand out and it adds up to a game that’s a delight to watch unfold. The music is worthy of note as well. Continuing the fantastic instrumental style of Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World, the music of Color Splash is full of horns, strings and infectious rhythms. It’s the stuff you’ll be humming for weeks.
So that’s a lot of words to screen so far without talking about what it’s actually like to y’know, play the game. This is where the game both shines and begins to show crumple. Most of the time you’ll be spending exploring courses, restoring colour to dull areas, speaking with characters and working your way around the area by solving puzzles. While the colour restoration isn’t terribly exciting, I never found it to be detrimental to the experience. It’s just kinda there. Exploring levels is generally pretty fun too whether you’re just admiring the visuals or considering solutions to ‘how the heck do I get over there?’ puzzles. During your travels you will find ‘Things’, which are 3-dimensional objects in the world which can be wrung out and distilled into card form for later use.
Their uses in puzzles are fairly obvious, but it’s pretty fun to say, watch characters and buildings be blown away by a planet-sized fan, as an example. One of the new features in Color Splash is the Cutout technique where in special locations you can press a button and be transported out of the paper dimension to cut the level with interdimensional scissors and use the path of the cut out to reach new areas. It sounds far more exciting than it really is though. In practise, the use of the ability is entirely arbitrary. The game suggests you look for straight lines in the environment as clues as to when the ability can be used, but I found myself just using it as part of a trial and error puzzle-solving method. Basically if I saw a thing I couldn’t get to, I’d walk around pressing the Cutout button hoping that the game would respond to it. It never gave a feeling of accomplishment, more just relief. Traversal is generally enjoyable but Cutout never felt enjoyable to use.
The turn based battles you’ll encounter throughout the game are possibly the biggest point of contention from fan reactions, and I’m in two minds about them too. Rather than a menu based, party based system of most RPGs, Color Splash makes use of a collectable card system for its fights, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Sticker Star. There are many steps to the process of executing a simple attack. First you are shown the GamePad screen full of cards to swipe through, then you find a card appropriate for the situation and slide it to a staging area. You tap and hold the card to infuse it with paint to power it up, ready to use.
Finally you can swipe your card/s upward to send them to the main game screen to start your turn. All these steps when using the touch screen especially feel arbitrary, as though Nintendo are still trying to justify the existence of the GamePad’s touch screen, and switching control modes from buttons to touch input so regularly gets frustrating very quickly. Thankfully, there are alternate control options to be found in settings. I found that the Touch + Buttons setup worked best for me, which allowed me to do the same series of actions with button and directional inputs. While it didn’t reduce the amount of steps necessary, removing the need to switch input methods solved a bunch of my issues. There is a third mode which allowed for selecting and painting cards in one step, which might suit some better.
Putting aside the annoyance of multi-step turns for a moment, it does allow for some interesting situations that force you to consider your movements more carefully than a typical RPG. You can never rely on mashing a button to initiate a basic attack and grind your way absentmindedly through peons. Some enemies will need jump based attacks, for others this won’t work as they are armoured or spiked. Some cards attack multiple targets for a quick battle resolution, but you need to consider whether it will be effective based on the order and type of baddies in front of you. More powerful cards require more paint to power-up, and they each require specific colours as well. Using a card early but depleting your reserves of one colour can force you to change your strategy as the battle goes on. Occasionally you’ll enter a battle where Kamek curses your hand of cards, flipping them over so you can’t see their types or transforming your deck into a single type of card. ‘Thing’ cards also find use in battles. They’re rare to find, but Things act somewhat like Summon attacks from Final Fantasy, invoking a large-scale attack animation and inflicting huge damage or affecting the battle conditions.
For the most part, I quite enjoyed the battle system in Color Splash. The sheer number of steps to go through for a single turn did eventually start to grate on me, especially in areas with difficult to avoid enemy encounters, but the limited number of available abilities combined with the decisions around painting cards meant that every battle had to be considered. I never fell into a rut of grinding and mashing basic attacks. How annoying this becomes in the long term will differ from person to person but I appreciate that Color Splash tried something more than a traditional battle system.
I went into Paper Mario: Color Splash with an open mind. Knowing the criticisms already laid at its feet after previews, it would be easy to write the game off as a pretty RPG with a tedious battle system, but I found that only to be part of the story. Persisting with the battle system uncovered some unexpected dynamics, ensuring you are always somehow engaged with the fight at hand, even if it can become draining after a while. Looking at Color Splash as more of a puzzle-adventure game than an RPG helped me appreciate the game more for what it is rather than what it isn’t. Exploring environments is fun, aside from the arbitrary cutout system, the puzzles were pleasant to solve without being annoyingly brain-bending, and it’s hard not to smile when you’re tapping along to the wonderfully boppy music, taking in the colourful world and characters. It will be entirely up to you whether the writing and redeeming elements of the battle system suit your preferences, but I am absolutely glad I was able to give Paper Mario: Color Splash a chance.