Mario & Luigi Paper Jam; A Good Game Let Down by a Terrible Difficulty Curve

So, it’s been officially a week since Mario & Luigi Paper Jam was released in the UK and Europe. It’s an interesting little Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario crossover with some new ideas, some interesting additional mechanics and other various extras.

But how is the game, you might be wondering? Is it anywhere near as bad as Sticker Star? Does it overuse tutorials as much as Dream Team? Are there any awkward bugs that the reviewers don’t talk about because most of them are complete idiots?

Well… no, in all three cases. Instead, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam is for the most part, a very good game. It’s got the classic Mario & Luigi series gameplay working down to a tee, with an even more advanced and impressive seeming battle system. It looks and sounds fantastic, with music at the same quality as that in the rest of the series and for the most part, it’s a fun experience.

But with that said, what is the game like on a more detailed level? Well, let’s find out, in the official Gaming Reinvented review for Mario & Luigi Paper Jam!

Graphics

Let’s start with the graphics first. Because for whatever else you may say about the game, there is absolutely no denying that this game looks fantastic, with extremely well animated character sprites and atmospheric, beautiful looking environments. Just look at it for yourself if you’re not convinced:

3DS_Mario_LuigiPaperJam_scrn10_E3 3DS_Mario_LuigiPaperJam_scrn03_E3 M&L_Paper_Jam_King_Boo Mario_&_Luigi_Paper_Jam_File_07 Mario_&_Luigi_Paper_Jam_Paper_Mario,_Mario_&_Luigi_X_Koopalings Mario_&_Luigi_Paper_Jam_King_Bob-omb_Boss_Battle

So on an aesthetic level, there really isn’t a whole lot to complain about. Mario & Luigi Paper Jam keeps up the graphics style from Dream Team and just looks amazing in the process.

Music

Onto the soundtrack next, and as is expected from a Mario & Luigi game, it is an incredible selection of songs that doesn’t ever really disappoint. For example, the boss themes are really well done in this title, and suit the battles they play in down to a tee:

But it’s not only boss songs that are fantastic here. The area songs are equally amazing, with Bowser’s Castle(s), Mt Brr and Sunbeam Plains being notable favourites:

That said, while the music is great overall, there are definitely a few tracks that aren’t up to par with the rest of the soundtrack. For example, the Toad Hunt theme, as catchy as it is the first time, gets extremely grating in very short order. Hear this?

Well, you’ll be hearing it for hours, especially if you get stuck finding that last pesky Toad or two. Perhaps it would have been better if they’d (mostly) stuck with the original area music for the Toad hunting missions instead, since they’re a lot less repetitive and offer a decent amount of variety.

There’s also the matter of the papercraft battle songs. Okay, they were never going to live up to the giant battle themes in terms of their epicness, since the very concept is less ‘epic’ by nature. But they just seem far, far too upbeat and cheery for such dramatic points in the game:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4mi5GwKFYA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YI8D6KJoZcA

But they’re not bad songs, just not that appropriate for the points of the game where they play. So in general, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam has a great soundtrack, with all the catchy songs you’d expect from a Mario RPG.

Gameplay

That said, neither the graphics nor soundtrack can save a poorly designed game. After all, look at Sticker Star; it sure looked incredible, and the soundtrack certainly had its fans too. But Mario & Luigi Paper Jam (mostly) shines here as well.

So what’s new and interesting? Well for the most part, Paper Mario is obviously the main addition. Joining the party in a way not too different from Bowser or the Baby Mario Bros, he adds new abilities on the overworld that are used to explore the different locations. Like a spinning drill move to go underground and up walls, a paper plane form to cross large gaps or a giant hand that can grab objects and press switches from the other side of the room. What makes this more impressive though is that these abilities are not wasted; you end up reusing them all throughout the adventure rather than just in the first area or two you learn them in. That’s a nice (and positive) change from the often lacklustre way the overworld abilities were implemented in Bowser’s Inside Story and Dream Team.

In battle on the other hand, Paper Mario acts as a sort of cross between Bowser from Bowser’s Inside Story and Dreamy Luigi from Dream Team. Like the former, he has his own abilities and attacks, like the ‘cloning’ one and the Trio Attacks he can pull off with help from the other Mario Bros. Like the latter, he attacks multiple enemies at once, with only one Trio Attack actually targeting a single opponent. Heck, even his basic hammer attack has his clones split off and attack the enemies at the same time!

But let’s move onto the Trio Attacks now. Requiring all three Mario bros to be active at once, these attacks tend to involve some sort of paper related gimmick that wipes out the entire battlefield in a single impressive attack. For example, Trio Racquet has them batting a ball back and forth onto the background, on which their enemies are stuck on as scraps of paper. Every enemy you hit damages that enemy, and doing it perfectly blasts away the whole wall and hurts every enemy at once.

These are extremely useful in battle, and for the most part, tend to get better and better as you progress. Trio Shuriken and Trio Meteor are especially impressive examples, which can easily be enough to wipe out a boss in a couple of hits.

That said, there are a few issues here. Namely, as fun as these attacks are… they just take too long to pull off. Trio Racquet and Shuriken are fairly quick (though perhaps still overkill for normal enemy battles), but the likes of Trio Whirligig and Trio Meteor take so damn long to use that you’d probably spend less time watching through the animations for Final Fantasy VII’s Supernova.

The Bros Attacks themselves are a mixed bag. Some are recycled from Dream Team, like Dropchopper, Red Shell and Bomb Derby. Some are new and work really, like Balloon Blast, Drill Shell or Rocket Blast. Some… not so much, like Toad Trail.

And then there’s Mega Thwonk, perhaps the best thing the game has to offer attack wise:

Another change comes in the running away sequences in battle. See, like in Dream Team, you’ll get chased in the foreground by certain bosses. But this time, Paper Mario joins in, either as a plane flying above, a boomerang your characters throw at the boss or a trampoline they hold. You have to use his abilities to deflect or dodge boss projectiles and take them down in a way which is interesting, albeit a tad more mentally demanding than the norm.

There’s also the addition of a cursor underneath your characters that lets you know who’s being targeted. It can be turned off (and is forcibly disabled in the Battle Ring), but it’s a nice bit of help for anyone who’s struggling to read enemy attack tells.

Other non battle additions are a bit of a mixed bag as well. Toad hunting is introduced here for instance, and basically replaces the Pi’illos from Dream Team. It’s usually fun due to the different types of challenges introduced (sometimes slow collectathon sections, sometimes basic puzzles or mini games), but it can also become rather irritating in cases where it doesn’t really work out as well, like the annoying stealth section one.

These sections also end up becoming mandatory before every papercraft battle (to give you Paper Toads to carry your papercraft around), which sometimes slows the game right down to a halt.

Talking of papercraft battles, those seem to be the other major addition this time around. Replacing the giant battles from the last two games, they involve Mario and co riding around on a giant paper version of themselves and smashing apart enemies and bosses in a 3D arena, kind of like a weird tank battle/beat em up hybrid. They’re extremely fun in general with some interesting ideas and mechanics, but unfortunately fall into the trap of being far too easy due to how easy it is to spam the same attacks over and over.

Above: These are fun, but they’re just too easy.

So for the for the most part, Paper Jam is a pretty fun game. But hang on, didn’t I mention something about the difficulty in the review title?

Yes. Yes I did. And that’s where the game… kind of falters a bit. You see, a normal game has a reasonable difficulty curve. Easy levels and enemies at the start, moderately difficult ones part way through and difficult ones in the endgame and postgame. Simple, isn’t it?

Paper Jam does not really have this. Instead, the difficulty is basically random, with certain bosses and sections simply being far too difficulty (or maybe even far too easy) for the point in the game in which they’re encountered.

And a good example is found in the Koopaling battles. See, these boss fights all have unique gimmicks (like the enemies using battle cards against you, or them attacking each other when they mess up a counter attack, or you having to defend against them before any chance to fight back), and they’re all pretty damn hard to complete.

Problem is, they’re just littered throughout the game at near random. Roy and Wendy you fight at the one third of the game mark, and are harder than the next few real bosses. Larry and Ludwig… well, you fight those at about halfway through, and they’re difficult enough than many players literally consider them the hardest boss fight in the game.

battlecards

Above: The scariest moment in the game. How come you guys get to use battle cards but we don’t?

Which Is pretty messed up, given that you’ve got about ten boss fights afterwards, and all are generally much easier. Heck, even the final boss can be easier!

And this issue continues with the Toad hunting sections and various mini games. For example, various points have stealth sections where you have to avoid being spotted by a mini army of monsters patrolling around. Unfortunately, they’re difficult as all hell, and one actually comes RIGHT between a fun part of the game and a fun (and much easier) boss fight.   Other good sections include certain fake ‘battles’ on the overworld that end up being closer to mini games (the one with Morton firing cannonballs at Mario and co is getting infamous for its difficulty level) and a few Toad hunting sections which are just ridiculously hard to figure out. The worst of these is the village one on Mt Brr, since the Toads are hidden all around the village in often difficult to figure out locations. But do you know what’s the real kicker?

liars

Above: Oh shut up you lying pricks.

It’s actually semi random where they’re hidden. But the game doesn’t seem to realise it’s semi random. So you get five NPCs who are meant to give you hints to the Toad locations… which are telling you complete and utter crap nine times out of ten because their hints only apply to one possible setup out of maybe a hundred. It’s like a modern version of Castlevania 2, with the NPCs giving you useless and completely wrong ‘hints’.

Add a few difficult puzzles and platforming sections, and you’ve got a game which really, really needed to be rebalanced a bit more before being released. It’s not as bad as Dream Team in some sense (because the controls aren’t a broken mess at any point), but it’s shockingly bad for a difficulty curve in a Nintendo title.

That said, there is one nice helpful addition that does kind of lessen up the problems with the above. Basically, in addition to an ‘easy mode’ which makes you massively overpowered in exchange for not being able to complete the bonus challenges/achievements, there’s a very welcome option to ‘skip this section and continue on with the story’. So if you feel like you don’t have a hope in hell of getting past something and just want it over and done with, there is at least the option to say ‘screw this crap’ and move onto something that’s more enjoyable in the game. Maybe more games should have that option…

There’s also battle cards, which act as a replacement for badges. They let you do things like heal in battle, damage enemies, boost exp, defend from attacks completely without having to counter anything and reduce enemy stats significantly. They’re more balanced than Dream Team’s (no time freezing abilities here, at least from what I’ve seen), but also a tad annoying in how random they are (you have to shuffle the deck to get the cards you want in battle). And as mentioned above, one boss uses them against you as well, which is kind of terrifying.

The other issue is padding. Basically, you know how Dream Team padded out the gameplay with pointless mini games, quests and other random chores? Well this game does likewise, and to an unfortunately often greater degree than Dream Team. For example, the boss battle before the final boss is literally a seven or so stage fight with no save point between, the first three or four parts of which are just fighting random hordes of enemies (and the last three difficult fights against the Koopalings). The last papercraft battle is similar, you have to fight EVERYONE you’ve encountered to that point, as well as at least two bosses you haven’t. In a row, with no checkpoints.

And let’s not even get into the Toad hunt stuff. Basically, every time a papercraft battle comes out, you need extra Paper Toads to carry the papercraft. Problem is, that basically means your adventure has to stop dead in its tracks so you can run around completing irrelevant minigames. It’s not the worst thing ever (they’re still fun), but it’s really bad for the game’s pacing in general.

It’s a good game, but it’s let down in this respect by an extremely badly balanced difficulty curve,

Replay Value

But for replay value, Paper Jam is a great game. Indeed, this is one of the key things that the game does significantly better than Dream Team.

For starters, the boss rush mode has been expanded, with both the normal battles and papercraft battles have ranking systems that give you rewards for doing nearly perfect. Kind of like the item mini games in the last game.

In addition to that, the Toad Hunt mini games and other challenges were made replayable as well. This was a significant improvement to Dream Team and prior games, where most ‘gimmick’ parts of the game were impossible to return to after the first time you completed them. So it was nice to be able to redo the stealth sections, the Koopaling ‘mini battles’, the Boo avoiding challenges, etc, complete with an extra ‘hard mode’ for even better rewards.

There’s also a challenges system, which is far improved from the one in Dream Team. For example, now beating the bosses in the boss ring gets you an in game ‘achievement’, as does getting a perfect S ranking on each of them. Other challenges are now everything from ‘use every item type in the game’ to ‘battle x number of times without getting hit’ to ‘get excellent with a certain attack five times in a row’. It’s certainly something that’ll keep you playing an extremely long time, especially given the high difficulty level of much of the rest of the game.

With all that said, there are some issues here. For one thing, Hard Mode from Dream Team is gone in Paper Jam. You can’t replay the whole game again at a higher difficulty level for a better ending or other extras, which is a bit of a shame.

And there’s the problem I mentioned earlier about padding. Put simply, it’s padded to all hell, and without all the filler content, would actually be shorter than Bowser’s Inside Story. So there’s a significant feeling throughout that the game is just trying to waste your time and delay progress as much as possible.

Story, Characters and Humour

Yeah, an odd thing to mention this one. But given that the Mario RPGs are well known for hilarious, well written scripts with plenty of memorable characters and moments, it only seems right to judge this game by the same standards.

So is it funny? Are the characters as memorable as before?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, there are literally ZERO new characters in Paper Jam. None whatsoever. If you’ve played a Mario game in the last five years or so, you probably know EVERYONE who plays a part in this game.

That’s really disappointing, especially given how previous games have introduced funny, amusing individuals like Fawful, Popple, the Massif Bros, the 1337 Hammer Bros, Midbus, etc. Without anyone like that, the game does kind of feel a bit empty and lacking in personality.

It’s also disappointing that for much of a degree, the game never really does a whole lot with the Paper Mario characters or world. Oh sure, Paper Mario appears, and paper versions of Peach, Bowser, Bowser Jr and Kamek make notable appearances in the game, but what about all the older favourites? Why not have Kamek meet Kammy Koopa instead, given her major role to play in the original and Thousand Year Door? That would have been a lot more amusing.

PaperMarioTTYD

Above: Some characters who are not in this game (bar Mario, Peach and Bowser)

And without characters like Goombario and Goombella and Vivian and Bobbery and Doopliss and Dimentio and Count Bleck and Lord Crump… well, the game doesn’t feel as much of a tribute to Paper Mario as it really should have been. Paper Mario and normal Mario versions of characters meeting is interesting, but the more original ones meeting the more original Mario & Luigi cast is what the game should have focused on, but didn’t.

But there are some good things in the game’s story and characterisation. For example, the Koopalings now actually have personalities, and help each other in battle with all kinds of neat tricks and traps. Like Larry and Ludwig using battle cards against the main characters, or Morton/Iggy/Lemmy using each other attacks in their own elaborate attack sequences.

Other highlights are the two Kameks (who literally bicker right up the very end, even during their supposedly ‘heart-warming’ death scene), Big Bob-omb (who goes from a forgettable first boss to a stern and serious leader on Mt Brr) and King Boo, who’s just as nasty and selfish in this game as he was in Dark Moon (he actually holds Paper Mario in a hostage situation and threatens to beat him up if Mario and Luigi attack him). But there are two sets of characters that really took the limelight here.

First, the two Bowser Jrs. Unlike the other guys, these two actually got along really well with each other, and became best friends throughout the storyline. They fight you in an amusing battle with a paper plane flight contest, troll you by taking Peach away at the last second, try and get rid of the book so the paper one doesn’t have to return to the other world… and then, their defeat scene. Oh god:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Af7ukG6kAs&feature=youtu.be&t=24m30s

They pretty much nearly die there and then, complete with a sad montage and both Bowsers holding their dying children and threatening to kill Mario and co in revenge. It’s quite the moment for a Mario title…

Then, there are both Bowsers in this game. Remember how Bowser’s Inside Story made Bowser into a badass? Or how Dream Team showed he could be a competent villain?

Yeah, this game continues with it, and hammers it home big time. Bowser is not a joke any more, and damn well he means business. He enslaves Toads to mine ore for Neo Bowser Castle’s rocket engines, literally blows Peach’s Castle to smithereens with a giant cannon (nearly killing Peach in the process), burns the old papercrafts you made to a crisp to show how much better his own one is, becomes a nigh godly being in the final battle and actually plans to trap Mario and friends inside the Paper Mario book so he can burn it to cinders with them still trapped inside. Bowser in the early Mario RPGs was comic relief. Bowser in this game makes everyone bar the Shroobs look like amateurs. That’s impressive.

So it’s disappointing that there’s a lack of new characters, but nice that they really fleshed out and improved upon the personalities of the existing ones.

Conclusion

All in all, Mario & Luigi Paper Jam is a pretty good game. It’s got some lovely graphics and music, some interesting gameplay mechanics and boss battles, and in a certain few ways, significantly improves upon Dream Team by forsaking the broken motion controls and overabundance of tutorials that bogged the game down significantly.

It just needs to reign in the difficulty curve to something reasonable, remove some of the obvious filler content and to introduce some more new characters to the world to make it as good as it could ever be. So, a nice solid 8/10 seems a decent score for it.