Paper Mario: Color Splash is one of the most confounding gaming experiences I’ve had in years. At first glance, it’s an immaculately crafted comedy RPG that offers hours upon hours of gameplay in a colorfuly crafted world. But upon further investigation, Color Splash is a bizarre amalgamation of design choices that hinder player’s enjoyment at every turn, turning one of the Wii U’s last major titles into another minor disappointment in the system’s already lacking library.
The story of Color Splash opens with a simple premise; Princess Peach and Mario set out for the colorful Port Prisma after receiving a folded up Toad that had been drained of its color. Mario and party make their way to Port Prisma, only to discover that all of the Toads are missing, and soon enlist the aid of a talking paint can named Huey to help them in restoring Port Prisma to its former glory. Once the introductions are out of the way, players are set loose to explore Prism Island, trekking through multiple levels in an epic quest to restore each of the Color Stars to their place in Port Prisma, all the while dispatching any Shy Guys or Goomba’s who might get in your way.
Despite it’s initial promise however, the combat system soon reveals itself to be not very good. Players engage groups of enemies in standard turn-based battles, but instead of standard attacks to select from, all actions are based on cards that players can buy or collect as they progress through levels. This system is problematic for several reasons, the first being the cumbersome interface attached to everything you do in combat. When attacking, players must use the Wii U Gamepad’s touchscreen to select the card they want to use, then paint in the card to buff the power of the attack if they wish. After finishing, the cards then need to be flicked onto the screen from the gamepad. It may not sound like much, but repeating this 3-step process again and again through standard battles, and especially in boss battles, becomes an aggravating exercise in tedium. On top of this, player’s card collection’s can grow to be quite sizable, leaving players to sort through their decks using the less than ideal touchscreen interface. If for some reason you do run out of cards, you can expend some hard earned coins and get a card to use. This also proves problematic, in that the card you get is essentially random, which means you could get stuck with some pretty awful cards in a tight spot. Everything about the combat system is centered around the deck building gimmick, and none of it does nay favors to this kind of game. A traditional RPG system would have fared much better.
Aside from combat, time will mostly be spent exploring each of the diverse areas and solving puzzles to progress the story. This is the highlight of the game, as meeting new Toads and helping them in their various quirky endeavors leads to some of my favorite gaming moments of the year. From discovering the mystery behind a wise old mountain sage, to taking part in a beach festival with five identical dancing Toads as the headlining act, each situation gives the game an endearing sense of personality that kept me playing for hours, despite my disdain towards the combat system. The world is also filled with colorless spots that Mario needs to find and fill in, serving as one of the main collectibles of the game. It’s fun enough as busywork, but later in the game it becomes a fruitless and frustrating endeavor, as a certain villain decides to suck all the color out of each level with a straw at random. Mario can still stop him in the act, but it requires the player to drop whatever they were doing and immediately give chase, lest they need to color in the level all over again.
While the world and objectives are often fun, the objectives that Mario must complete are not always clear, which can lead to several hours of wandering through levels, looking for that single thing that you missed. There is a certain Toad you can ask for help back in Port Prisma, but he doesn’t always point you in the right direction, offering hints about a specific card you might need in the future, instead of dropping a more useful hint about where you might need it. It’s another bizarre design choice that only serves to undercut any goodwill built up by Color Splash‘s charming and humorous world. More often than not it managed to turn the otherwise enjoyable exploration into a chore that sapped at any enjoyment I had left after hours of putting up with the already laborious combat system.
It’s a real shame that there is so much holding Color Splash back, because it legitimately has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a game in years. Almost every Toad you meet has a unique personality or joke, and I often found myself wandering through each area, searching for everyone I could interact with for fear of missing out on a good laugh. The game also manages to break the fourth wall several times over, never becoming too in-your-face about it, striking just the right balance of timing and cleverness.
Even with it’s numerous core design flaws, Color Splash does shine in its presentation. Despite the aging and underpowered hardware of the Wii U, Paper Mario: Color Splash has some very nice graphical chops. Every bit of the paper world pops with vivid color, from the folding paper waves, to the way paint splashes when Mario returns color to the landscape. The soundtrack is naturally a standout, putting some fun, fresh spins on established Mario tunes, while bringing some great new tracks into the mix.
Even considering everything it manages to do right, I can’t deny that Paper Mario: Color Splash is a mixed bag for the ages. With hilarious writing, great characters, and a fantastic world to explore, Color Splash can provide hours of fun to Wii U owners, who are looking for one last solid adventure before the Nintendo Switch launches in 2017. Despite its flaws, Color Splash is a fun romp that will appeal to the hardcore Nintendo crowd, but in the end, I have a hard time seeing its appeal elsewhere.