Paper Mario: Color Splash is one of the Wii U's last major releases of the year, and by all accounts it should be cause for some real excitement among fans. It's the latest entry in a series that's filled with humour, character, charm and amazing environments, with an interesting new paint mechanic to keep things fresh. Our time with it so far has been remarkably enjoyable, with memorable scenarios that had us grinning from ear to ear on more than a few occasions; yet for many curious readers this preview really only needs to answer one question. "Is it just another Sticker Star?
Ever since its announcement during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year, longtime fans of the Paper Mario series have been vocalizing their distaste for Color Splash as a simplified follow-on from controversial 3DS title Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The removal of many traditional RPG elements from that entry wasn't exactly a popular choice, and the perception was that Color Splash would carry on this trend by simplifying the experience even further. While this isn't entirely the case, after several hours with the game it's fair to say that this is indeed far more of an adventure title than a full-on RPG. That being said, it's certainly an adventure that's worth getting excited about.
The game opens up on a stormy night, as hooded figures approach Mario's house with a mysterious scrap of paper. In a series of rapid revelations, Princess Peach removes her cloak to show that the blank sheet was once a Toad; now drained of colour and bearing a strange post mark from a place called Prism Island. Upon arrival, this supposed tourist destination - a fashionable alternative to Isle Delfino perhaps - appears to be virtually deserted, with strange patches of pure white blotted all over the landscape. As you explore, a gruesome epidemic unfurls as Shy Guys prowl the streets with straws, draining the environment and its inhabitants of colour. Thankfully the island has a contingency plan in place for just such an occasion - a chatty paint can named Huey!
This moment introduces the game's central mechanic, which unsurprisingly is paint. This stuff is essentially the lifeblood of the entire island, and can be found absolutely everywhere. It was obvious from early footage that repainting the world would be a large part of the game, but paint actually fuels nearly everything you do in Color Splash. Huey, once wrung out from his 3D shape and left as a papery shadow of his former self - don't think about it too much, trust us - grants you the ability to splash paint all over the world using your hammer. Press 'X' and Mario will give a normal swing, but hitting 'B' instead allows you to leave a bright splatter of paint and bring colour back to the world. You can do this at any time, leaving some pleasingly messy multicoloured splats all over. Even in other areas without the white splotches, your own paint will still drip over cliff edges, spread out and cover the ground with every swing, with the effect remaining for much longer than we would have anticipated. It's actually a really cathartic source of childish fun to run around covering the place in rainbow splotches, Splatoon-style.
Paint is also a very important resource; it's intrinsically tied to the game's combat system which this time revolves around a deck of attack cards. It's still turn-based, and although you can initially only play one card at a time we later had this upgraded to two cards per turn. The symbols on cards designate the type of attack, usually either a jump or hammer, and also how many attacks you get with that one card. We've seen up to five attacks per card so far, and there's a lot of potential to mix this up with a choice of healing, special attacks and a variety of standard moves per turn - all depending on the card you have in your deck. Most importantly, cards are essentially useless unless you power them up with paint, and you can choose how much to pump into each card separately. Leaving them blank will do the very minimum amount of damage, and this increases exponentially until you fully colour them in. While we haven't had much difficulty with enemy encounters so far, we're intrigued to see if paint really becomes a truly vital resource to designate between cards later in the game. The building blocks of something unique are there, and with the usual set of action commands to pull off in order to get the most out of your attacks as well, there's lots to take into account with combat.
This combination of saving up paint, as well as knowing when to use more powerful cards at the right time, is a kind of replacement for the FP and special attacks of previous games. Paint becomes a universal resource, even tying into the game's experience system. Defeating enemies will drop hammer medals of different value, and gathering these will fill a meter that upgrades the amount of paint you can store in total. More paint means more attacks and stronger cards, so it's an important stat to level up. This places more importance on combat, encouraging you to engage rather than avoid enemies. Levelling up also lets you defeat enemies immediately if you're strong enough, similar to RPGs like EarthBound. We love this, as it clears out weaker enemies like Goombas without all the fuss. There should always be an incentive to enter combat, and thankfully Color Splash seems to be making an effort to bring this motivation back to the player.
We made sure to find and colour in every last blank spot as we roamed around the starting area, earning attack cards and coins for doing so. After battering Shy Guys aplenty we soon learned that the magical Paint Stars have somehow been scattered all over the island, rendering the once-powerful Prism fountain utterly useless. The only way to find them is to gather up Mini Paint Stars and have them show the way to their larger counterparts, and finding these acts as the objective to complete in each level. Yes, that means the overworld map is back, and areas are broken up into separate levels that can be unlocked and completed in different ways. While it isn't a single, cohesive world to explore, there are actually plenty of reasons to visit areas again and get a totally new experience out of them, so it doesn't feel as disjointed as you might expect. Areas change and evolve over time, and you might run into characters that play a significant role later on, all providing ample reasons to revisit. The post office will regularly deliver letters, notifying you of changes and invitations to return to these areas as well, so you've always got something to check out.
Key items are again vital for progression, although this time are wrung out into card form - similarly to poor Huey. An early example involved a Toad who was stuck head-first in a pipe. As we tried to pull him out he chastised us for not bringing the right tool for the job, and sure enough once we found a plunger it was a simple matter of bringing it back and freeing the poor fellow in order to unlock a totally new area. There's also a strange variation on Paperization from Sticker Star, where you cut out geometric portions of the environment in order to create new pathways. Perspective is important here, as often you're joining separate structures into one solid line to walk across. We'll be honest - this didn't really click with us and felt like a needless addition.
In regards your main quest, things are initially pretty vague until the plot picks up later on and you discover entire areas left completely drained of colour, eventually stumbling across something much worse. Needless to say, Huey clearly knows a lot more than he lets on as well. In one particularly mysterious scene he somehow manages to clear away an area that's 'corrupted' (we'll leave out the details at the moment), but refuses to let you see how he does it. You're forced to swiftly move on and forget what happened, and it's moments like this that add a bit of weight to proceedings. Hopefully there's some payoff, and we get a few more hints as we dig deeper - a solid story could really elevate this game, so we're hopeful. No surprises that Bowser shows up as well (that was obviously going to happen), but his motives are currently unclear and something is a little…off with him. Let's leave it at that for now.
Perhaps the most consistent highlight of the experience so far has been the overall presentation. It goes without saying that the writing and dialogue are as witty as ever (though a little heavy on the "oh scrap!" puns), but we dare say that this is the most successful execution of the paper aesthetic so far, with environments that pop out of the screen and impress just as much as other visually stunning titles like Yoshi's Woolly World do. From damp caves to sun-baked excavation sites, the sheer variety is a real treat and it doesn't seem to be letting up any time soon. There are some great little set-pieces as well, with crazed Chain Chomp chases and even a moment where a Shy Guy squad rolls up an entire section of the level to try and crush you. We can't wait to see what's next.
Special attention must also be drawn to the music, which is a genuinely fantastic mix of real brass band tunes, samba, and some familiar callbacks that will have you overdosing on nostalgia. We couldn't help but appreciate the return of the Star Spirit's theme from the original Paper Mario, even as a short part of a longer song. Nearly every single level has been scored perfectly thus far, with some effortlessly joyful arrangements of classic tunes added in for good measure. Blissful stuff.
There's a lot going on with Color Splash. Some of it is familiar, some of it is new, but we've been pleasantly surprised by how well its all been working together thus far. Yes, the lack of partner characters, an overuse of Toads and streamlined combat and exploration will still certainly disappoint fans of the original RPG titles, but that shouldn't make this a total write-off. Its been making an effort to expand and improve on the shortcomings of Sticker Star, and at this point we're pretty optimistic about its potential as we progress. If the battle system is continually expanded upon with new cards and abilities, if the world remains interesting and engaging, and the stellar presentation keeps up - then we think this could be an extremely worthy late addition to the Wii U library.