If there's one thing we can learn from its 3DS catalogue so far, it's that Nintendo is great at the safe sequel. Sure, there are out-there exceptions like Kid Icarus: Uprising, but by and large we've seen a whole lot of remakes or new entries in fan-favourite franchises that are more interested in paddling along leisurely than rocking the boat. Great games can and have followed this strategy, of course, but not without a little yearning for something more — and Paper Mario: Sticker Star feels content with offering largely more of the same.
Luckily for Sticker Star, "more of the same" is a charming formula certain to please the masses with its amazingly slick presentation, polished mechanics and sharp wit that made the series so endearing in the first place. The problem is that it all feels incredibly familiar, largely lacking new and interesting characters or environments that haven't been done to death by now, and what is new doesn't quite reach its full potential.
Sticker Star's premise is paper thin, serving mostly as a dull framework for all manner of other shenanigans throughout the game. During the annual Sticker Fest held in Decalburg — a city of Toads, apparently — in which the Sticker Comet comes along to grant everyone wishes, Bowser comes along and blows things up by accident, scattering powerful Royal Stickers all across the world that Mario and his new ally Kersti must venture out and collect, plonk Bowser and all that jazz. Along the way you'll run up against Kamek, Bowser Jr., familiar rogues and lots of Toads, but new faces are few and far between; companion Kersti pops up with a tap of L to offer a quip and advice, but she never feels fleshed out and as a result is difficult to care for. The supporting cast is mostly made up of Toads, with virtually no sign of anyone more interesting, which is disappointing for a series that has otherwise proven itself quite fresh.
Star of the show, of course, are stickers, a seemingly organic addition to Paper Mario: they are littered all over the place and used for virtually everything from puzzles to pugilism. The series' turn-based combat makes a welcome return from its quick absence in Super Paper Mario and revolves entirely around seals: instead of having a few standard and special attacks that require a meter, Mario's attacks are dictated by what is on-hand in his sticker book. There is no shortage as stickers are readily available all over the place, gathered by pulling them off walls, in boxes and dropped by enemies; however, as certain stickers are more effective against specific types of enemies, along with a limited inventory and varying sizes, there is a certain layer of strategy to making efficient use of Mario's arsenal — especially when facing eclectic bands of foes. By default only one sticker can be applied per turn, but taking a whirl on the Battle Spinner for a price can enable up to three, allowing Mario to chain combos. Stickers cannot be otherwise combined or crafted to form new abilities, which feels like a missed opportunity for an otherwise clever attack system.
This turn-based combat is a streamlined holdover from the series' RPG roots, and Sticker Star further smooths out the levelling from prior games. At this point the RPG elements are entirely invisible; not once will "level up!" splash across the screen, nor can you find a status screen showing Mario's experience points because there just aren't any. Mario does grow in strength, though, but it isn't noticeable outside of damage done when bopping an enemy, which might go unnoticed anyway.
Mario can collect certain non-paper items and transform them into special stickers, like a pair of scissors or a Lucky Cat statue, and these stickers can be used in battle or applied to the game world through Paperization, a power Kersti has where she lifts Mario out of the world, flattens it like a postcard and dangles him above. This is the most interesting idea Sticker Star drums up, elegant in its simplicity and execution, but gets stuck on limitation: Mario can apply stickers, remove scraps of paper that affect the environment and put them back on to fill voids, but he can't apply stickers to just anything nor tear off scraps that aren't predetermined. Had Mario the power to manipulate the environment in more ways, then puzzles wouldn't perhaps rely so much on using the correct item that you may or may not have arbitrarily found and created a sticker from, or by applying the correct scrap through Paperization. The world is a diverse and interesting place, but Sticker Star has a bad habit of leaning too heavily on obtuse, same-y types of puzzles and scenarios for stages, resulting in a few more soggy portions than needed.
As this is the first portable Paper Mario, the game has been adapted into handheld-friendly stages spanning a fairly large world — and, rather pleasingly, the world map is somewhat nonlinear, allowing you to tackle areas in whatever order you see fit. Collecting the star at the end of a stage opens up a new path on the map, with plenty of hidden exits and items sprinkled about to encourage exploration. "Encourage" may be putting it lightly, though, as hidden items are occasionally critical to advancing, and it isn't always clear where specific items are located — it's a somewhat obtuse way of progressing, but taking the time to explore thoroughly eases the pain down the line. While, yes, you can enter whatever available stage you choose, the experience is still somewhat linear as you may not have the required items to proceed, but allowing this freedom goes a long way towards reducing the sense of the whole thing being on rails.
It must be said that one area where Sticker Star absolutely shines is visually: the game is gorgeous in 3D, bringing the papercraft world to new heights as a living diorama. The excellent art style, already whimsical, just looks fantastic with the added depth, and much like Super Mario 3D Land is greatly enhanced by stereoscopic visuals, standing as one of the best uses of the technology so far — it doesn't change how the game plays, but the enhancement is so great that going back feels cheap and flat. Along with the sharp and clever writing, Sticker Star is without doubt one of the most charming games you can get on the platform.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is often funny, thoroughly charming and a joy to play, but it is also just as often a touch too familiar, seemingly unwilling to really go out on a limb and do something crazy even if the potential to do so is immense. Despite its inhibitions, the game keeps a pace so delightful and fun that you can't help but crack a smile at the metric ton of whimsy folded into its rock-solid foundation, rendered all the more impressive thanks to beautiful use of stereoscopic 3D. Sticker Star might elicit some déjà vu, but a memory this bright is one worth remembering.