Though it came as a bit of a surprise, quietly tucked away into Nintendo's Digital Event during E3 earlier this year, fans of RPG silliness have been anticipating the crossover of a lifetime since the announcement of AlphaDream's latest adventure. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. (known simply as Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam in North America) - combines the unique 2D aesthetic of the Paper Mario series with the co-operative team gameplay of Mario & Luigi to great effect, with almost all the right parts neatly folding into place.
'Neatly' is perhaps the wrong word in this instance however, as it isn't exactly an even mix. Merging these two universes always seemed like a natural choice given their core similarities, but Paper Jam's recipe is definitely four or five parts Mario & Luigi for every one part Paper Mario. That's not at all to say that this is an inherently negative imbalance; we simply feel it's a worthwhile distinction to make for anyone eagerly awaiting another fully-fledged Paper Mario title. It's close, but the real fun comes from seeing this superstar trio team up together for the first time.
That being said, how on earth does this all come about in the first place? Well you can blame Luigi. It's his bumbling about in a dark storage room somewhere in Peach's Castle that accidentally sends a mysterious book tumbling to the floor, unleashing the Paper Mario universe in a confetti typhoon. Suddenly, the Mushroom Kingdom is filled with wafer-thin duplicates of Koopas, Toads, Shy Guys, oh my! - and our story begins as both versions of Princess Peach try to make sense of it all.
For fans of either series, these initial character interactions are an absolute treat, and make up for a pretty run of the mill plotline when all is said and done. Watching Bowser and his equally oafish paper counterpart argue over the princesses, debate who's in charge and murmur identical plans for betrayal to their own personal Kamek is hugely entertaining, but the story never really moves beyond their simple plan to take over the Mushroom Kingdom. Reaching his castle is pretty much the singular goal throughout your journey, which feels focused (if a tad too familiar) as a result.
With double Bowsers, a pair of Bowser Jrs and a whole host of Koopalings to deal with, it's a good thing that Paper Mario makes for such a powerful ally. His addition feels natural within moments, leaving us wondering how we ever managed without him in the first place. From combat to exploration, controlling the Bros. now requires three separate buttons, with Mario, Luigi, and Paper Mario mapped to A,B and Y respectively.
With that added button comes a long list of extra abilities, not least of which being a team jump that's triggered by tapping X. Holding it allows for a lengthy burst of speed, often required when hunting down paper Toads (more on this later) or traversing large areas. Further trio actions are steadily unlocked as you progress, and primarily help clear a path past all manner of obstacles. A triple hammer breaks huge blocks for example, and Paper Mario can even transform into paper airplanes to cross gaps, or slip between tiny cracks in the walls.
In combat, working as a trio is similarly effective, and the hugely interactive battle system is still as fun as ever. As well as the typical 'Jump' and 'Hammer' commands, Paper Mario can now create multiple copies of himself to boost both his attack and defense - a tactic that paper enemies also regularly take advantage of. He specializes in taking free hits and attacking multiple baddies at once, which creates some great synergy with the Bros. on the front line. Stats can be customized by using specific beans or choosing from a list of one-time perks that set each character apart, so our Luigi ended up as a hammer-swinging defensive powerhouse, while Mario opted for speedier jump attacks and critical hits. It's admittedly fairly shallow as far as RPG customization goes, but that's not the only way you can influence battles.
The introduction of Battle Cards feels something like an alternate version of Paper Mario:The Thousand Year Door's star meter, where performing well in battle added to a pool of star points to be spent on special abilities. Similarly, in Paper Jam you eventually unlock a deck of cards that can heal you, deal extra damage, or affect your stats in many different ways, all at the cost of star points. The bottom screen displays up to three at a time, which can be activated or skipped over during any of your turns, and get randomly dealt out from a fully customizable deck. Dozens of unique, more powerful cards can be purchased in shops, earned as prizes, or are unlocked by using a Super Mario themed amiibo. The killer downside to using an amiibo is that you'll need to continuously have it on hand just on the off chance you'd like to use the card, and the setup process is a laborious string of saving and erasing data to say the very least. The battle cards themselves add a fresh new dynamic and work great, but the amiibo functionality is all too easily ignored.
Bros attacks and the new, even more powerful Trio attacks are still a joy to execute and behold, as Paper Mario helps pull off some impressive stunts such as shuriken tossing and extreme kite flying. Boss battles, always a highlight of the series, are the perfect culmination of skill and spectacle, with elaborate ways to dodge moves using Paper Mario as a glider or boomerang. No two boss encounters are quite the same, and while we certainly don't want to spoil any surprises, there were more than a few moments that really caught us off guard and forced a quick change of tactics.
All this battling is only part of the adventure though, and an entirely new quest system adds a lot of variety to proceedings. Lakitu Info Centers serve as quest hubs, where an ever-changing selection of Paper Toad rescue missions offer up brief slices of instant gameplay in the form of puzzles, quizzes, or hide and seek chases. Most only take a couple of minutes to complete, but are a refreshing change of pace that never outgrew their welcome in the slightest. Rescuing these poor Toads isn't just a fun diversion either, but is actually necessary to progress in the story. Why? Because the more you rescue, the more slaves - sorry - "assistants" Toadette has on hand to help build gigantic papercraft weapons of course.
Like the giant Luigi fights featured in Dream Team, these large-scale brawls are a gleefully gimmicky way to mix things up with some tank-like confrontations. Large arenas pit your creation against a slew of enemies, encouraging sumo slams and quick dodging to win the day. Powering up prompts a quick rhythm game, while different papercraft characters have their own individual abilities to play around with too. It's nothing too groundbreaking, but comes along seldom enough to always provide an enjoyable beatdown.
All of these new ideas come with plenty of tutorials to ease you in, as well as a few gameplay options to make things a bit simpler. You can practice attacks, toggle certain indicators and even activate an easy mode to beef up your bros at the expense of skill points. Guarding at the last minute also helps raise your defense if you can't figure out how to completely avoid an enemy. The best part of this is that almost every tutorial can be completely passed over or skipped through if you aren't interested. The 'R' button fast-forwards through text boxes and cutscenes at lightning pace, so there's always a way to keep things moving if you so choose.
These options, combined with a more stripped-back story and brand new mechanics, arguably make this the most accessible entry in the series to date. Newcomers won't need to worry about past events or catch up with the old pros; everything can be toggled to suit your playstyle and skill level, with a classic Mario vs Bowser story to follow at your own pace. If the Mario & Luigi games never appealed to you before, this is a very good place to start. In fact, it could even be recommended to anyone looking to dip their toes into an RPG for the first time.
Graphically, Paper Jam does a superb job of blending both art styles into something striking and colourful. Each and every character is portrayed beautifully, with clear lines standing out against the softer curves of a three-dimensional world, and the localization team have worked wonders on the dialogue as per usual. The nature of this crossover allows for some really interesting character moments, since key players get a mirror held up to themselves. For example; we have Princess Peach's secret desire to chop her hair off, or Bowser Jr's implied loneliness.
It's great stuff, but after a while some of that novelty eventually wears off, and the creases unfortunately begin to show. The rolling green hills, sandy deserts, spooky forest and icy mountain that make up the majority of the game feel slightly tired before you even arrive, and while some paper-themed architecture helps alleviate this, we felt a bit of Skyward Sword-esque déjà vu at times. There are some interesting areas like the underground prison, but travelling from basic Toad village to basic Toad village got pretty stale. We couldn't help but imagine what fun it would be to see even more characters like Kammy Koopa arrive with paper Bowser, or to jump backwards and forwards between both dimensions multiple times.
For a beefy 30+ hour playtime, there's a lot of variety when it comes to gameplay, and Paper Jam stands tall with its contemporaries both flat and portly. It just doesn't quite rise above them when it comes to the story, so if the idea of this crossover hasn't already piqued your interest at least a little, then you may end up tuning it out completely. Not quite the multi-universe revolution it could have been, but AlphaDream certainly didn't resort to playing things too safe.
Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros. totally succeeds as an accessible, entertaining and lengthy crossover for fans and newcomers alike. It introduces a solid list of worthy new mechanics, particularly building upon the battle system in some exciting new ways, and breaking exploration up with random quests. It's more of a mini RPG than ever, but doesn't quite nail it when it comes to environmental design and storytelling. In the end it's Paper Jam's simplicity that makes it a great starting point and an easy recommendation, but also holds it back from taking full advantage of more dimensions than ever before.