The Mario RPGs stick a hefty middle finger up at the stat-crunching of traditional RPGs – and I love it. Whereas in the Final Fantasy series, a large portion of the combat is aiming to reach 9999 damage per attack, Mario's quests (and the Paper Mario games in particular) make you put a lot of strategy and effort into dealing what damage you can.
Couple this with the ability to deal extra damage and dodge blows taken via 'Timed Hits', and the combat of Mario RPGs feel more like puzzles than a series of statistics comparisons. However, among the series, there are some variations and exceptions. The Wii instalment, Super Paper Mario, crammed the system into a (surprisingly loose) platforming game – which didn't really work for me. Its predecessor, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the Gamecube felt like the pinnacle of what a Mario RPG could offer me, and I was secretly hoping that Paper Mario Sticker Star would match that.
The setup is exact Paper Mario fare. Bowser interrupts the annual Sticker Fest of Decalburg by causing the Sticker Comet to explode, throwing the 6 Royal Stickers in all directions, and leaving Mario to clean up his mess. His only companion in his adventure this time is Kersti, a 'sticker fairy'. For the early sections that I played, Sticker Star definitely echoes Thousand Year Door in tone and style (which is excellent and a huge plus by itself), and the writing is as long-form and self-referentially goofy as you could ever want. However, mechanically, it takes a surprising step towards... the adventure game genre?
Yes, while the basic tenets of a Mario RPG are present and correct – with 'Timed Hits', enemies to be defeated in less-than-straightforward ways, and incredibly jaunty battle themes – battles are given slightly less of a focus to favour exploration and puzzle solving in the game world. Think Monkey Island, and you're on the right track.
You could reason this change as being related to Sticker Star's main theme and mechanical gimmick – all of your actions and abilities are powered by stickers. Littered across the game world are stickers depicting weapons and items, and these are your only means of attack in battle. This means that if you run out of stickers you're defenceless; but they are easily replenished, and will generally be tailored to the foes in the area. Other, more significant items found are also turned into stickers for use in combat.
This system is incredibly streamlined; and forces you to think in a way that's contrasting to many RPGs – you don't benefit from holding onto your strongest items. Why waste three stickers on winning a fight when you can do it in one? Unfortunately, it also means that the finer features of Thousand Year Door are no longer present. There's no audience cheering you on in fights, or Partner Characters. The loss of the latter is a huge shame, but begrudgingly accepted. Attacks do a lot more damage than standard for a Paper Mario game, and you're rewarded for finishing fights quickly without taking damage. You don't even gain experience after battle (which is honestly a good thing). It definitely feels like battles are being pushed out of focus, but not in a way that makes them irrelevant or poor.
Puzzle me this
And what of the puzzle-adventure aspects? The game world is broken down into many small acts spread across a map, as with Super Mario Bros. 3/Super Mario World/New Super Mario Bros./etc. Not only is this a sensible decision for a 3DS game (it makes it a lot easier to play in bursts), it gives a focus for each area having a main event or puzzle to solve.
As with battles, they are also sticker-related; the focus of your play will be on finding items to resolve requests and obstacles in your path. What would wake up a sleeping Wiggler? Can you replant a Toad's destroyed flower garden? Some of the puzzles even take an oft-criticised aspect from point 'n' click adventures, with very specific and arguably obtuse solutions. There will only be one item that will wake up that Wiggler, even if you have something else that would make sense. Fortunately, you can press the L button at any time to get a hint from Kersti.
While, from its opening hour or so, Paper Mario Sticker Star is not Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door again, it doesn't really need to be (which is painfully obvious when said like that, but fans of a series have complicated feelings about sequels). It's mindful of the past in all the right ways, and the shift towards puzzle-adventure is a genre I actually like a whole lot (for whatever that's worth). The Mario RPGs continue to offer more than what's normally demanded of an RPG, and that's a very good thing indeed.