The Princess and Mario are visiting the town of Decelberg to celebrate the coming of the Sticker Comet. Bowser shows up, shatters the Sticker Comet and steals the Royal Stickers, which grant him near-invincibility. He beats up Mario, kidnaps the princess, and takes off. As usual, it's up to Mario to save the day — with some help from Kersti, a magically sentient sticker. As a Paper Mario game, it's frequently charming and funny, with emphasis on humorous NPC interaction.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star's world is divided up into multiple smaller levels that are connected by a larger overworld, Super Mario World style. Each level can be entered separately, and several levels have multiple exits that lead to new areas. It's akin to Mario RPG, where each area is connected but separate. If you solve puzzles, they stay solved. Enemies and stickers respawn, but you don't repeat levels over and over. This also means you'll revisit quite a few levels. Some have puzzles you can't solve the first time around or hidden areas you'll want to revisit or shops that have useful stickers and items. While there is a central hub city (Decelberg), there are also a number of smaller, peaceful locations to visit.
As for moving and exploration, you have a few abilities that can be used to solve every puzzle in the game. Jumping and hammering, the Paper Mario staples, both return. Your most distinctive ability is Paperize. At any time, Mario can use Kersti's power to "leave" the world for a moment, allowing him to see it as more of a 2-D landscape and use stickers to alter the world. He may use a giant vacuum to stop a windstorm or a magical door to unlock a hidden area. The areas where you can use stickers are always clearly marked when you Paperize, but figuring out which sticker is right for which situation can involve some thought.
Sticker Star is a big fan of "show, not tell." In most recent Nintendo games, you'll have a helper who politely spells out the answer to many puzzles or offers incredibly detailed hints if you get stuck. The helper is friendly enough, but the bulk of clues comes from environmental cues. Does something seem odd? There's usually a reason for it. The game hints at to the solution to its puzzles almost entirely nonverbally. In many ways, this is more fun and satisfying instead of having a glowing arrow pointing at the solution. On the other hand, it's quite possible that players end up in a situation where they can't figure out where to go. There's a puzzle about midway through the game involving an invisible block, and I expect it'll be one of the most-asked questions on help forums.
Several sticker puzzles require you to have the same thought processes as the developers. ("A massive tornado. I'll use my vacuum to stop it!") As such, your enjoyment of Sticker Star is going to rely heavily on your ability to read these environmental clues and your ability to enjoy exploration and finding hidden areas. The game is reasonable; if you need something, it is usually within the same world — often the same level — that you're exploring. This includes stickers, so you'll rarely need stickers from previous areas, and those are usually quite obvious.
Sticker Star does away with most traditional JRPG elements. There are no stats, aside from HP. You can find items throughout the world that permanently increase your HP, but that's about the extent of your ability to level up. This also means that there is no such thing as grinding. While you gradually gain extra power, it's simply a result of advancing the story. Most of the damage you do relies on the quality and quantity of the stickers you collect, although there is still a noticeable ramp-up in the damage you deal (and take) as the game progresses.
The combat system is a hybrid of the older Mario RPG "Timed Hit" mechanics and a few new ones. You don't have regular attacks or MP, so every action you take is dictated by consumable stickers. If you want to use your hammer, you have to spend a hammer sticker. If you want to jump, you use a jump sticker. Each sticker has an effect, and learning to mix and match them for maximum damage is a big part of the game. There are hammers that put the enemy to sleep, Fire Flowers that hit everything on the field, Jump boots that allow you to bounce on an enemy repeatedly or hit every enemy in line, etc. Each of these also has a "timed hit" mechanic, where pressing a button at the right time increases the damage and effect of the attack. Mistiming it causes the attack to miss or do pathetic damage. The basic hammer, for example, damages multiple enemies on the ground if it's timed correctly. Screw it up, and the hammer's head falls off. Certain powerful super-stickers don't require a timed press, but they are expensive and rare. These stickers are also used to unlock hidden areas or beat certain bosses, so it isn't the best idea to use them as regular combat stickers.
Picking the right sticker for each battle involves more thought than just picking the strongest sticker. Enemies appear in a formation, with Mario only being allowed to attack the enemy in the front unless he is using special hit-all attacks. In order to defeat the enemies quickly, you'll need to figure out the best sticker (or combination of stickers). You'll need to take into account enemy defenses, too. A flying enemy is immune to the aforementioned hammer-pound, for example, while you can't jump on a spiked enemy. Some enemies even dodge or absorb certain attacks. Switching up your stickers is usually a necessity, although certain stickers (especially the Fire and Ice flowers) can carry you through large chunks of the game. You're never likely to run out of stickers, but you'll often find that you have to mix up which stickers you use, unless you decide to spend an exorbitant amount of time grinding up extra copies of your favorite stickers.
There are a few reasons to work to beat enemies quickly. Enemies hit surprisingly hard, and they can do massive amounts of damage if you're not careful. If you haven't gone out of your way to pick up health-increasing items, your health is fairly low, and you can't avoid damage without special stickers. You can use a Timed Block, where pressing a button at the right moment lets you roughly halve the damage you take. Considering you can have groups of four or more enemies doing 7+ damage per hit at a time when you have about 50-60 HP, that can be pretty significant. Status effects are also effective. Poison doesn't just poison you, but it also causes you to likely miss your next attack. You're not very likely to die in Sticker Star, but you'll probably come closer than you would in the other Paper Mario titles.
The other reason to beat enemies quickly is to earn cash. Enemies drop money when defeated, but they drop more money when defeated quickly and effectively. Using a multi-hit attack on an enemy who is out of HP yields some extra coins. More importantly, beating enemies without taking damage causes you to earn a Perfect Bonus, which often doubles the profit you earn from a battle. This can simply be six coins instead of three, but that can add up, and the most expensive items in the game are around 300 coins.
So why worry about coins? The most obvious is that you use them to buy items from the store. This is a good way to replenish dependable stickers or to purchase special stickers that you've already used. Sticker Star lacks the partner mechanic from previous Paper Mario titles, but you have the Battle Spinner. By spending three coins, you can choose to play a game of slots. Match two icons, and you'll get two actions in one turn. Match three, and you'll also get a bonus depending on the matched icon. You can spend 15 coins after you spend the initial three to assure yourself that two slots will match. You can spend even more coins to slow down the wheel, but these handicaps contain a cumulative cost. If you spend 15 coins to get two turns once, it will cost 30 the next time, increasing all the way up to 90 each time you use a handicap. This mostly comes into play in the game's boss battles, but they can be pretty expensive if you don't know the trick.
Boss battles can be fought in two ways. One is the JRPG beat-'em-to-death style, which is surprisingly tough. They hit hard, hit often, and have ridiculous amounts of HP, so you'll need every sticker in your inventory to whittle it down. Sometimes, you'd rather take them out faster. To do this, you have to find out what its weakness is and find a sticker that can exploit it. The first boss is a giant Goomba, which is comprised of a number of smaller Goombas. Most of the time, he appears as a giant Goomba who is shockingly resistant to all damage. For one attack, he turns around and exposes the mesh of stuck-together Goombas. During this brief moment, you can use the scissors sticker to cut him apart, allowing you to instantly defeat him. Most of the bosses have a gimmick that you have to figure out through contextual clues. They're not instantly obvious, but most are pretty obvious in hindsight.
The combat system in Sticker Star is frequently fun. You're often switching up moves and abilities, and that keeps battles feeling fresh. Even if you're fighting the same enemies, you're usually stuck with a different set of abilities. However, the title isn't very friendly to power gaming. If you're willing to spend an hour or two doing so, you'll be able to easily farm up a small army of powerful stickers that can trivialize many battles. Sticker Star is most fun if you work with the stickers you're given. Grinding for top-tier stickers is an option, but it's not recommended.
The visuals are quite nice, using the same "paper" aesthetic seen in previous games. They're pretty similar to graphics in the console offerings. The artwork is nice, and the art design is top-notch, but there is a fair amount of repetition in certain areas. The 3-D effect is almost entirely wasted. Making a game about paper-thin characters in 3-D seems a tad silly, and the effect detracts from the game. There are some occasionally nice effects, but I'd recommend turning off the 3-D and playing the game normally. As is the norm for Nintendo, there is no voice acting, although it isn't really missed. The soundtrack is the usual Mario fare and feels a little dull. Mario songs are great, but after a while, you've heard each one thousands of times, and it's hard to get excited about slight remixes.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star is a solid game. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, but it more than manages to seal the deal. It's fun to play and manages to feel fresh and unique despite repeating a number of Paper Mario mechanics. The biggest problem is a general lack of information for those who get stuck. If you're the kind of person who enjoys exploring and finding what you missed, you'll like Sticker Star a lot. If you get frustrated because you're missing one thing you need to advance and you can't figure it out, you'll be unhappy here — until the Internet provides a full FAQ, of course.
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