The Paper Mario series has always been a treat, exemplifying some of the funniest writing in any game, numerous tweaks to RPG mechanics, and a skewed worldview that makes me appreciate the Mario universe in a different way.
However, when they stray from their RPG strengths, Paper Mario games lose some of the appeal. For example, Super Paper Mario maintained the copious (copious) dialogue of its forebears, but put aside turn-based battles for awkward platforming.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star isn't as dramatic a departure as Super Paper Mario. It's still a turn-based game, and in fact has some of the most interesting battle mechanics in the genre. It's still delightfully funny and precious. But it's been compromised by the awkward addition of unwelcome elements from adventure games.
Now that it's over, I'm glad I played it, but I was not always glad to be playing it.
Sticker Star turns every attack Mario performs in battle – every action of any kind, in fact, except running away – into a consumable item, specifically a sticker kept in Mario's album. There is in fact a narrative explanation for this mechanic, though I trust you can all suspend your disbelief and accept that Mario uses a sticker to swing a hammer.
I knew Intelligent Systems was onto something with this from the start, because it scared me. Years of playing RPGs have ingrained the importance of item conservation into my play, and I always end up with 99 potions, elixirs, tinctures, bombs, etc. when I complete any RPG. Here, you have to use the items you pick up, because that's all you can do. I did not think I would get used to it. Breaking that long-held habit allowed me to approach turn-based battles with fresh eyes, choosing my attacks based not just on effectiveness, but ease of replenishment.
Levelling up has also been streamlined, to the point of being basically nonexistent. You can pick up "HP-up hearts" that increase your maximum HP by 5 points, and you'll happen upon stronger stickers (including "shiny" and "flashy" ones that feature a really cool "shine" effect that uses the 3DS's tilt sensor to change the lighting) as you travel, but you'll never explicitly gain experience and levels. At a certain point, the game will just decide you're strong enough to stomp goombas without triggering the usual battle sequence – said point coinciding nicely with the moment I didn't feel like trifling with any goombas.
The narrative that explains the sticker mechanic also explains why Mario partners with a bossy crown-shaped sticker named Kersti (... get it) and fights against goombas, Bloopers, and other traditional Mario enemies who have been driven mad with power by applying "Royal Stickers" to their paper heads. Together, Mario and Kersti explore relatively novel parts of the Mushroom Kingdom, like a maze-like forest with a sign warning you to "Be Careful Not To Become That Guy Who Got Baffled (x) Times," where x represents one more time than you've already gotten lost; a pyramid that features Egyptian-style art of Toads and Koopas that must be seen; and, perhaps best of all, a sudden Snifit game show that challenges you to "Snifit or Whiffit." It's rare to see new and exciting locales in a Mario game (exceedingly so with the advent of New Super Mario Bros.) and this does a good job of keeping it fresh.
It's a good thing I never had to grind for experience, because I was already spending more than a few frustrated hours aimlessly wandering without advancing the plot. The exploration in Paper Mario: Sticker Star involves a lot of puzzle-solving, in which you're expected to find hidden ? blocks by jumping and hammering the environment, and to alter the environment by "paperizing" or flattening the world and placing stickers in special locations.
Unfortunately, those hidden ? blocks are often easy to miss – even when you know where you're supposed to be aiming – so you end up with plenty of false negatives and think you're in the wrong spot.
The sticker puzzles have even bigger problems. For one thing, they rely on adventure game logic – or, in other words, you have to know what the designer thought would be a good solution to a particular problem. You'd think a jackhammer would wake up that sleeping Wiggler, but no, only one specific loud item will do the trick.