Paper Mario Color Splash is a gorgeous and funny game that gets completely dragged down by a tedious and irritating combat system. The usual papercraft aesthetic is present and it looks better than ever. This is paired with some clever set pieces and funny writing. Unfortunately the combat is far too cumbersome with very little reward. What could have been a fantastic game spends too much time on its worst aspect.
Prism Island has been robbed of its color by Black Paint Bowser and it’s up to Mario to jump and whack his way to restoring everything. The series has never looked better and the paint-focused/color returning aspect shows of just how bright and gorgeous this game can be. The paper style continues to look just as good as you would expect. Seeing how everything in this world has been changed to fit the aesthetic is fun and clever. This is a fantastic looking game.
This cleverness is twofold through the game’s set pieces and its writing. An early example is when an entire section of the level gets literally rolled up. Mario has to outrun the towering wave of land above him while sharp pieces of cardboard and paper rain down on him from above. This playfulness to the papercraft is what makes this style so great and each new set piece is easily a reason to push forward. Partnered with this is the great writing to be found. The characters are funny and sarcastic and poke fun at the weird events around them. It’s a treat talking to everyone you come across. The world is fun to explore.
What sounds like a great time is then harshly countered by the game’s combat system. You will spend about half of this game in battles and it’s a shame they are so irritating. You don't have any default attacks and instead have to use cards in order to choose your actions. These can be jumps, hammers, fire flowers, etc. This ends up being a huge drag since you go through them very quickly and end up having to hold onto a ton. A lot of this game turns into an annoying inventory management bummer. There aren't any folder options so you're stuck with having to scroll through one list of cards to find what you want to use. This gets worse since enemies will attack you if you take too long. It's tedious, inelegant, and it's a shame that a good chunk of your play time will be managing these.
What is so tiresome is the order of playing these cards. Cards can come in both painted and blank versions. Painted ones will do more damage so it is worth the time to paint your cards mid-battle in order to hit harder. Doing so will take up more time however. Upon selecting your card you need to flick it up with the stylus (or select it with A), then you need to press down and watch it fill with paint, lastly you have to flick it up in order to send it out in battle. All this does is increase the time spent in your inventory while the enemies are attacking or stealing your items. Doing this for every turn is annoying, especially if you are fighting a weaker opponent. It becomes a drag and makes the game more and more tedious to continue with.
To top it off, you don’t get anything for battling enemies. There isn’t experience or levels to be gained. Finishing a fight will reward you with paint (which is easy to find in the environment) and a couple tokens that, when enough are collected, will increase the maximum paint you can hold. This resulted in me trying my best to avoid fighting and dodging the enemy advances. Unfortunately a lot of battles are mandatory. One nice bonus is that as you progress in the story you will be able to defeat enemies without having to fighting. More and more opponents will be able to be destroyed with your hammer instead of having to go into a fight and use your cards. It’s a good benefit that slowly gets unlocked as you go.
Paper Mario’s Things return in this game. These are real world, polygonal, objects that you will find in the game and can be used in battle (or in a stage) to great effect. In fights they do tons of damage, while some levels will have obstacles that require you to play the card in order to pass. We saw these used poorly in Sticker Star and the same annoyances are present here. Many bosses will be extremely difficult to defeat (near impossible) without the use of specific Things and the game does a poor job of communicating what you need ahead of time. You have to make sure you have every available Thing collected and purchased when going into any stage, just in case you run into something requiring it. This leads to even more inventory management. When fighting a boss at a stage’s end, you might find yourself having to lose in order to exit the stage, purchase the Thing you need and replay the level in order to have any shot at winning. Despite seeing the fun cutscene of using a Thing, the constant backtracking and inventory upkeep forces a lot of these stages to feel more like a chore.
Paper Mario Color Splash has so much potential that gets muddied with a bad combat system. There is a lot of great to this game but it requires the player to really have to muscle through it. The game is absolutely gorgeous and its papercraft look has never been better. The writing is funny and each set piece is exciting and makes you want to keep playing. However, with a combat system so clunky and slow, while taking up half of your play time, the enjoyment gets lost. It’s a shame that Color Splash ended up requiring such a massive caveat in order to be recommended.