Paper Mario: The Origami King Review

Paper Mario: The Origami King is Nintendo’s fourth entry in the Paper Mario JRPG series, and while it doesn’t return to the classic RPG formula of its first entries, it has enough style and wit to carry the series toward new directions—which not all fans might like.

The game kicks off by introducing you to the new villain, King Olly, and his many folded minions. Princess Peach and her castle are abducted, and it’s Mario’s (and his ally, Olivia’s) job to go after them. The game immediately sets up a structure that you will cycle through multiple times throughout its thirty to forty hour long campaign: go to a new region, unlock the entrance to a temple, explore said themed temple to unlock a new power, and then use that power to gain access to one of the streamers that is blocking you from reaching the castle. Fortunately, a visually stunning (seriously, look at this water) open world and a wide selection of secrets and collectibles to find make it so that the game never feels repetitive.

For the most part, finding a collectible or Toad is as simple as whacking an object with your hammer or tugging at a loose piece of paper in the ground. Less frequently, the game throws you an oddball: maybe it’s a submarine segment that requires you to scope the bottom of the sea for treasure, or a wall you have to peel off using your 1000 Fold Arms technique. There are some other instances where you need to solve minor puzzles or spot environmental cues, and the temples in particular make good use of these segments, but they’re infrequent and not difficult.

Despite its open world, the game still operates on a fairly linear basis: each new area only opens up after having completed the previous one. In truth, the open world only matters for those who wish to get all collectibles, as to acquire them you’ll often need to backtrack after obtaining a new item or freeing another Toad. Still, seeing how your actions have changed each region (of particular note is how several of the Toads you free actually show up in previously uninhabited areas, adding new conversation options and even prizes) was enough of a reward: some areas, like the Desert and Toad Town, change significantly as you progress through the story.

Nintendo still seems to be coming to grips with its lack of an achievement system, however, and The Origami King is a clear example of this fault. The many treasures and trophies you unlock during the game serve little purpose, as they’re locked into a museum that requires multiple loading screens for you to reach. An in-menu tracker (or something like Xenoblade’s Collectopaedia) would’ve been much better; as it is, I just couldn’t be bothered breaking the game’s flow to look at the treasure I’d found.

Twist it, pull it, hop it, boop it!

Paper Mario’s always been famous for its battle systems: a sort of turn-based JRPG where correctly timing different input types rewards you with better damage or blocking. The Origami King adds a new twist to the series with its ringed arena, making the terrain as important as the origami minions you’re fighting.

To summarize: in each fight, you’re given a short amount of time to rearrange the circles around Mario so as to line up your enemies and get a ‘Perfect!’ bonus that increases your damage (and is often necessary for a single-round clear). It feels a bit awkward at first, but after a while I found certain ‘patterns’ clicking in my head, and soon I became able to quickly identify the different arrangements and sort them accordingly. In a genre where I often find myself out of challenge by the end of a game, this puzzle mechanic kept me on my feet from beginning to end.

Boss encounters flip this dynamic on its head: instead of being in the center, Mario must navigate from the outer rim towards the middle, where the boss rests. To do this you must use the same alignment system for another purpose: to create paths and place the required items and interaction tiles (for using techniques and attacks) where you need them. Each boss has a unique twist that you can learn by observing or collecting the tutorial letters scattered on the arena. Fighting them was one of my favorite parts of the game, striking a neat difficulty balance that never felt trivial or overwhelming.

As you progress, new enemy types with different behaviors and vulnerabilities, such as Boos that disappear and flying enemies that can’t be hit by hammers, are added to the encounter roster. It’s all very intuitive (you can usually tell what you can and can’t do just from the enemy models) and helps combat stay fresh. Those who get stuck often or don’t like it can always fall back on the ever-growing crowd of Toads they liberate, who are happy to help you in battle for a handful of coins (give them enough and they’ll automatically sort the arena).

The game also gives you a wide range of accessories and battle items to help you in combat. Accessories give you passive bonuses, such as increased battle timers, health or a bell ring when close to a Toad/treasure/hidden block, while the weapons increase your battle damage or grant you unique abilities, such as being able to jump on spiked shells or hit far away enemies with a hammer attack. These items are also your main motivator for getting as many coins as possible: several of them are expensive, and you’ll often want several copies of different weapons, as many enemies won’t die in one hit to your normal arsenal. Unfortunately, you can only buy these items one at a time: cycling through the same three dialog boxes as I stacked over twenty different items was tedious and could’ve easily been fixed.

Crafts and Arts

The entire campaign and all of its regions are all crafted with an attention to detail that Nintendo (more specifically their subsidiary, Intelligent Systems) has perfected. Each origami enemy has different animations and visuals; NPCs crumple when you whack them with Mario’s hammer; and different parts of the environment fold and unfold as you discover their secret interactions. There’s a lot of visual humor to it as well. This ‘crafty’ look fits, of course, with the whole Paper and Origami theme, but even on its own looks fantastic, with enough style that I personally thought it looked better than many of the AAA games on more powerful consoles and hardware.

The same quality and attention to detail is given to both its worldbuilding and soundtrack. Each region is vastly different from the previous one, almost making the adventure a sort of virtual tourism through its many different biomes: you’ll go from temperate forests to blazing deserts and icy mountains, as well as many other locales. The regions have thematically-fitting songs and slight modifications to the battle themes.

The only Paperwork that’s fun

If there’s one aspect of the game that I had to single out as its best, it’s the writing. While the story never gets too complicated or goes anywhere particularly unique, the moment-to-moment interactions are witty, funny and often hilarious, and they had me grinning like an idiot more times than I can remember. There’s jokes, puns, references to other games, meta commentaries, all beautifully translated. This was clearly a tremendous effort by the localization team, and it paid off. It really is a game about the journey and not the destination, however, and some might find the lack of a more complex, overarching story disappointing.

Paper Mario: The Origami King might not be the return to tradition that many of the series’ fans had hoped for. There’s no attribute choices (though your damage and health do increase), and partners play an almost irrelevant role (Olivia aside). Personally, I can’t consider these as faults, as the streamlining really helped me focus on the game’s best bits: the combat and writing. And boy, are they great.

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