Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam Bros is wholesome, warm, but occasionally wearisome.
Crossovers are intrinsically tasty ideas. There's just something about sandwiching two popular worlds, slicing off the crust of logic, and taking a bite out of the ensuing chaos. Superman and Aliens? Awesome. Futurama and Simpsons? Fantastic! Mario and Paper Mario? Like peanut butter and chocolate, swirled together on a wholemeal bed.
Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam Bros is, like all of its predecessors, wholesome, unbearably twee in places, and rather insistent about making sure you know exactly how it all goes down. If you've played Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, you'll understand why that last bit creases my brow. Even hours in, the game will still find opportunities to carefully - and thoroughly - explain some new mechanic or another, regardless of whether it really needs said clarification. But let's put the grousing aside for a bit, and look at what you're really for. What's Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam and should you buy it?
There're a few short answers to this question. It's a quick yes if you're a) a Mario super-fan or b) enamoured of cute things, quirky dialogue, and sometimes gimmicky combat. Saccharine to a possible fault, Paper Jam makes no attempt to reinvent the formula it's been given, playing it safe outside of a few obligatory twists.
The basic premise is cute if somewhat pedestrian: Luigi and an inquisitive Toad are exploring a storage chamber one day when the former accidentally releases the occupants of a certain book. Paper cut-outs then erupt from the royal palace, sprinkling two-dimensional doppelgangers of the Mushroom Kingdom everywhere. And as is always the case with these things, it's now up to everyone's favorite Italian caricatures to save the day.
Narrative-wise, it's a comfortably predictable romp, complete with Princess Peach's obligatory kidnapping and a sojourn to Bowser's castle. Despite the inclusion of Paper Mario, nothing changes very drastically. Your explorations are still conducted with the analog stick, the brothers are still mute, and the combat is still largely turn-based.
In case you haven't had any experience with the Mario RPGs, it's worth noting that the battle system actually requires you have decent reflexes. Every action, whether defensive or offensive, is a prelude to a mini-game. For example, if you want to jump on an enemy's head, you're going to need to hit the right button at the right time in order to inflict the maximum amount of damage. Similarly, if you're looking to avoid the hammers from a Hammer Bro, you'll need to dodge those household tools with similarly deft button presses.
What's clever is that all this is done with a single button - one for each brother. The result is a game that often succeeds at being tense without ever becoming redundantly complicated. It's a fine throwback to Mario's platforming days as is that need to learn enemy patterns, which can vary in complexity depending on whether you're dealing with a Goomba or a boss. Paper Jam Bros occasionally surprised me with its difficulty. While ostensibly a game for kids, it can catch you off-guard. Don't let it do that. It's embarrassing. Trust me.
I'm slightly divided on whether I enjoy the giant papercraft battles. It's a neat idea and thematically appropriate. There's also something very, very satisfying about piloting what is essentially a Luigi-shaped tank propelled by an army of musical Toads. (Every word in that last sentence will make sense, I swear.) But is it fun? Sorta? Kinda?
Compared to the rest of the game, the papercraft duels feel ponderous and methodical. Much of your time is divided between collecting your origami giant (you attack by launching the papercraft behemoth through the air), and refueling the brute with rhythm-based timing. And it feels a bit inconsequential. I liked the general conceit, but it does get a little tiresome with all the legwork you need to do before you can actually engage the boss.
Therein lies the biggest problem with Paper Jam Bros. It gets a little tiresome. Not very tiresome. Just a little tiresome. Enough to make you want to put away the 3DS for a spot and go do something else. This niggling issue is best encapsulated by the Paper Toad rescue, in which you must pick up side quests from helpful Lakitu. In Nintendo's defense, many of these are fun. There's a Tetris-lite sequence, for example, where you'll have to figure out how to break blocks without crushing Toads and one where you have to dodge objects cascading through quicksand. It goes on, and it goes on to become mildly tedious. Every time you encounter a new obstacle, a new feature in the landscape, you know you'll have to go through this old song and dance game.
I especially wish there was more variety to the challenges you encounter when travelling through the game. As with its predecessors, Paper Jam Bros will have you hurdling elevated platforms, bouncing into blocks with your head, entering huge green pipes, and more. It might seem like a funhouse of things to interact with, but there's never really any sense of challenge to what you do. If anything, it often feels like a drag - rather like a road trip no one really wants to take, even if it leads you through a land of occasional origami.
Having said all that, I like Paper Jam Bros. I like it a lot. The environments are lush and bright, the characters are wonderfully expressive. Everything evokes 16-bit memories of the SNES and the very first Mario RPG, while being better polished than nostalgia remembers. The music is appropriately bubbly, occasionally switching its gleeful overtones for an undercurrent of Bowser-related menace. It's a fun place to visit, in no small part thanks to the people.
One of the things that the Mario and Luigi games have always had going for them is the support of excellent localisation teams. It's no different here. The dialogue is both hilarious and self-aware, and there's something appealing about the way the Mario brothers are kept from being traditional heroes. More often than not, they're being berated for their own silliness, or surprised by a new development. Unfortunately, because the siblings themselves are incapable of speech, much of the exposition is delivered by side characters, all of whom spend far too much time saying, "Are you saying - "
But when it works, Paper Jam Bros works well. It's a happy game, fond of its characters and its source material. It tries very hard to cultivate interest in its new ideas, often to the point of obnoxiousness, and the interplay between the two-dimensional world and the three-dimensional Mushroom Kingdom is often charming to behold. This particular Mario & Luigi might be paper-thin, but it can be beautiful with it.