Some video games make up for lacking gameplay with an excellent, compelling story. Some make up for their nearly absent stories by being incredibly fun to play. With this in mind, Paper Mario: Color Splash finds itself in a bit of a strange position, with a constant trade back and forth of flaws and upsides that make it hard to fit this game into either category, and since this game chooses to put itself in the RPG genre, a rickety foundation can spell doom for the game’s quality.
Paper Mario: Color Splash does try to have a story. Set in a world made of paper and cardboard, Color Splash tells the tale of famous hero Mario heading to Port Prisma after he learns that people are being drained of all their color. Once he’s there, he discovers the entire island is gradually having all its color drained, his old foe Bowser responsible now that he is coated in the destructive Black Paint. It’s up to Mario to gather six Big Paint Stars and countless Mini Paint Stars to restore color to the island and face down Bowser to keep the black paint from blanketing the entire world… but strangely, the game thinks you can’t glean the plot despite its pretty decent set-up. Early on you see both what happened to the Paint Stars and that Bowser is responsible for the draining and trying to cover areas in Black Paint, but all the characters seem to think there is more to the story and act like the strangely unfurling yet stagnant plot is being gradually revealed to them. The set-up seems to suggest there might be some twist and there is admittedly a bit of a small one, but the steps along the way don’t really add anything to the plot despite trying to pitch themselves as such.
Still, since this is a long game and a role-playing game, you’d usually expect there to be some interesting subplots and good writing, and… Color Splash certainly tries! The moment to moment writing is pretty fun and silly, the game acknowledging that its plot isn’t that serious and instead choosing to keep the tone pretty lighthearted and full of humor. Whether it be traditional humor, references to other Mario games, or even some character-based jokes, Color Splash surprisingly came with quite a few chuckles, and it was hard not to smile at some of the absurd situations the game openly revels in. Unfortunately, the character-based jokes don’t work too well when the game can barely bring itself to establish any characters. Huey, your paint can companion for the journey, makes for a fine companion, his personality shining throughout even though it has to dip into generic exposition since Huey must be the one to interact with the world to act in the place of the ever silent Mario. Huey’s probably the only one who is really given a bit of rounding though, as the other characters you meet are unfortunately as flat as the paper they’re made of, owing mostly to the fact that they are almost all either mushroom-headed Toads if they’re good guys or the mask-wearing Shy Guys if they’re bad guys. Sure, they mix up the colors on these Toads and Shy Guys, and they might put a hat, glasses, or different shirt on these characters to almost make them stand out, but even though the game tries to give a bit of a personality to them, they don’t seem to be able to name any of them outside of stating their profession. The mountain sage looks exactly like the professor, and the only way to tell Foreman Toad apart from the group of green Toads around him is that he is always scowling. The game tries to make jokes about this to smooth it over, but then it shows its willing to have other creatures like Koopas and Goombas in the game and it never bothers to swap in one of those for a character role to make them a bit memorable. After getting a Big Paint Star, they even do a big dance where the characters you met along the way all join in… but the characters hardly stand out when they look just like everyone next to them. A few bosses try to establish a personality before you fight them too, but the fun writing of the game is wasted when it can’t really be supported by interesting stories or characters to joke about!
The game world is at least a bit more interesting than its characters. The paper art style is being fully embraced, with everything in the world made of either paper or papercraft save where it is deliberately subverted by the realistic 3D objects called Things that have a heavy impact on this world they don’t belong in. The paper aesthetic is explored in a lot of cute ways. You can unfurl paper craft into new objects, paper people won’t go swimming for fear of getting soggy, and other small touches help the world really firmly root itself in its art style. This gets a big boost from Mario’s newest skill, the ability to paint things with a swing of his hammer. Almost every area you visit will have patches of color missing, and characters can’t talk and objects can’t function unless they are completely colored in. It’s pretty satisfying to make your way through the levels and spruce the place back up, each bit of color added back rewarding you with coins or the cards that you’ll use in the battle system. The early areas are a tad bit generic and unexciting however, focused more on showing off the quirks of the paper world and how you can paint things rather than giving you anything interesting to see. However, the game thankfully picks up quite a bit once you hit the haunted hotel Dark Bloo Inn, and from there the level structures are a lot more creative and unique. Whether its going on a grand pirate adventure between parallel worlds or trying to repair a train piece by piece, Color Splash’s back half manages to come in with a lot of memorable and fun moments despite its lacking characters and the grander plot being a bit basic. For most levels your goal is to collect the Mini Paint Stars, but the game has a few odd ways of extending its runtime. Some levels contain multiple Mini Paint Stars, some right next to each other that for some reason require a second complete playthrough of the level to acquire. A second run isn’t too bothersome as you know the level enough to speed through it, but the fact that Mario could have walked a few feet and grabbed the other one as well makes them an annoyance rather than an extra touch.
Despite all that is working against it, Color Splash’s writing and more interesting moments almost help it to be something special… until it ends up mired in the flaws of the game’s battle system. Paper Mario: Color Splash’s battles are based around a card system where each attack is executed by playing a card. Each card disappears after use, but Color Splash soothes this wound a bit by making cards so incredibly abundant that you’ll rarely ever be wanting for them, although you’ll certainly be wanting more deck space as the max amount of cards you can have in your deck is never expanded. This could almost fix the issue with the combat where you are constantly wasting cards to battle enemies… but most every battle is completely pointless and the deck size only makes the battles you do fight more annoying. The first issue with your deck size are Things, these big powerful cards that can win most any common battle but are often absolutely required to either progress in a level or are necessary to make the game’s main bosses even beatable. If you don’t bring the right thing to a boss, you can’t win. The game tries to ease that strict requirement by telegraphing what you’ll need quite loudly before or even during the fight as well as giving you the means to run away so you can grab the Things and return. Still, it makes the boss fights a lot less enjoyable when the cards you might want to use are basically back-ups to the Thing that makes them too easy. Mini-bosses are the time for your collection to shine, your actual attacking cards and non-required Things making those battles more interesting, but you’ve likely seen your deck wither along the way to that mini-boss. At least this does lead to some of the few moments of battle strategy you’ll be asked to engage in over the course of the game.
You’ll naturally need to keep some healing items in your deck as well as the Things, so the middle is filled by your attacking cards, cards that must be used every time you face any foe. To the game’s credit, the enemy life bars being how much color their bodies have is a genius design that works with the game’s aesthetic beautifully, but the battles are an utter waste of time and resources. The best strategy for each battle is to use enough cards to clear all the enemies in one go and thus draining your better cards on these encounters, and the reward for beating them is so minimal it might as well not exist. Besides the coins and an occasional card, the main reward for a fight are small hammer scraps that can expand your paint meter to help you paint the world and your cards alike… except your paint reserves are rarely an issue. Even trying to avoid every battle I could I still never really found myself low on paint, and only one boss in the game really even uses paint reserves in an interesting manner. The game doesn’t allow you to paint your blank cards except in battle, but I feel the paint reserves could have been a more interesting mechanic if you could paint them at your leisure, requiring you to search more thoroughly for more paint and helping to remove one of the more pointless steps from the battle. Otherwise, the paint mostly feeds into the game’s terrible approach to its card battle system.
Now, I don’t dislike card battling in an RPG inherently, I’ve played games like Metal Gear Acid and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories where I quite liked it, but neither of those had the rigamarole around it that Color Splash has. To play a card in Color Splash, you must scroll through your deck of potentially 99 cards, only 7 cards showing on your screen at any one time. You select the cards you want and… you move into the painting phase, where you fill any cards that aren’t prepainted with color. From there, you confirm your cards and… then there is a flicking phase, where you have to swipe the cards up to play them. Even after that, you then must press buttons in time with the attacks to make them more effective. It’s needlessly slow and split into far too many steps, a fact the game even sort of acknowledges this with the Advanced Touch Controls option that combines the playing and painting phase but still requires the pointless flicking stage that adds nothing to the battle except time. Considering how slow it can already be to find the right card, the battles are needlessly sluggish, especially since most fights will end after the first turn. The game does give you a Sort option for the deck, but it puts them in a rather inconvenient order, especially for the easy battles. Healing items are the ones displayed first, and you need to scroll back through all your strongest items to get to the weaker ones. It got to the point where I deliberately didn’t sort and would make sure I bought good cards to have near the front… but soon the cards I would pick up would clutter the deck and make things too hard to find, so a sort was required and the deck was poorly arranged again. All of this can potentially be adjusted to, but then… the game punishes you for being slow and methodical, even though it’s putting many of the speed barriers in your way. Certain enemies, if you take too long to pick your attack, will rush in and steal a card, and it always seemed to be a pretty good card as well. So the game that put all these needless obstacles in its combat is now punishing you for not dealing with them quickly enough! Surprisingly, the game does give a small mercy, in that if you run away from combat, the enemy not only disappears entirely, but you lose nothing in doing so, only feeding into the idea that the battles aren’t worth your time at all.
Color Splash’s world could have been interesting to explore if it hadn’t filled it with battles that are annoying drains of your resources, but strangely enough, the resources are also so abundant that it doesn’t matter if you’re losing them or gaining them. Coins can be maxed out early on making it too easy to buy better cards, and since healing items can be easily acquired as well, the only times I even died were to two instant death obstacles. The only time I really ever felt a crunch in regards to money or cards was during the final boss, meaning most every other battle was just a matter of getting it over with. I didn’t even go as overboard as the game allowed in regards to filling my deck with too much power, but the game does try to add some minor diversions to pull you away from its flawed battle system. Other than coloring the world, you can also help build up a museum of battle cards, or you can visit the Roshambo Temples that were ALMOST great, but falter at the end. See, at these temples you play rock-paper-scissors for coins and prizes, but if you ask around before a tournament, you can get hints about your first two opponents and their play styles. Unfortunately… there’s always a third opponent, and his tactics are always random. If the temples were fast this wouldn’t be an issue, you could lose and get back into it for the rematch, but the tournaments are just as slow as the battles even when you can skip the dialogue, and you have to retry them completely if you lose the random round. Even real life rock-paper-scissors has a bit of strategy as you try to guess how your opponent’s personality might affect their choice and you can potentially play mind games with a tie round, but the soulless computer opponent will just pick something and play it, so it’s entirely random if you succeed and not very fun to retry because of it. The Roshambo Temples are a microcosm of Paper Mario: Color Splash’s greater issue: it has the proper resources to be something good, but it fails when it comes time for the execution.
THE VERDICT: I can’t say I have any huge attachment to the Paper Mario series as a whole despite liking many of its installments, but I was open to Color Splash and it had some quirks to it that I liked. Embracing the paper theme was a good call and focusing on color and paint made for a great way to interact with it. There a few clever puzzles where you have to paint invisible floors to make your way through an area or have to mark something with paint so you don’t lose track of it. The sad thing is those clever moments are rarer than you’d think, and while the basic coloring is satisfying as well, it ties into Color Splash’s issue with having something good but not being able to do enough with it. The Thing animations have a hilarious level of gravitas to them, with the piggy bank’s animation being absolutely legendary, but their requirement in certain battles hurts their interesting nature and makes bosses less interesting as a result. Sometimes enemies can turn into cards and its really cool to call them in combat as temporary helpers, the enemy attacking until it is defeated by your foe. They can even turn to the enemy side sometimes and this feels like it could have been an interesting mechanic to potentially even base the whole game around… but they’re so rare they aren’t worth using and you can’t even use them on bosses, the same issue that comes up with the Replica Things you encounter along the way. The funny writing and more interesting parts of the world are wasted on a plot and world that refuses to support them, and the battle system is so scared of the player being ill-prepared that it inundates them with more resources then they’ll ever need but not enough space that they can use them freely.
And so, I give Paper Mario: Color Splash for the Wii U…
An AVERAGE rating. The flaws in Color Splash can’t be ignored, but neither can its many attempts to rise above them. When you aren’t in battle, Color Splash is a lovely world with some nice backing tunes and an art style that makes even the simplest areas look interesting. Interacting with substories, the moment-to-moment coloring, and navigating the unique environments work well and would make for unforgettable moments in a better game, but even though the writing tries to elevate it beyond its issues, the flaws roll in and bog it down from being anything more than average. The battles can be fun when the game allows you to use strategy, but most of them are time wasters or made too easy through the use of Things, so the game is essentially asking you to enjoy the rest of it in spite of its bland battle system. If the game isn’t going to be about resource management due to an overabundance of resources it shouldn’t try and pretend it is. Either a larger deck size or maybe making it so you can bring in small but reusable decks could make the battle system better, as could embracing the more interesting cards like the enemy cards. Most of all, if it actually made you have to consider which cards to use on enemies instead of wiping them out with all-purpose powerful ones, it would help make the simple battles actually challenging and fulfilling.
It hurts a little to be so harsh to Color Splash when you can open the game’s digital manual and read tiny anecdotes and blurbs from the developers about how much fun they had making it, but that joyful energy rarely manifests in the game itself. Color Splash mostly reads like a game where the developers were too scared to do certain things. Mario can’t be allowed to be too low on anything so they give him everything. The paper art style needs to be ubiquitous so the battle system focuses more on the nature of cards than their function. And for some reason, the story and its characters aren’t allowed to be too interesting, so everyone is essentially the same and the greater story is flat and obvious. I feel like Color Splash could have been so much more quite easily, but it seems both the gameplay and the writing hope to rely on the other to support their flaws and you end up with something passable instead of something great.