Full disclosure: I’ve only played maybe an hour total of previous games in the Paper Mario series, so I’m in no way qualified to compare the experience of The Origami King to, say, The Thousand Year Door. I have, however, played and thoroughly enjoyed Super Mario RPG, which is the spiritual originator of the entire Paper Mario franchise.
The first part of describing my experience playing TOK will center primarily on gameplay elements and not on the plot. There will be spoilers in regards to some of the content, but not the story. The second part will be discussing the game’s story, and I’ll include spoiler warnings when necessary. And as always when it comes to game reviews, if you want to go in totally blind, skip reading this altogether.
Before any friends of mine mentally tell themselves, “Andy hates everything,” I’ll say first and foremost that I enjoyed my 30-odd hours playing Origami King. It’s a charming, pleasant experience that unfortunately is very thin, a bit tedious, but very well-written, which mostly makes up for its shortcomings.
My first mistake when starting up TOK was thinking it was going to be even remotely familiar to RPGs I’d played in the past. Thinking along the lines of how most of those games worked, one would expect:
- some sort of party you gather over the span of the game’s story
- experience points that you can grind out levels and improve power
- tiers of equipment you can assign and shuffle among your party, upgrading along the way
- turn-based combat with your party doling out varieties of physical and magical attacks
Paper Mario: The Origami King has only the faintest shades of what is listed. Now anyone who has played previous entries in the Paper Mario franchise will be quick to tell me that the game has been going steadily downhill since The Thousand Year Door, that the Seven Stars RPG elements from the Square/Nintendo collaboration in the 90’s are essentially altogether vanished.
I get that, and I didn’t expect that. I had low expectations, namely related to the combat (which were unfortunately realized) which I had seen in trailers and gameplay previews. I bought PM: TOK for the story and charm of a familiar, friendly Mario game world, and in that manner I was quite satisfied. That said, I was definitely hoping to be surprised with a neat RPG-ish element or two, big or small. The result was small. Real small.
MARIO DOESN’T MATTER: The Origami King features a decent swath of side characters that join you in the adventure, but only a spare few participate in combat, and when they do, you have zero control over their attacks, they have a high miss rate, and you only ever have one ‘sidekick’ at a time (you also have no say in choosing who that teammate is). Part of what makes most RPG-style games fun is the experience of meeting your party throughout the game’s story, and not only seeing them expand as characters, but seeing their powers grow and mesh with others in your party. Additionally the player can formulate a fondness (or disdain) for certain party members via the often repetitive nature of combat.
And while Mario is never really alone throughout the entirety of the game, the involuntary and minimal nature of his companions never translates into any sense of “group of friends fighting this fight together.” It feels more like Mario is a passive participant in the game that occasionally has to push a few timely buttons and solve a puzzle. The big moments all belong to side characters who are all on autopilot, bandying text around and prodding Mario toward a physical destination where they can steal the show.
BATTLE IS UNIQUE (WHICH IS A NICE WAY OF SAYING IT SUCKS): The big issue so many have with TOK is the weird combat system. How it essentially works is you spin and slide an enemy-laden puzzle board, optimally arranging the baddies into rows or squares to get a damage buff, all of which has to be done in a limited time frame. Bosses, on the other hand, turn the same board into a maze/obstacle course. The complexity of the puzzles and bosses doesn’t ramp up proportionally, either. Some enemy encounters are blatantly not worth the headache of solving in the first round, others are essentially already solved for you.
The worst part of the battle system is that you’re punished not so much in health or gold, etc. You’re punished in time. If you don’t solve the puzzle in the first round, you have to add 30 seconds to a minute to a basic encounter. If you don’t solve the more complex boss methodology right away, one can easily tack on 15-20 minutes to the battle. A great deal of this has to do with repetitive cutscenes (which are mercifully somewhat skippable) and a lack of variety in how enemies can be handled (more on that later).
While the system is novel, it absolutely shouldn’t be the rock on which Intelligent Systems/Nintendo built the entire game around. It would’ve been a really interesting singular boss fight, but after a couple hours, I’d think that most players would be very over it. If you do run into a tougher fight, you’re always given the opportunity to drop 50-100 gold to pay the audience of Toads to heal you, damage the enemies, etc. And gold is never, ever a problem in The Origami King.
OPTION A OR OPTION B: While the puzzle combat is already somewhat tiresome, the payoff of actually attacking the enemy isn’t very rewarding either. When you finally get to the action phase of striking your target, here are your options:
- hit them with your hammer
- jump on them with your boots
- use an item (fireflower, etc)
That’s it. There are no sub-menus to navigate (ala Magic/Fire/Flame Wall, etc). You have to enter battle with your boots/hammers of choice pre-selected, and Mario has no magic to utilize at any point. Fire/Ice flowers, tanuki tails, POW blocks are all limited use, and their impact compared to the primary attacks is inferior.
During the game you can procure a scant variety of boots and hammers to increase your damage, but when I say scant, I mean scant: Shiny, Flashy, Legendary. All of these are breakable. There are iron varieties to help jump on top of spiny/spiked baddies.
There is no armor or badge system. There are “Accessories,” some of which add time to solve puzzles, extra health, and reduced damage; others that are more flavor/style perks. These are all bought from vendors.
INTERESTING, AMUSING STORY: Spoilers ahead.
The best parts of the game are the characters of Olivia, a magical origami who kind of looks like a paper bag, and Kamek, a Magikoopa who’s been relegated to janitorial work at a spa run by heavenly Toads. Olivia is written in a genuinely sweet and excitable way, animated excellently to make you root for her as she works to stop her misguided, evil brother. Many of her lines and moments evoke a notable reaction, particularly her mourning over Bob-Omb (or “Bobbie” as she calls him) and thorough enjoyment of a soak at the Shagri-Spa.
Kamek stood out from among the other sidekicks in each section of the game, particularly for his dry sense of humor and how he often compares the experience of the group’s current plight against what it’s like working for Lord Bowser. His magical broom initially replaced by a rake, it’s amusing to see him fight the urge to clean things up, even when he’s off-duty.
Bob-Omb/Bobbie is perhaps the deepest character in the game, and maybe one of the more in a recent Mario franchise release. After restoring his memories that he lost due to a damaged fuse, he sacrifices himself so that Mario and Olivia can continue on their adventure to stop Ollie (the titular Origami King). His sacrifice sends Olivia into mourning, and the unprepared may find themselves touched by that segment of the story.
There’s a lot of self-awareness in TOK, namely when it comes to Bowser’s role in taking on Ollie’s origami insanity. He and his minions often favorably compare themselves (“even I’m not that bad, just ask Mario!”). I do wish they’d seem more declarative of their motivations, as you’d think it would be their impetus to get their world straightened, so as to resume typical rivalries. Yet the Koopa/Mushroom Kingdom-ites are portrayed almost entirely to be on friendly terms. At no point are Bowser or the Koopas treacherous, either. It all feels overly clean and friendly, with only passing, humorous references to Bowser and his koopalings’ evil deeds.
WINDOW DRESSING: The world is vibrant and styled wonderfully to look like strips of paper. The use of confetti to repair holes in the map is quite satisfying. “Macho” enemies are easily the most fun part of the game to fight and encounter, and their ragged appearances are often quite comical looking. The best segment of the world to play through is the second one, Autumn Mountain. The developers did a great job on that portion in particular, making it primarily about restoring a wannabe-Disneyland theme park based on Ninjas.
The music is pretty good all-around, if not a bit repetitive at some points, forgettable in others.
And that seems to summarize Paper Mario: The Origami King nicely. Pretty good all-around, if not a bit repetitive at some points, forgettable in others. The game is nice to look at, reasonably enjoyable to play, and has a nice story, but much of it feels flimsy, like a course correction for a franchise that hadn’t put out a good title in awhile. I don’t know if Sticker Star and/or Color Splash was/were bad, as I never played either, but a great deal of positive feedback on the title from those who have indicates that PM: TOK is a step in the right direction in most regards. I’ll leave that to those who have played previous titles.
In the end, TOK was a solid playthrough that didn’t overstay its welcome, but leaves me wishing there is a game out there that fully embraces being a casual turn-based RPG. Many have suggested Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling as a worthy title to fill the void left by games akin to PM: TTYD. I’ll give it a whirl. In the meantime, do I recommend Paper Mario: The Origami King?
I’d say if you can get it for $40 or less, absolutely.