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Paper Mario: The Origami King is a thoroughly charming adventure full of heart, though it's certainly not without its flaws. An often-overbearing companion and flat (no pun intended) battle system occasionally threaten to derail the entire experience. Fortunately, a beautifully realised world full of paper-based surprises and lovable characters are guaranteed to keep you smiling throughout the 30-hour journey
Developer Intelligent Systems seems to have almost completely abandoned the series' RPG roots in favour of an action-adventure title that honestly feels closer to Zelda than Paper Mario for much of its running time. If you were hoping this would be the mythical sequel to The Thousand-Year Door, you'll be disappointed once again. But stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with some of the best, most quintessentially Paper Mario moments you've ever seen.
The Origami King takes place, as the franchise always does, in a world in which everyone and everything is made out of paper. Cardboard trees line the streets of Toad Town, giant enemies made of papier-mâché patrol the land, and tissue paper flowers dot the meadows and valleys. It's the simplest idea, but Intelligent Systems always finds new ways to have fun with the central conceit, adhering to the ridiculous rules and logic of the papercraft world.
This is easily the best the series has ever looked, and whether you're playing handheld or docked, this papery take on the Mushroom Kingdom is a handcrafted delight. I'm just as excited for next-gen graphics as everybody else, but as long as Nintendo can keep pouring so much heart into the hardware it has, I'm more than happy to stick with the Switch for as long as possible.
The game's plot centers around a sentient "Origami King". Enraged by his own existence, and the disgusting flatness of Mario and his friends, the King takes the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom - including Peach - and folds them into brainwashed origami subjects. There's a genuine touch of horror about the way in which Peach and other well-known characters are transformed into emotionless drones, and I was quite thrown by how genuinely creepy the first hour or so is.
Before long, Mario teams up with the King's sister, another origami creation called Olivia. She recognises that her big brother's plan to fold everyone into origami is probably actually super weird and over the line... so she and the famous plumber embark on a journey to every corner of the Mushroom Kingdom to take the Origami King down and rescue Peach.
It's about as bananas as you'd expect a Paper Mario game to be, and I had an absolute blast exploring every inch of the game's multiple, distinct areas, all of which coexist as part of one large world connected by warp pipes. It's an approach to world design we haven't really seen in a Paper Mario since The Thousand-Year Door, but it's wonderful to see a wider world back in the mix.
To lay out every area the game has in store for you would be to ruin the experience, but believe me when I say The Origami King has some of the most expansive and entertaining areas in any Paper Mario game. You'll explore the ruined streets of Toad Town, ride across the desert in a shoe in search of ruins, and rescue staff at a Samurai theme park.
My absolute favourite area of the entire game sees you exploring the Great Sea aboard a boat. Armed with a sea chart and tasked with exploring various islands, it's like the Wind Waker sequel I've been craving for most of my life. This is just a fraction of the game, mind, and nothing like any of the other areas, but that's the real strength of The Origami King - it's never quite possible to predict what on Earth the game is going to throw at you next.
You'll also be more than happy to spend extra time in these locations, pushing yourself to explore every nook and cranny of these massive, inventive areas for hidden coins, powerups, items, and Toads.
The Toads in particular are absolutely everywhere, and basically act as environmental puzzles - similar to Korok Seeds in Breath Of The Wild. Each Toad you rescue will have something genuinely funny to say about the downright bizarre predicaments you find them in, and they'll all go on to help you out in the game's battles, which I'll get to in just a moment.
But while the game thrives on its sprawling world, creative puzzles, and surprisingly Zelda-inspired dungeon areas, a lot of The Origami King's earlier sections can be a real pain thanks to a companion that just doesn't shut up.
I get that The Origami King is a game for younger players first and foremost, but Olivia spends so much of the first few hours explaining everything, to the point that I started rolling my eyes so much that I was worried they might have lodged themselves in the back of my head permanently.
As soon as you step into a new area, before you can even take in the visual clues and information for yourself, she'll jump out and say something painfully obvious like, "Hey, doesn't that thing over there look interesting?" What's the point in the well-designed areas Intelligent has made if Olivia is just going to force us to head straight toward the "right" path?
Worse still, she explains the battle system to you at least three times, and will repeatedly jump out uninvited to tell you what an item does after you've picked it up. This despite the fact that picking up an item literally triggers a perfectly clear explanation without her chiming in.
I'm happy to report that she does cool it with the incessant hints after a few hours, and eventually will only pop up with a useful hint if you hit the X button. But those early areas can be a slog that threaten to rob the first few hours of their joy entirely.
Speaking of slogs, let's discuss the battle system. In my preview, I really, really didn't get along with it. In fact, I argued that it was needlessly gimmicky, and threatened to be the one blemish that I just couldn't look past.
Thankfully, I've spent a lot more time with it since then and I don't think it's as bad as I did initially. With that said, I still reckon it's pretty naff, and one of the few things holding The Origami King back from being the best Paper Mario game to date.
The Origami King scraps your standard RPG brawl in favour of something a little different, just like Sticker Star and Color Splash did to varying degrees of success. This latest battle system is really more of a puzzle game than anything else - the problem is just that I really don't see what it adds to the experience.
As you've likely seen from the trailers (or read in previews), Mario starts every battle in the middle of a circle surrounded by enemies. You have a limited amount of time and moves at the start of a fight to rotate the circle and line your foes up in such a way that you can take them all out as efficiently as possible.
It's always possible to get a "perfect lineup" within the time limit, which gives Mario an attack boost. Whether or not you achieve this or run out of time doesn't really matter, because the fight then moves into a more traditional Paper Mario kind of deal, with jump and hammer attacks that do more damage with well-timed button presses.
The catch is that your attacks will only hit out in a certain radius, hence the importance of you making sure enemies are lined up in such a way that you can wipe them out in just one well-placed turn before they have a chance to attack back.
It sounds great in theory, but the reality is that after a few battles it gets boring fast. The repetitive nature of these fights are, frankly, made all the worse by the fact that each area of the wider world is so unique and inventive. The game does little to change the fights up as you progress, and even the game's varied cast of enemies feel exactly the same to fight outside of having slightly different attacks.
It also doesn't help that you don't level up or gain experience from battles, meaning there's very little incentive to do anything other than sigh and attempt to flee/avoid combat where possible. You can earn coins, which can then be used to coax the aforementioned Toads into battle to help arrange the circle for you and throw you useful items. But the amount you spend on getting Toads to do anything useful versus what you actually get paid after a fight means you're better off avoiding trouble.
Mercifully, there are very few times when the game forces you into a combat situation, and battling actually isn't that bad when encounters are few and far between. Still, I can't help but wonder how much more enjoyable The Origami King could have been with a slightly more dynamic approach to taking on enemies.
Boss battles are way more interesting, both in the challenges they present and in the sheer ridiculousness of the things you'll be fighting. Again, I don't want to give away the surprise of these encounters, but let's just say you'll never look at your stationary the same way. Assuming you actually own stationary, I guess.
These larger-than-life encounters twist the battle system by putting Mario outside of the circle, with the boss in the middle. Rather than arrange the circle to line up attacks, you need to arrange a path from the outside in, making sure to hit key powerups, switches, and attack pads on the way to do maximum damage. Unlike regular battles, these boss encounters are spaced out enough that the concept doesn't become too annoying or repetitive, meaning each time you throw down with a big bad feels like a bombastic thrill.
Oh, and some of these battles can get genuinely tense, especially with a ticking timer and the prospect of a super-powerful attack from the boss that you know is going to wipe you out. Fortunately, Toads are still there to help make things easier - for a price. They're industrious little bastards, I'll give them that. You can also find various shops around the world that sell equippable accessories that increase damage, HP, and even the amount of time you have to "solve" the circles.
What I really learned by the time the credits rolled on The Origami King, however, is that the combat really is secondary to the wider experience. The writing, world design, characters, and myriad of secrets do more than enough to hold up a slightly naff battle system - one that you don't even really spend that much time with.
Had Intelligent Systems found some way to make fights more interesting or worthwhile, this might have been the best Paper Mario game to date. As it stands, it's easily the best adventure with the paper plumber I've had in years. Even if it doesn't quite reach the delirious highs of those first two entries, this is a game that kept a genuine smile on my face for almost its entire duration - and I don't know that we can underestimate the value of that right now.
Paper Mario: The Origami King was tested on Nintendo Switch with code supplied by the publisher. The game is released on July 17th exclusively for Nintendo Switch. Read a guide to our review scores here.
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