There's something missing from Paper Mario: Colour Splash. But it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what.
Is it the effortless, dorky humour from the first two games? Is it the excitable music that used to soundtrack your adventures? Is it the wild and varied cast of characters we saw in the GameCube’s Thousand-Year Door - the pinnacle of the series so far?
Trick question: it’s all of them. Color Splash has a lot to offer, and is incredibly beautiful, but it just feels a bit lacking overall. It doesn’t have that spark, that personality that the older games did, and might leave you feeling a little deflated as a result.
After arriving on an island to find its colour drained, its inhabitants robbed and its paint-filled central fountain totally empty, it's fairly standard Mario stuff from the off - beat the level, get the stars, save Peach, etc etc etc.
Only this time you're accompanied by Huey, a magical talking paint can whose job is apparently to point out the obvious every couple of minutes. Huey needs to meet the business end of a can of paint thinner.
Too Slow, too small
Colour Splash has quite a few clever ideas, but because it all happens in small, self-contained levels rather than several-hour-long chapters and a larger overworld like previous Paper Mario games, it never has the room to stretch out and create a story with enough momentum to keep you going.
It takes hours to actually get to the part where you find out who the main enemy is, and by then it’s sort of hard to care.
Then, there’s the dialogue. It’s well-written, and the translation job is stellar as always - but there’s just SO MUCH OF IT. Huey insists on telling you exactly what just happened in a cutscene, or exactly where to head when there's only one door in a level. Either the developers don’t trust you to figure it out, or they don’t trust their own level design.
The main problem - and this may well be a personal one - is that, despite how polished and technically perfect it is, Colour Splash is just very, very boring. The combat system is the main culprit here, being a near-copy of the 3DS Paper Mario game, Sticker Star.
One of the worst things about Sticker Star was how limited the combat was. Color Splash uses the same template: your moves are limited to the cards you have in your hand, which can be collected from the overworld and from fallen enemies.
Each card is an attack - your standard jump and hammer, various combinations that let you jump and hammer several times, and cards that summon an enemy to fight on your behalf.
Just one more thing
There are also “Thing” cards which trigger a cutscene, mainly to to defeat bosses, but those bosses are near impossible to beat without them - making the fight more of a box-ticking exercise than a fun battle.
Fighting enemies feels like a chore, and that’s because it’s designed like one. You choose the cards you want to fight with on the GamePad screen, you “colour them in” with paint, then flick them towards the TV. You have to do this EVERY TIME it’s your turn.
What’s more, most of the enemies are Shy Guys, and Shy Guys are just a little bit dull. Likewise, most of the NPC characters are Toads, and Toads are very dull. Cute, but dull.
There are parts that are actually quite fun, even if it never approaches the heights of the first two games. The level design is varied, with locations ranging from huge castles to desert plains, and there are a few weird new ideas like the “Unfurl Hammer” - which lets you to interact with the environment in unexpected ways.
The Paint Hammer itself is adorable, too - splashing colour everywhere in a pleasantly animated way, bringing life back to the walls, floors and Toads of Prism Island.
However, the paint itself is a slightly muddled addition. The island is supposed to have had its paint stolen, which makes it sound like it’s hard to come by. But it’s not.
In fact, it’s very hard to actually run out of paint: it’s hidden in every tree, bush, flower and enemy you come across. Likewise with coins - it’s easy to amass thousands in a few hours without even trying, rendering the whole economy worthless.
Paper Mario: Colour Splash Verdict
It’s tough to know what to say about Paper Mario: Color Splash, because most of this review so far has been negative. It isn’t a bad game, it’s just a game that can’t possibly match up to what the series once was.
Nintendo has taken the series in a direction that feels weaker and less fun, by trying to make everything more gimmicky when it just doesn’t need to.
It really does look lovely, though - every single thing in the game is made of paper or cardboard in some clever and eye-catching way, and the animation is absolutely top-notch - but it just doesn’t trust you enough.
It wants to explain everything, it worries that you might run out of paint and gives you too much, and there just isn’t any challenge. Sure, it delivers on colour, but it could have used an injection of character too.