I'll freely admit the last two Mario RPG installments have done an excellent job of lowering my expectations for Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.
Rest assured, I'm no hater: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story stand as RPGs I still hold in extremely high regard. I even went as far as to buy a 3DS specifically for Paper Mario: Sticker Star, only to be let down by a potentially interesting experiment with some fundamental design flaws. (Amazing soundtrack, though.) And while I didn't play a hot second of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Jeremy's issues with this sequel didn't make me feel too guilty about writing it off. Both Mario RPG brands always run the risk of being too self-indulgent with their dialogue, and, based on his review, Dream Team would likely be intolerable to someone like me who's growing increasingly impatient with text-heavy RPGs.
So it's safe to say I approached my hands-on demo with the upcoming Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam with low expectations, and just a smidgen of ignorance. If, like me, you assumed this new RPG would boldly mix the play styles of both Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario, think again. Paper Jam falls in line with exactly what you'd expect from the Mario & Luigi series, with a few twists to account for the flat characters from Paper Mario. There's still the timing-based battle system, which tasks players with reacting on the fly to enemies with a variety of attacks, and a puzzle-heavy overworld, which forces the Bros to pull off a series of bizarre cooperative moves to overcome environmental obstacles. It's a formula that works well, which may explain why AlphaDream hasn't deviated much from it over the past 12 years. My only hope is that the introduction of a third character doesn't complicate the expected action to the point of tedium.
This didn't happen much in the 45 minutes of time I spent with Paper Jam, but the Mario & Luigi series is no stranger to this issue. After falling in love with the series debut, Superstar Saga, I put down 2005's Partners in Time after just a few hours. The fun, timing-based combat of the first game grew much too bloated with the addition of two new characters, making the expected RPG battles linger on much longer than they should have. 2009's Bowser's Inside Story was such a return to form that two couldn't help but feel like The Magic Number for Mario & Luigi's battle system.
But the addition of Paper Mario to Mario & Luigi could be the addition the series needs to catch returning players off-guard. While most of the battles stretched on a little longer than I expected, most of this can be chalked up to the fact that it took me a while to account for the different move set of Mario's paper-thin counterpart. Keeping with the series' tradition, each character is assigned to a different button, but Paper Mario moves much as he would in his own series, with floatier moves that account for his lack of substance. This slight difference definitely screwed up my strategies, even against common Mario enemies like Buzzy Beetles: Since you're only given a second-long window to pull off and defend attacks, having a character that moves much differently from the other two makes it so you can't really fall into a lazy comfort zone with Paper Jam's semi-random battles. Over time, I can definitely see the presence of a slightly different character preventing players from every getting too comfortable with what could otherwise turn into a repetitive series of actions.
While the Paper Mario characters mostly amount to a minor twist on the Mario & Luigi formula, there's at least one new system in play. While battles still feature the regular cooperative Bros. attacks, and even trio moves that rope in Paper Mario, Paper Jam's equivalent of "magic" can be found in a deck of cards you build that offers three different options during battle. These cards provide the effects you'd expect—passive bonuses, healing, and attacks on enemies—but they still do much to divorce Paper Jam's battles from any notion of repetition. Even fighting the same enemies throughout multiple battles, I was surprised to see just how many ways they could interact with my team of three, and just how many different effects my assemblage of attacks could have on them—and vice-versa.
It's tough to say anything substantial about such a thin slice of a meaty RPG, but what I've seen so far of Paper Jam has made me optimistic about a series that's been up and down throughout its lifespan. The large, open "dungeon" area I encountered during my demo largely left me alone, to the point where I actually got stuck a few times—and without any NPC assistant to immediately yank me back to where I should be. And though I think AlphaDream could have went a tiny bit further in meshing the play styles of both Mario RPG brands, what I experienced felt different enough to make another adventure with Mario & Luigi worthwhile. In any case, be sure to check back with USgamer when we have our full review next month—as an honest American, I can assure you the current reviews of the European release are full of lies.