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Paper Mario: Sticker Star was disappointing. It lacked the wit of previous games and strayed further from the franchise's RPG roots to the point where the battle system was practically a burden on the player. When Paper Mario: Color Splash was first announced the game looked discouragingly similar to Sticker Star, with stickers replaced by a card battle system. While some of those annoying features are still found in Color Splash, in other areas the game is a significant improvement over its predecessor. It's not a perfect game but exploring Prism Island still provides plenty of great moments. One day Princess Peach receives a strange letter from Prism Island: it seems to be a Toad completely drained of its color. She and Mario travel to Port Prisma only to find more Toads drained of color and the iconic Big Paint Stars are missing. With the help of Huey, guardian of the paint star fountain, Mario sets off on an adventure to recolor Prism Island. The overarching story is a bit bland and ends on a disappointingly weak–story-wise–final boss, but Color Splash makes up for it with plenty of humor. There aren't necessarily laugh out loud jokes but the dialogue is chock full of little puns, quips, and references to pop culture and other games, the kind that keeps the dialogue lively and will make you smile every so often. It's enough to make up for the lack of visual variety among the dozens of Toad characters in the game. Mario games have gotten into a bad habit of simply using Toads and enemy creatures for every character, but at least in Color Splash the Toads have some personality and the various levels of the game provide unique and interesting scenarios for them. Mario can repaint scenery with a smack of the hammer, but some areas require a bit more paint. And Color Splash has some great level design. Like Sticker Star the game world is divided into separate stages rather than one continuous overworld but here the levels are varied with several unique concepts. By the latter half of the game you'll look forward to each new level and what kinds of challenges it might offer. Two highlights that stand out are Dark Bloo Inn and Green Energy Plant. Neither plays out like a typical Paper Mario stage, and that's what makes them so fun and engaging. This kind of imaginative design is what I love to see in Nintendo games. The battle system, however, still leaves much to be desired. In the same way that Sticker Star revolved around stickers, Color Splash revolves around cards. You use cards to attack, and rather than Mario becoming stronger you need to find better cards in order to deal more damage. Card-based battle systems are nothing new but Nintendo manages to find a way to make them incredibly dull. Maybe it's the fact that cards are used up when you attack, so you constantly need to refill your deck. Maybe it's the fact that there are no unique combinations of cards, and only a handful of variations on the same attacks. Maybe it's that the paint system, whereby you power-up blank cards by painting them, is rendered pointless by the proliferation of pre-colored cards, which can be bought easily. Granted, there is some strategy involved in Color Splash's battles: you don't want to waste cards, and some enemies are only damaged by certain attacks. Still, battles can often feel like a hassle to the point where it's worth going out of your way to avoid them. Some stages have more than one paint star to find, which open up new paths on the map. Color Splash does have one improvement over Sticker Star though. The process of using cards in battle only to earn money to buy more cards is still oddly sisyphean but you do actually benefit from fighting battles, however minutely. Defeated enemies drop hammer tokens which increase the amount of paint you can hold, so you do get stronger by fighting enemies. The catch here is that having more paint isn't hugely important most of the time. While exploring there's plenty of paint to be found in the environment, and in battle it's easy to stock up on pre-painted cards as previously mentioned. So while Color Splash gives some incentive to battle enemies it's not quite enough to make it worthwhile to seek out fights regularly. Color Splash also brings back "Things," which are real world items that can be found and transformed into cards, most of which are necessary to defeat bosses. This was definitely a sore point in Sticker Star so it's unfortunate to see it return, but Color Splash at least makes it a little easier thanks to a hint system. Rather than needing to essentially fail once to figure out what's needed to defeat a boss, you can visit a Toad in Port Prisma who gives you a hint on what Thing card you need to progress. Even better, you can visit the wringer Toad to repurchase any Thing card you've used, so you don't have to go all the way through a level to retrieve another one. This is especially valuable since enemies respawn once you clear a level so any time you need to backtrack is a pain. The whole Thing system still feels like a clumsy attempt to add a puzzle element to boss fights but at least it isn't as woefully inconvenient as it was in the last game. The use of the Gamepad is a bit odd in Color Splash. In battle you can scroll through your cards, color in the blank ones by touching them, then flick them up to the TV screen in order to attack. It's a bit of a gimmicky system but it's kind of cute. The first few times, at least. Once you have several dozen cards scrolling through them by flicking left and right becomes annoying–it's kind of ridiculous that there's no way to jump to types of cards, or stack up duplicates so you can at least scroll faster. There are only two minor customization options to this control scheme, and even just using the control stick to scroll through cards feels more convenient. The strangest aspect of the controls is the almost complete lack of Gamepad use outside of battle. While exploring you can tap a button on the Gamepad to open up the menu–it doesn't make much sense why the screen doesn't just display the menu at all times. Occasionally you can "cut" away at the environment by tracing an outline on the Gamepad screen, but that's only used in specific scenarios. Overall the Gamepad functionality feels half-baked in Color Splash. Like past games you'll deal maximum damage by timing your button presses correctly. The last few Mario games have been somewhat limited by their strict adherence to familiar Mario graphics. There are few new characters or enemy designs to be found, and Toads populate most of the side character population. For the most part this is the case with Color Splash as well, but there are still some fun set pieces here. The visuals may not be wildly unique compared to past Mario games but you'll still be pleasantly surprised by the number of cute little details the developers manage to pack into a game based around paper characters. And the music is excellent in Color Splash. It has that perfect touch of infectious energy that makes the soundtrack fun to listen to no matter what you're doing on screen. If anything the game could have used some sound control options though–it would have been nice to turn up the music a bit! It may not strictly be an RPG anymore but Color Splash is a pretty lengthy game nonetheless. You can expect nearly thirty hours of game time to reach the end credits, and the levels are varied enough that the game never feels like it's dragging. There are also a few minor side quests, but for the most part they involve simply collecting everything in the game. In the case of enemy cards which sometimes appear after battle, this undertaking might be a little too tedious for the average player. Paper Mario: Color Splash is not the return to classic RPG mechanics that some fans may have wanted. In fact, it still retains the unfortunate battle system of its predecessor while adding little to spice up enemy encounters. At the same time though there are noticeable improvements that make boss fights less irritating and make exploration more engaging. Most importantly, Color Splash has an actual personality, a sense of style and fun evident in its memorable level design and charming dialogue. The game may not reach the highs of past entries in the franchise, but nor does it fall to the lows. Rating: 7 out of 10 stars