If there's a game I've played in recent years that defines 'a fun time, but-' to the letter in my books, it'd be Paper Mario: The Origami King. It's a grand adventure that's colourful, well-written, has great set pieces, and a fantastic soundtrack… But the puzzle-combat, while clever in design and functional, ends up being the weakest component outside of boss battles. With regular battles being so frequent, you'd think that'd be a deal-breaker, but everything else surrounding this weakness makes up for it in the long run.
Oddly enough for a Paper Mario game, the first thing I want to touch on is Origami King's writing. The series is no stranger to witty and well-structured dialogue and jokes, but without delving into spoilers, this is the first time a Paper Mario game got me invested - To make me care about what was going on, not just sit back like a stage play spectator going from scene to scene. It starts out 'kiddie' as some critics have called the Paper Mario games youth-oriented, but there comes a point where there's a heavy twist and change of tone that I never was expecting from a game with paper people in cardboard buildings. I was also quite upset once the credits ran - In a Mario game, no less. I don't imagine everyone else will have such strong takeaways like I did, but caring beyond just bopping the big bad on the head was unexpected but very welcome.
I hadn't kept track of the number of paper-related puns over my playthrough, but that could be from being distracted, thanks to how wonderfully built the world is. Origami King's visual designs are treats to behold; no surprise that a Mario game has colours and creativity abound. While the temples/dungeons can feel uninspired, I often had to remind myself that these environments are 'built' out of paper-equivalent materials. I did have occasional difficulties understanding what I had to do next to continue the level/area, but that was only a few minutes lost with little frustration. Confetti, the new resource in Origami King, was never something I was starved for. It's used to fill in voided sections of the world, either for progressions' sake or for optional paths leading to bonuses.
I just wish these environments had a more varied population other than Toads for the most part. For gameplay reasons however, it makes sense since rescuing Toads from various comical situations leads to their future assistance in battles. With such a vast cast of characters and creatures we've seen in previous games, however, an even split of them and Toads would've been welcome*. The Origami Soldiers, your primary enemies, have more diverse species to them compared to paper people. Not only is the cast stilted, but also how some situations can play out, leading to flimsy game overs. They come across as 'bad end' gags that fall flat and occur in the big finale as well that goes from being a showdown to becoming gimmicky to all hell.
Initiating a fight plops Mario (and whoever might be accompanying him) into a circular arena with multiple rings, and the goal is to line up the scattered origami enemies into two by two or lines of four, awarding a buff to damage if successful. Rings can be spun, pushed or pulled to get enemies into position, then Mario can use his hammer, jump, a piece of gear to modify those or an item to deal damage. You might be scoffing at how simple this sounds, but solving these puzzles in the midgame onward doesn't become as snap-easy as in the early game. You're on the clock as well! Even with the ability to (literally) buy more time, I frequently made use of spending coins to call in Toads I've rescued who then solve part of the puzzle or lob gear/items (sometimes they do damage as well, but it's often negligible). I wish the Toad support had other effects because the only additional benefits were stronger healing hearts and an occasional higher tier of gear by the late game.
I have no problem with this system at its core, but the combat itself is a different story. There's little strategy or deviation when it comes to attacking, even with the usage of gear that boils down to doing as much damage as possible. Sure, some enemies can evade particular attacks or mix up how you tackle the puzzle, but that's the thing; it feels like I'm solely solving puzzles, not fighting freaky origami enemies. The game encourages this as well by awarding a bonus if no damage had been taken yourself. The busted economy ensures you'll more often than not be bursting with coins to stock up on gear and items - If a trinket or collectible purchase doesn't clear your savings. Paper Macho enemies don't help the disappointment either. These real-time 'minibosses' are simply dodge-then-hammer strike diversions as an excuse to briefly change up the gameplay. I had hoped the confetti mechanic could be used for more than just leading to optional bonuses in the overworld, like folding confetti into shurikens or folding it onto Mario to add another layer of defence.
The depth goes from a puddle to a pond, however, once bosses come into play. Instead of Mario standing in the center of the arena, the boss hogs that position and forces him onto the perimeter. The goal switches from lining up enemies to lining up Mario's path, hitting movement arrows and panels to get into position to execute attacks or actions. For many bosses, just using your strongest gear won't cut it as damage will be mitigated. You have to figure out how to inflict effective damage. This can range from attacking at certain angles, weak points or using powers that Mario and company gain throughout the campaign. Some solutions aren't immediately obvious, but there are clue letters that can be obtained on your turn to provide intel on what to do.
And these feel like proper back-and-forth fights as well, needing to consider recovering health or preparing panels to avoid massive damage incoming. It's also why going back to generic encounters feels so shallow in comparison, leaving me hungry for the next boss. At least the soundtrack helps alleviate that disappointment with combat having dynamic tracks: One version that plays during the puzzle and planning phase, and another that plays during the action. The soundtrack overall is wonderfully scored and performed, with the battle themes standing out by far. I find it funny how energetic and rocking those tracks are when in a game about solving puzzles, but they're very effective in getting me excited and amped up.
That's the overarching thing about Origami King: It's wonderfully designed and credit due for trying something new, but I just wish the combat had more going on with generic encounters and not reserve its true depth and fun for bosses. Is it a return to the RPG format? Absolutely not, and that might equal Origami King being passed on by some. However, it's still a colourful journey that's immensely entertaining, funny, and is well worth experiencing.
*Yes, I'm aware that the development team was required to use Toads as reported by news outlets, but I'll still criticize that decision.