The Paper Mario series thrives on a clever irreverence that can be hard to maintain. Its outlandish scenarios mash the absurdist, dreamlike world of the Mushroom Kingdom and the mundanity of the real world. It takes jabs at the very concepts that inspire it, nodding knowingly at the audience and whispering, "This whole thing's kind of weird, right?" It's a fun take on the usually-earnest Mario games, but that kind of slyness turns grating when the bits--or, in the case of a game, systems--that are supposed to prop it up don't work, which is where the last couple of Paper Mario games have struggled. But in surprising course-correction, Paper Mario: The Origami King's most clever trick is how its overhauled combat complements its sharp wit, turning the series' Achilles' heel into one of its biggest strengths.
Paper Mario: The Origami King's conceptual gimmick is how its titular origami king, Olly, transforms the flat cutouts of the Paper Mario universe, folding them into subservient, 3D origami figures, and kidnaps Princess Peach along with her entire castle, wrapping both up in a wall of colorful streamers. So now Mario, along with Olly's repentant sister Olivia, need to flatten everything out again. The origami premise adds a nice visual flair to the already-gorgeous papercraft look of the series, and you get to see yet another take on Goombas, Shy Guys, and Koopas, even if this time they're imbued with a slightly creepy energy.
Like other Paper Mario games, The Origami King is less about plot and more about throwing a joke at you at every turn, whether it's a smart turn of phrase, one-off bits that reward you for exploring its environments with a gag or item, or extended setpieces that deliver killer moments. Not every joke or bit lands, but they hit far more than they falter: a theater play that quickly takes a turn for the weird, a guessing game that has you desperately looking at a Snifit's face for any sign of emotion, an extended sequences that riffs, of all things, on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The Origami King is consistently sharp, using both Mario characters and its interactivity to tell some great jokes.
That's been true of the Paper Mario series for a while now, but The Origami King also manages to find new life in its combat--something the series hasn't done in a while. Moving away from the limiting and resource-dependent combat of the last couple of entries, The Origami King instead has you arranging enemies on a circular, tile-based grid around Mario. Your goal is to rotate or slide the tiles on the grid to arrange enemies in lines or squares, making them easy to plow through with your jumps or hammer. Every encounter is essentially a timed puzzle with one or more "correct" solutions, and you're encouraged to solve them quickly, usually in a single turn.
Every fight requires just the right amount of involvement--not so simple that you're mashing your way through them, but not so intricate that a few fights wear you out. Even early on, when fights require just two clearly telegraphed steps to solve, the extra effort it takes to arrange enemies then time your attacks properly made me want to wade into fights rather than avoid them.
As the difficulty ramps up, it's easy to become a little too obsessed with lining up every group of enemies correctly. The in-game timer (which you can spend gold to extend) adds a pressure to think quickly, which occasionally clashed with my perfectionist tendencies. I wanted to properly "solve" every encounter, and as the difficulty ramped up, I started circumventing the timer by asking Olivia for hints (which pauses the timer) or taking screenshots. It made for some fist-pumping moments where I felt like a genius just for properly stomping on random Hammer Bros, but also moments of frustrated despair when I just couldn't grok a solution after spending minutes staring at it, opting to forego the bonus gold from solving each encounter and taking some damage.
If you're not bent on solving every encounter this way, I don't blame you. Thankfully, you can pay the crowd of Toads watching your fights to make the first move for you, and later get the option to have encounters solved for you entirely. It's a great way to tweak the difficulty to your mood, even if I did end up circumventing the timer in a way that felt like cheating.
The effort I put into some random encounters was better spent on boss fights, which invert the flow of combat to create intricate fights that cap off each act with a showstopper. Your most intimidating enemies are common household tools used to make origami, like a set of colored pencils, a hole puncher, or a roll of tape (each of which have their own entertaining, caricatured personalities), as well as "Vellumentals" akin to summons in Final Fantasy games. To fight them, Mario moves to the outer edges of the board and must move tiles with arrows, switches, healing items, and attack prompts on them to deal damage.
These fights are more involved than regular battles, and later fights throw harrowing twists at you; during the fight against the roll of tape, parts of the grid are taped together, preventing you from moving some columns or rows individually. These fights play out a bit like puzzles, but there's just enough strategy here to avoid the feeling you're following prompts; I regularly had to choose whether to eat up precious time and see if I could run Mario through a healing heart, a switch to turn on a magic circle, and said circle itself in one turn, or if I should just be quick, take the risk, and not heal. These fights do take some time, but, besides a relatively disappointing final encounter, they're a fantastic showcase for how versatile the grid-based combat is.
Every fight requires just the right amount of involvement--not so simple that you're mashing your way through them, but not so intricate that a few fights wear you out.
Outside battles, The Origami King keeps its RPG aspects light. Your main resource is gold, and while battles are your main source of income, you also get lots of it from covering up tears in the world with confetti, finding hidden quests and question-mark blocks, and completing some light side quests. And as you explore, you also find health upgrades, buy accessories that extend your timer and help you find secrets, and shop for better boots and hammers that wear out over time.
This fusion of adventure-game exploration and light RPG combat plants it squarely in the shallow end of both pools. I was rarely in danger of getting a game over, and finding every secret was more about being thorough than smart. But the overall sense of discovery and progression is still rewarding enough that I felt stronger over the course of my playthrough, and I was motivated enough to find more gold and collectibles to comb every area. At a time when most games throw experience bars and crafting elements to get you invested, I appreciate The Origami King not getting too bogged down in stats and loot grinds.
The one area where both the world and combat do suffer is how they leave little room for the ensemble cast to flourish. While you do pick up a few party members along the way, they're mostly an afterthought in combat, throwing out an extra attack at random. There are a handful of great and surprisingly heartfelt moments here, but most of your party members don't stick around long enough and don't have enough great moments for you to form a bond with them. This puts a large emphasis on your journey with Olivia across all of The Origami King's worlds, and with Mario being his usual mute self, it feels lonelier than it should.
It's a concession I'm willing to take, though, since just about every other part of Paper Mario: The Origami King works so well. With a newfound combat system that steals the show and offers a novel take on turn-based combat, its winking, nodding, and adventuring shine all the brighter. Its world and characters might not be the series' best, but it's still able to consistently throw left turns, good gags, and smart surprises at you. Each piece of The Origami King elegantly fits into its whole, taking its irreverent flair to new heights. The Paper Mario series has recently shown that being clever and being smart are two different things, but thankfully, it's once again managed to be both.