Less paper, more of a jam.
Nintendo is often regarded as being a company that loves to reuse brand assets like Mario. There are Mario games for nearly every video game genre in existence, and it's not a surprise at all when people say that Nintendo relies solely on Mario. In one regard, yes, Nintendo sure loves to use Mario in its games, but when you're the mascot of the entire video game medium, of course you're going to have your image on a plethora of games. Second is that despite Mario being on at least five game releases a year, the fact that they're good games is what should get the focus, not the fact it's another Mario game.
People often bemoan the fact that I'm mostly a Nintendo reviewer, and while that is 100% true that I love Nintendo and I do support most of their decisions (Youtube, the Wii U, third party support, and lackluster amiibo management skills aside). There's a reason why Nintendo has continued to endure for over three decades and why they're still the face of video games for most of the world. However, the Nintendo of 2016 is very different from the Nintendo of 2010. They're less risk prone and would rather sit on their laurels instead of actively make new and challenging products like the Wii or DS were. The Wii U was poorly handled despite having some fantastic games on it, and even on the 3DS, most of their games are just retreads of older, better games.
Take the Mario and Luigi series. Back in 2003 when Superstar Saga was released, it was a fantastic game that ranks up as one of Mario's best games. It was fresh, had a great sense of humor, fun gameplay mechanics, and had enough content for a huge adventure. The next two games, Partners in Time and Bowser's Inside Story had great sense of humor and were fun in their own unique ways, even though I think they're both still not as good as Superstar Saga. But then you had Dream Team, which was so bland and uninspired that it felt like a hack job of a hack job. There was no effort or no joy in the game and was just busywork for me. Sadly, Paper Jam is much of the same, even though it had the potential to be a great return to glory.
In case you haven't noticed by now, I'm split on the Mario and Luigi games, but one thing that I am definitely not split on is the fact that I love the Paper Mario games. I honestly think that there isn't a single bad Paper Mario game, and even the weakest of the series, Sticker Star, still has elements that I like a lot. However, Paper Mario and the entire paper universe is added in the most unoriginal and uninspiring way possible. They're just thrown into the Mario and Luigi universe with no fanfare and very little respect paid to the actual series. All of the Toads featured in the game are cowardly and useless, despite them actually having personality in their home games. Also, there just seems to be a sense that the game is more mean-spirited towards the Paper Mario universe, content with putting down that series in favor of bolstering its own. It just rubs me the wrong way.
As for the actual game, it's a repetition of Dream Team more than anything else. Levels are generic Mario levels, like the general plain level, beach level, snow level, and Bowser level. In previous games, these world would have had interesting designs to them or tie into the plot in a very effective way. Here, the levels are just there to be levels with little to no personality.
The combat doesn't fare much better, treading grounds that the series has already tackled. Mario and Luigi are each assigned a button that they'll use to attack and dodge all at once. Mario uses the A button while Luigi uses the B button. Both characters require perfect timing in order to deal extra damage when attacking and to be able to counter enemies when they attack. It's a balancing act that feels fluid and has always been one of the series' stronger points.
The problem with this entry though is a one-two punch of the speed of combat and the visuals. The speed of the actual fights are much slower than before and focus more on quick-time events than actual timing and precision. Enemies runner slower than you expect them to, and your jump is a lot heavier than it was in previous games. Before, you felt a bit floaty, which was fine because the physics were the same for most of the series. Now, the game physics just feel off, which is saying a lot for a Mario game.
As for the visuals, they just have no personality at all. They look like standard Mario visuals, except they're very washed out, which presents yet another problem with the game. Many of the enemies have specific visual tells which let you know which brother they're going to attack. Usually i's something subtle like an eye shift or a foot movement. When the visuals are this muddy and blurred, it's hard to tell which brother they're going to attack. I went back and fought a Goomba, the most basic enemy is any Mario game in Superstar Saga. It was easy to see which brother they were going to attack then, but now it was harder than ever before to figure out which one was going to get hit. If the most basic enemy is hard to figure out, there's something wrong with the game design.
Every enemy present in the game are your standard Mario enemies as well. You'll fight Koopas, Goombas, Petey Piranha, Bowser, and the Koopalings. All of these enemies have been used in dozens of Mario games, which is a crying shame because there are no original characters in Paper Jam. Both the Paper Mario and the Mario and Luigi series have had memorable original characters like Fawful, Goombario, Count Bleck, and the citizens of the Beanbean Kingdom. No original characters appear in this game, not even to make a cameo.
The best this I will say about the characters are that you get to fight the Koopalings, who all have distinct and fun personalities and fight in pairs. All seven of them team up with their siblings and fight you at various points in the game, and all of them actually pose a fair challenge with some fun mechanics. The best part is is that they're tough, but the fair kind of tough that makes you feel like they're a challenge that can be overcome, not just a Goomba that's beating you because of tricky timing.
I would be foolish to not talk about Papercraft battles, but I just couldn't get into them. They were the gimmick of this game like the "Giant Battles" of Dream Team. They're fairly frequent in Paper Jam, and I think they actually constitute about a third of all boss battles. Papercraft battles had you assume a giant cardboard Mario as he was carried across a battlefield to fight against other Papercraft enemies. The battles are all painfully slow though and require barely any thought into them. Once you figure out the best way to kill a Papercraft enemy, you can use it for pretty much every battle from the beginning of the game until the end.
It's a shame that Paper Mario couldn't receive more love, because he's probably the best thing about this game. Paper Mario can be used in battles, and now he has to use the Y button for commands. So now with a third person in battle, battles feel more dynamic and combat flows a lot quicker than previous entries. Paper Mario has his own commands, exemplified by the fact that he can make multiple copies of himself that all need to hit at the exact moment for massive damage. That's the freshest thing about this game and makes combat much more enjoyable than the average Mario and Luigi game.
I hear a lot of people publicly decry Nintendo because they just keep milking the Mario and Zelda franchises with little, if any, innovation. It's games like Paper Jam that make it hard to deny their criticisms, because it's a boilerplate Mario game. It takes place in the same Mario worlds, feature the same Mario characters, and has nothing going for it besides its general Mario-ness. It's a shame too, because I know Nintendo is much more creative than this. They have the same passion and creativity as any other developer, but there's just nothing motivating me to play this game.
Overall, Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam is just another Mario game. It had the full potential to be something cool and interesting and be very long lasting, but instead, it's the weakest entry in both the Paper Mario and the Mario and Luigi series. It's exactly what you think of when you hear the term "Mario RPG", and doesn't do Nintendo any favors. I want them to make a game that gets me impassioned about them all over again. I want a game like Splatoon that took the world by storm and reminded people why Nintendo is the best at creating memorable characters and long lasting gameplay. I don't want the Nintendo that makes games like Paper Jam.