The reason that it was so unexpected was because of its pedigree. The original Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door hold very special places in fans' hearts. But those are entirely different games. The first two games in the series were RPGs through and through. Mario leveled up, grew stronger, acquired new powers, and met new party members. Color Splash is not an RPG, nor does it try to be. Instead, the most recent iteration of the paper plumber strives to be an adventure in which we journey through a charming and colorful world.
Unfortunately, it took me a little while to realize this. When I first loaded the game and started making my way through Prism Island, I was deceived by the paper diorama art style and humorous writing (more on that in a bit) into thinking that I was playing the next Mario RPG. I made a point of fighting every enemy that I encountered so that I would be strong enough to take on the boss later., just as I had done in the previous games. But playing this way only led to disappointment. I couldn't get over how repetitive so many of the battles were, how little Mario's strength progressed, and how frequently I had to return to Port Prisma (the game's hub city) to stock up on cards for use in battle. To be honest, I was a bit annoyed with the game. The only thing that even kept me playing was the stellar writing and the desire to see what funny quips would come next, to the point where combat began to feel like nothing more than a waste of my time while I tried to get to the next stage and its associated dialogue. So I began to skip fighting. Instead of defeating every enemy like I had done in the previous Paper Mario games, I began trying to progress through the stages while avoiding battles whenever possible. And it was then that I realized that I had been playing the game the wrong way the entire time.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is not about things like combat and leveling up. It's about seeing its world and all the cute/goofy things in it. You don't need to fight all the enemies because you don't need to level up. You don't need to level up because you don't need a high level to beat bosses. You don't need a high level to beat bosses because boss fights are about solving puzzles. The way that you get the necessary battle cards to solve the puzzles is by exploring. Once I understood that Paper Mario: Color Splash was orange juice and not milk like its predecessors, I was able to fully appreciate the game for what it is: a humorous adventure through a colorful world and a totally independent experience from what came before it.