Developer: Space Lizard Studio
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
Also Available For: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Nintendo Switch
Paper Cut Mansion places you in the shoes of a cop named Toby who finds himself stuck in a papercraft purgatory filled with ghosts, traps, monsters, and the occasional friendly NPC. The game opens with Toby having a slight case of the ol’ amnesia, making it his and the player’s goal to figure out how and why he got stuck in paper hell even while searching for a way out. To this end, the player goes through an odd mixture of survival-horror and rogue-lite gameplay that, while interesting in theory and occasionally even in practice, feels lacking in a number of ways.
Let’s start with the good: Paper Cut Mansion only barely tries to hide the fact it takes place in a subconscious conjuration of the comatose protagonist – one could argue it doesn’t try to hide this at all, really – which in my book earns it a few points over other “and it was all a dream” type stories. It earns a few more by actually weaving that subconscious setting into its gameplay: each randomly-generated stage has three parallel/overlapping versions of itself that the player must jump between in order to progress: The puzzle-heavy Neocortex, the enemy-ridden Reptilian Complex, and the frigid Limbic System. Each one comes with its own type of damage – fear, anger, and nostalgia, respectively – that is primarily only dealt by sources within that realm, though some overlap exists, mostly with fear-causing traps in the Reptilian and Limbic realms.
A run consists of five regular stages and a sixth consisting solely of a boss fight, and the game randomizes two major objectives per stage that must be completed to progress to the next one. The objectives themselves are fairly simple: find a key or puzzle item, exterminate x number of enemies, light three torches in the proper order, etc. but just like damage types, each type of objective corresponds with one of the realms. Additionally, there’s a few details which incentivize switching between realms more often than just when the objectives demand; while searching for clues and keys in the Neocortex, Toby will find lots of coins hidden in the furniture, but fear damage is easier to accrue than the other two types, meaning even a couple of unlucky hits can end a run; enemies seem to respawn in the Reptilian Complex infinitely, but won’t follow you if you switch, making it an easy proposition to get a reprieve from fighting; The Limbic System is by far the easiest and most chill (pun intended) of the three because it doesn’t have as much going on and has heat sources which heal nostalgia indefinitely, but that can also make it boring to progress through, all of which comes together to make the central conceit of the gameplay a bit more interesting.
But not that interesting, unfortunately. Paper Cut Mansion is the kind of game that can get repetitive after even a few runs, a feeling exacerbated by its ending system and the narrating… thing that’s always hanging out in the upper left corner of the screen. The Narrator introduces itself when you first start up the game as the “demigod of unconscious”, which combined with its wrinkly appearance makes me think it’s meant to be the amygdala or something (I’m not overly familiar with the anatomy of the human brain). It then proceeds to repeat its introductory spiel every single time you start a new run while also never shutting up as you take actions that are extremely common. The amount of times you’ll hear “every detail is important, son” or “this looks somehow odd and interesting at the same time!” is maddening.
Then there’s the endings, which are… well, honestly, they kind of remind me of the way Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) handled things, where there’s a whole lot of tiny variations on what is basically the same thing depending on what you do on a given run. Twenty-seven endings exist in total, based on three factors: what difficulty you play on, how many pieces of evidence you’ve found across all your runs, and how many side-quests you’ve completed. It’s not the best system for endings, not least because you can get locked out of some of them by finding too many pieces of evidence – which, admittedly, is only a problem if you’re a trophy hunter and want to get the “see all endings” trophy. Unfortunately for me, I am.
Linking endings partially to side-quest completion is also a questionable choice, given that it’s one of the two main ways to improve Toby’s stats during a run, a system that I’m already a bit iffy on even when not limiting myself to two upgrades maximum. When completing a side-quest, Toby is awarded with a medal that adds one point to one of four stats: attack, defense, intelligence, or speed. This is weird, because as far as I can tell intelligence is good for one thing and one thing only, which is opening chests. Most chests are locked behind an intelligence requirement, with later levels usually requiring more intelligence, but of course choosing to go all-in on intelligence (practically a necessity to open chests in stage four or five) leaves the player at a disadvantage because they haven’t upgraded attack or defense at all. Moreover, it becomes a straight up impossibility when going for one of the low-completion endings, which while not the worst thing in the world is still weird and frustrating.
At the very least, NPCs will sometimes remember you across runs and mark you as having completed their quest just for talking to them on a new run, which is a weirdly player-friendly quality-of-life-thing for a game that sells itself as an “…unforgiving horror experience.”
On the other hand, there is another way to increase Toby’s survivability, which is a crow merchant selling shady prescription medicines. These can, with the right combination, actually make runs fairly trivial (health steal is your best friend) which, on the other other hand, kind of exacerbates the tedium of playing this very slow game again and again while not experiencing any real survival-horror tension because you’ve built your character to have infinite healing in fights. It’s also worth noting that money persists through playthroughs, so it is entirely feasible to max out on drugs the first time you encounter the crow each new run, which I’m… still not sure how I feel about.
Of course, none of that matters if, for example, you learn the hard way that certain actions such as dialogue or trying to solve a puzzle lock do not freeze time and leave you vulnerable to being completely annihilated by an enemy you didn’t realize was lurking, and that taking damage does not take you out of these actions so you just get to helplessly watch your progress get reset back to zero.
One last thing that I do gotta hand to the developers at Space Lizard Studio – and I do so willingly and gladly – is that their aesthetic choices make the game pop in a way the gameplay doesn’t. The story is told mostly through these silly, off-kilter musical numbers that play between stages. They’re not exactly ear-worms, they aren’t especially well composed (but also not bad, just fine), but the fact of their inclusion at all adds a certain earnest charm that simple narration wouldn’t. And, of course, there’s the matter of the game’s papercraft art-style, which is maybe the one part I never got tired of. I’m not sure what there is to say about it, really, that isn’t apparent from screenshots or trailers: It’s a fun, well-executed stylistic decision that the creators are very obviously passionate about, and I respect that.
All this to say, in case it somehow wasn’t clear, that Paper Cut Mansion is a surpassingly weird little game, constantly teetering across a balance beam of positive and negative qualities that ultimately relegate to being just an “okay” experience. Though the slow and occasionally frustrating gameplay makes it kind of a pain to play for more than one or, on a good day, two runs at a time, I oddly enough do find myself thinking about it more often than a fair number of the other hundreds of games I’ve played – and fondly, at that.
Maybe, over time, I’ll even work my way towards its platinum trophy. Here’s hoping.