It’s better to fail fantastically than have no ambition at all. It’s an adage that gets wheeled out fairly often, and we’re going to wheel it out again. Because Paper Cut Mansion – having died, explored and died repeatedly within its paper walls – is a failure. But it’s so ambitious, artful and full of ideas that we couldn’t help but dive into it, over and over, to see what else it can come up with. It’s a noble failure, then, and we wish more games would spread their canvas as wide as Paper Cut Mansions does.
The closest game to Paper Cut Mansion, at least in our experience, isn’t a video game at all. Paper Cut Mansion reminds us of the board game Betrayal at the House on the Hill, one of the all-time classics. Like that game, you find yourself in the opening room of a vast, spooky mansion. As you open each door, a new room is drawn from a procedurally generated deck and placed on the board. You are free to open more doors, expanding the level, but at some point you’re going to stumble over events that change things up dramatically. Portals open up into other dimensions. A ghost chases you about. A door needs a code for you to pass. Like Betrayal, Paper Cut Mansion often reaches a tipping point where the exploration suddenly turns into survival, with only the faint possibility of succeeding the entire scenario.
Unlike Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Paper Cut Mansion is a roguelike, which is about as conventional as Paper Cut Mansion gets. You play as Toby, a police detective who has arrived at the mysterious mansion to investigate a spate of missing persons, but soon finds himself in a narrative that has more bizarre twists and spooky happenings than a dozen Twilight Zone episodes. Roguelikes don’t often have good stories, but the one that develops is more than we bargained for.
Jump into the mansion and it’s the start of your ‘run’. A grinning skeleton gets you started with the tutorial, and points out that you’ve developed a sidekick: a glowing green moth. The moth will alight on the wall when there’s something in the room that’s really, really important, so there’s an in-built hint system should you really want.
Then you’re running the gauntlet: opening doors and stepping through doors to see what’s on the other side. Your eventual aim is to find a destination, most often a talking door, which will have a request before you can open it. Perhaps you have to find a key, complete a miniquest or kill a certain number of creatures. More often than not, this will have you backtracking in some form, searching the rooms you’ve cleared for the things that elude you.
90’s TV show Finders Keepers gets evoked here, as a large proportion of what you’re doing in Paper Cut Mansion is walking over to furniture and then using the right-stick to search around it, jiggle it about, and find what might be lurking there. Coins are most common, and these can be spent at NPC shops that periodically turn up based on the algorithm. But there are also quest items, little notes with safe combinations on them or, worse, a lurking ghost who will chase after you until you die or a timer elapses. Whichever comes first.
There’s some combat here, although it’s mostly tied to events. Something will trigger an enemy, and suddenly you’re facing off against a ninja, ghost or gremlin. There’s not a particularly fully featured combat system here, and we found it oddly naff, if we’re being honest. It’s too easy to circle and strafe, keeping enemies at arm’s length and picking them off with a pistol or rifle. Get in close with a saber and it’s too splashy; enemies don’t properly recoil with a hit, often leading to both you and the enemy getting hurt, which is less than satisfying.
What’s worth celebrating about the combat is how opt-in it is. Within each level, right near the start, you have two portals that can take you to alternate dimensions. These are the same map layout, but with different rulesets applied, and a handy visual tint overlaid. The Limbic System is a dimension where merely being within it will damage you, but quests cruelly dump keys, books and fires in here for you to find and deal with. The Reptilian Complex is the combat dimension, and suddenly everything is a threat. You have to be well-armed if you come here, as you can quickly get cornered.
See what we mean by ambitious and full of ideas? A procedurally generated dungeon that can be switched into different dimensions, where you hunt for clues and items within the furniture? That’s not your average Xbox Store release, and we adored Paper Cut Mansion for it. Turning a corner and finding an event, a happening, that you haven’t seen before is bloody marvellous. And we haven’t even mentioned the art, which takes a doomy atmosphere and applies it to a fantastic papercraft, cel-shaded environment.
So, why didn’t we like it – at least not truly or totally? Honestly, it frustrates the hell out of us, and we couldn’t help imagining the wonderful, sprawling cathedral that Paper Cut Mansion could have been if it had anticipated its rotten walls and knocked them down first.
Paper Cut Mansion breaks too many of the fundamental rules of being a roguelike. For one, it’s important that a player should feel like they are growing and improving with each run. You can’t rely on the player’s improving skill to be enough. You have to level them up, give them new weapons, and generally improve their likely chances of successes on subsequent runs. But Paper Cut Mansion is extremely thin on the ground here. You can collect cards that fit a limited number of slots on the character, but they drop too rarely, and are too limited in their use to make you say “Oooh, I wonder what a run will be like with that?”. It’s that phrase that everyone’s inner voice should be saying.
A run is far, far too long. You can spend two hours churning through floors and desperately searching for the one clue that will open a door. But a new event, a random happening, or a weird design quirk will kill you, and you are suddenly back at the start with very little in your inventory that would qualify as a character-improvement.
And while there’s a vast library of events to draw from, the rooms and levels are incredibly samey. We got bored of the first few levels, and wished Paper Cut Mansion would take a leaf out of books like The Sealed Ampoule, which lets you bypass whole floors as a reward. Looking up at the doors of Paper Cut Mansion and knowing that we had to play through about an hour’s worth of makework to get somewhere new (the opening levels aren’t difficult, just random and slow), felt utterly daunting. We couldn’t face it. There were so many other things that we could do with our time.
Gah, it hurts to write, because we adored so much of Paper Cut Mansion. We won’t forget the feeling of unlocking new floors, only to find that they’re casinos for skeletons, or a huge leap forward for the creepy story. We still love turning a new card from the deck over and finding a character or quest that we hadn’t encountered before, trying to get to grips with what it wanted from us.
Perhaps appropriately for a game made of paper, Paper Cut Mansion is a game with two sides. On one half of the paper is a gorgeously wrought, intriguing and constantly surprising little dungeon crawler. We loved that half, and it was the game we wanted to play. On the other side of the paper is the roguelike, and it soaks through and ruins the other side. It’s too repetitive, too much of a slog to enjoy.
Hopefully someone can salvage that first side of the paper for a sequel. We’d be all over it.
You can buy Paper Cut Mansion from the Xbox Store