South Park: The Stick of Truth is the funniest comedy Trey Parker and Matt Stone have written in years, and Obsidian Entertainment's even built a solid RPG underneath. Dave gives his final impressions here.
I'll just come out and say this; South Park isn't as funny as it used to be.
I'm a huge fan, but I feel that recent seasons have leant a bit too heavily on US Government policy or American tropes of which I know little about. It's probably still brilliant if you 'get' it mind you, but in The Stick of Truth, the show's creative team have written humour that is universally hilarious, shocking, scathing and viciously satirical. It's their best work in years.
This is a game that should surprise those who feel TV gets away with much worse taboo content than games. There are things in The Stick of Truth I've never seen on television, and I'm still wondering how South Park Studios and Obsidian Entertainment managed to get away with it.
There's a fitting scene where an FBI agent watches in horror as his 'PEGI' scanner spikes off the chart, struggling to contend with the sight of a mutant foetus rampaging its way through an abortion clinic. This is close to the bone, no-holds barred stuff that, despite a handful of censored scenes, still has its satirical teeth firmly intact. If you're worried that the game has been butchered by the ratings board; don't be.
It's no secret that there's a wealth of shit South Park games out there, but Obsidian has bucked the trend here, because beneath all of the crass humour lies an enjoyable RPG that actually works. Don't forget; this is a team that understands the ins-and-outs of the genre, and to see the final product turn out so well after several delays is something of a relief. As far as fan service goes, this is comfortably one of the best examples of how to do it right. There's nods to jokes as far back as the show's first episode, and plenty of references to make any South Park viewer grin like a maniac.
”While it could be claimed that Obsidian’s combat system – while enjoyable and fluid – borrows a lot of its fundamental ideas from the Mario & Luigi series, you could counter that by saying every shooter modern shooter copied DOOM.”
The plot opens as your hero Sir Douchebag moves to South Park to start a new life. As the new kid on the block you have to make some friends, and it doesn't take long before you're participating in the massive live-action role-playing game that's sweeping across town.
On one side; Grand Wizard Cartman commands the human Kingdom of Kupa Keep (yep, the KKK) while The Drow Elves fight tirelessly to reclaim the all-powerful Stick of Truth from its fat - sorry, 'big-boned' - keeper. You join Cartman's team and vow to protect the relic at all costs until is promptly stolen about ten minutes in. Oops.
You're then sent out with noble paladin Butters to search the town for clues, and you're able to search most of it from the start. While the environments are all 2D, they hide many secrets and side areas, rendered entirely in the same art style you've seen on TV. You've probably heard someone say, 'it looks just like an episode from the show' when referencing Simpsons and Naruto tie-ins, or even Studio Ghibli's delightful Ni No Kuni, but this is hands-down the best example of a direct adaptation I've seen. It looks like you're playing the show, and I'm saying that without a shred of hyperbole.
Sir Douchebag bounds along the screen with that crappy walking animation, and many areas have that construction paper and cardboard aesthetic used by South Park Studios. You'll spend a lot of time searching these locations for loot to sell at base camp, along with weapons and gear for use in combat.
There's even a set of 30 Chinpokomon to collect, and plenty of 'junk' items that can be sold for cash, such as copies of Butter's best-selling novel The Poop That Took a Pee, Faith+1 CDs and World of Warcraft's ultimate weapon The Sword of a Thousand Truths, which is actually just a USB stick. The volume of references in every room is crazy.
”There's something kind of comforting about watching the kids play out their daft role-playing fantasy, completely oblivious of the real world around them. We've all used our imagination while playing as children, and the plot perfectly captures that sense of fun in an admittedly adult context.”
The original voice cast - mostly Parker and Stone - do all of the characters, and there are recurring cast members from across the show's entire run. Radios dotted around the world play songs from the show's long tracklist of original music, such as P.Diddy spoof Vote or Die, Ninja theme song Let's Fighting Love, Butter's dancing number I've Got Something in My Front Pocket, and the classic Montage theme.
You're going to be sitting there playing this game playing spot the reference as you see little props and themes from episodes, and that's something any good tie-in should encourage. Aesthetics and loyalty to the source material aside, the gameplay itself borrows heavily from Nintendo's Mario & Luigi RPG series, and it's a format that serves the 2D show well.
You'll explore the town while accepting quests for NPCs and, if you choose, you can engage wandering enemies by hitting them with your weapon, which then transfers the game to battle mode. Combat is turn-based, and you always fight alongside one of your unlocked buddies, each with their own skills and stats. While attacking you can choose from a range of close-quarter and ranged attacks, or fart-based 'magic' skills. There's even a gassy attack called Dragonshout. Just saying.
Similar to Mario & Luigi, you'll need to get your timing down if you want to fight and defend well. Your weapons glint just before they register and this is your window to press the attack button once more to deal extra damage. Miss the beat and you'll only take a sliver of health off the enemy, and the same goes for the enemy phase, where you need to match shield symbols to reduce incoming damage. It's a neat system that stops each turn from becoming a simple case of picking commands then watching fights unfold with little additional input. Bonus hilarity comes from unlockable 'summons' found in the world, such as Mr. Hankey and Jesus.
The format starts off rather basic, but quickly becomes a game of buffs, negative status effects, attack stances and elemental boosters. For example; riposting enemies will automatically counter any melee blows, while deflecting foes are immune to ranged attacks, and there's even armour bonuses that must be chipped away through rapid combo strikes. You can also gross-out enemies by taping a wad of ginger pubes to your weapon and battering them with it - causing them to take poison damage each turn - slow them using ice, stun them with lightning and more.
”If anything The Stick of Truth makes me wish the show could recapture its glory days of Good Times with Weapons and Make Love, Not Warcraft but we’ll always have those jokes and memories, and now, a brand new adventure to go along with them.”
There's depth to all of this puerile combat, even if it takes a while to fully present itself, and you can spend some time applying stat-altering Strap-Ons to your weapons and armour to level the playing field.
While it could be claimed that Obsidian's combat system - while enjoyable and fluid - borrows a lot of its fundamental ideas from the Mario & Luigi series, you could counter that by saying every shooter modern shooter copied DOOM. I'm not phased by the similarities personally, as it works really well with the range of debuffs and other modifiers added into the mix.
Perks are yet another layer to character progression that are doled out after making friends on Facebook. There's even a post wall full of interactions between the characters, and in the case of one former vice-president, a load of Manbearpig spam. Some characters are easy to befriend, while others require assistance before they'll chuck you a friend request. There are a fair few fetch quests but there's usually enough new jokes along the way to keep each of them feeling fresh. Searching for Mr. Hankey's 'shit-nugget' children in the sewers is just one disgusting example.
Douchebag will learn new field skills that can be used to access blocked areas in town, such as the ability to shrink himself down to Underpants Gnome size, which results in a climactic battle on your parents bed while they're engaging in angry, angry sex. I'm not kidding either; mid-fight your dad's ball-sack sings across the battle area, prompting a slow-motion QTE dodge sequence. You'll can also teleport between alien beacons using your anal probe skill, blow up walls with flaming farts and shoot objects with your bow and arrows. The map gets bigger with each skill, and the prospect of more jokes and loot to discover will keep you hooked until the end.
It's joyous stuff from start to finish, and there's something kind of comforting about watching the kids play out their daft role-playing fantasy, completely oblivious of the real world around them. We've all used our imagination while playing as children, and the plot perfectly captures that sense of fun in an admittedly adult context. Twitter tweets are referred to as 'messenger ravens,' Butter's healing touch spell is just a friendly pat on the back, while The Stick of Truth itself is, well, just a stick. It's a fun recurring joke, much like the fact that Sir Douchebag never speaks. He just stands there looking puzzled at the insanity unfolding all around him.
Some will undoubtedly balk at the later emergence of Nazi zombies and their swastika motifs, along with the fact that you can't play as a girl. Role-playing and gender options go hand-in-hand, and while you can dress your avatar up as you acquire new outfits, they're always referred to as a boy. It makes sense in this context as the South Park guys have never really played nice with the girls, and there's also a cross-dressing ploy ripped out of the episode Margarine that explains the rift between both factions, but this is a personal issue for players. I get it, but others might not be so kind.
I also felt that the combat system, while deep to a point, never really got all that challenging. Even towards then end you'll find that your abundance of healing items and levelled-up gear lets you roll right through most enemies without too much trouble. I never once felt challenged by The Stick of Truth, and that's fine for those who want a passive comedy experience, but the old-school Final Fantasy fan in me wanted to be tested further. It's a game you 'coast' through like an episode of the show, jumping from one gag to the next.
That said; this is still the best South Park game ever made and in my opinion one of the best treatments of a license to date. If anything, The Stick of Truth makes me wish the show itself could recapture its glory days of Good Times with Weapons and Make Love, Not Warcraft but we'll always have those jokes and memories, and now, a brand new adventure to go along with them. The game may have been delayed often, but boy was it worth it.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, Ubisoft sent Dave a copy of South Park: The Stick of Truth on Xbox 360.