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Mar 04 2014

Review of South Park: The Stick of Truth

header_292x1364 Stars

For as much as I love South Park, its track record when it comes to games has been somewhat spotty. The first game, a Quake style FPS back on the N64 simply titled “South Park“, was interesting but derivative and didn’t really make a ton of sense. After that you had “Chef’s Luv Shack“, a mediocre trivia game, and even a kart racer called “South Park Rally”. There was a gasp of hope with the surprisingly good downloadable game “South Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play!” but the platformer that followed it a few years later, “South Park: Tenorman’s Revenge” was far less enjoyable. Such a sordid history definitely added an air of doubt to my excitement for this new game, South Park: The Stick of Truth, a full-fledged South Park RPG developed by masters of the craft, Obsidian Entertainment. The fact that the game had to change publishers when THQ shut down and was then delayed for an extra year heightened that doubt even more but thankfully, after waiting for what feels like an eternity, it’s out and it’s actually genuinely good.

This is not just some in-fighting between the boys, the whole of South Park elementary seems involved in the war.

This is not just some in-fighting between the boys, the whole of South Park elementary seems involved in the war.

I think the real important thing to note here is that this is more than just a regular game covered in South Park decoration, this is the real McCoy through and through. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were deeply involved with every step of the development and their animation, their voices, and their one-of-a-kind sense of humor comprise the bulk of Stick of Truth and saturates every facet of the game. The premise here is that you are a new kid who has just arrived in South Park, told by your parents to go out make some friends, this is when you find the children of South Park are locked in a make-believe war with each other over the titular Stick of Truth, an object which lets whoever holds it out control the universe. The two factions in this war are the humans of Kupa Keep led by Cartman and the Drow Elves of the forest led by the Kyle; you start off siding with Cartman who provides you with the necessary tutorials but the game unexpectedly opens up after that and you get the chance to work with either side. But while that war is the central connecting string of the game, it’s hardly the main plot, a number of larger and appropriately more ridiculous events occur throughout the narrative and ultimately led to the factions working together to combat a greater evil. While that description of the story is certainly rather dry, it’s because I’m hiding the specifics for fear of spoiling anything, just as a taste though, I will say that there’s a segment of the game that takes place in an abortion clinic and leave it at that. All the wonderfully offensive South Park humor aside though, the underlying story structure present in this game is more complex than I was expecting and lives up to the Obsidian pedigree featuring some decent choice while still having a nicely cohesive and complete narrative.

One thing that definitely bears mentioning is the insane quantity, but also quality, of the fan service in this game. This is a title built for South Park die-hards who have seen every episode multiple times and can crack off quotes on cue. It understands that simply leaving references out in the open with no justification will not be enough to please that loyal audience, so it instead uses its insane rainbow of references to better reinforce the setting and make the town of South Park come alive. Hell, the biggest piece of fan service in the game is the town itself as for the first time you get to explore it in its entirety. You can go into pretty much any building, talk to pretty much every character, and find familiar items spanning the series history. Almost every drawer, cupboard, and closet contains a plethora of junk items; some are just bits of trash but the majority are in-jokes to reward the curious. Checking out the nightstand in Cartman’s bedroom for example might reveal a CD from his short-lived Christian rock band, Faith +1, and browsing the cupboards in kitchen of Stan’s house might reward you with some Creme Fraiche from when Stan’s dad was obsessed with cooking shows. It’s a great way to add a lot of flavour to the environment and subtly to call back to the series, as it makes sense to find these referential items in the locations you find them. It’s the perfect way to do nostalgia for a long-lived series like South Park; they could have reveled in past glories by making a huge deal of each reference and winking at the screen whenever you found them but instead they just built a new South Park story like they do every week and then layered underneath it a rich bed of references that actually serve a purpose by adding depth to the setting.

Everything the fart gas touches is yours.

Everything the fart gas touches is yours.

Alright, time to move away from the story so we can talk about the gameplay because it hides The Stick of Truth’s greatest surprise, that there’s actually deep and competent RPG underneath it all. There is a misconception that needs to be cleared up first though, in previews this game looked a lot like the South Park version of Final Fantasy and that’s incorrect; in truth this is the South Park version of Paper Mario as it copies that game’s mechanics almost down to the letter. The gameplay revolves almost entirely around your main character with your battle party being just you and a single buddy whom you pick from a larger group and just like Paper Mario you can switch out your buddy at any time for another one. It also copies the active turn based combat of the Paper Mario games by having you enhance and block attacks with timed button presses; it does go a little further with this though by letting you choose the style of an attack by hitting the appropriate button. The most significant mechanic it borrows though is the environmental puzzle solving you get to do with the same abilities you would use in battle. Things like shooting arrows or casting magic (read: farting on things) act as both attacks and ways to interact with the environment; throw a Dragon Shout (read: still farting) at an open flame and watch the fireworks, if one of the Chinpokomon collectibles is stuck up in a tree then you can just fire an arrow at it to knock it down. This is a system I’ve always really liked as it adds a nice adventure game vibe to things and varies up the gameplay in a meaningful way. It’s always really surprised me that more RPGs didn’t copy it so it’s nice to see The Stick of Truth take that ball and run with it. That said the combat can get somewhat monotonous later on, as in most RPGs, and it never really challenges the player all that much though it’s hard to care when you’re too busy farting on everything.

To call the gameplay here purely a copy of Paper Mario though would be underselling it, because while it may have expertly transplanted that game’s mechanics, The Stick of Truth also packs in some incredibly deep and more traditional RPG conventions. The four classes you get to pick from at the start all vary wildly in their abilities and have deeply complementary skill sets. Each class wields abilities that level up over time and gain unique and interesting attributes that when used in proper order will obliterate your foes. As an example, you could stun an enemy with a Thief’s “Mug” attack and then follow it up with their “Execution” ability which does more damage to stunned enemies. You’ll also gain numerous perks and find tons of equipment modifiers (affectionately referred to as “Strap-ons”) which provide all sorts of various passive abilities that allow you to deeply customize your play style. All this customization also helps deal with the surprising number of side quests that litter the town. It’s easy to forget but this is a full on RPG, one that takes its stats and player progression seriously, which makes this more than just the overlong South Park episode many people were expecting.

Each buddy fills a role, Butters is your cleric whereas Princess Kenny (don't ask, he's going through some stuff) acts as an archer/rogue support type.

Each buddy fills a role, Butters is your cleric whereas Princess Kenny (don’t ask, he’s going through some stuff) acts as an archer/rogue support type.

I mentioned earlier how this is the real deal in terms of it being a South Park produced thing, and no where is that more pronounced than in the presentation. This game looks and moves like South park; the construction paper design, the bobbing walk animation, and all the things you associate with the feel of South Park are there. The sound design as well is bang on with the show; all the voices are provided by the same actors (which means Matt and Trey probably spent about a year straight in the recording booth for this game) and even the music is in the style of the Lord of the Rings or Consoles War episodes with it being primarily a vaguely heroic chant softly sung by Cartman. The end effect is that this isn’t trying to emulate an episode of South Park or creating an illusion of being like an episode of South Park, this IS an episode of South Park and it stands on equal footing with the regular televised stuff.

Really my only major complaint here is the length, I got through the game in about 14 hours and that’s with me doing a majority of the side content; not a bad hour count for most games but you expect a bit more out of an RPG. That said I played through those 14 hours in one big chunk because I was having so much damn fun. It was just like sitting down for a marathon of the show and if you look at it in those terms, treating it as basically two new seasons of the show, the hour count and $60 price tag become a bit easier to swallow. Personally I absolutely adored this game though I’ll happily admit that a love-or at least a tolerance-of the show is necessary to get the most out of it. South Park: The Stick of Truth is funny and entertaining but most surprisingly it’s very solid and a fun game in its own right. That being the case I’m giving South Park: The Stick of Truth a 4 out of 5 stars, just like the show it’s not going to be for everyone but those who can take a good fart joke will find a deeply satisfying RPG experience steeped in reverence for everyone’s favourite quiet little mountain town. 

Want to the see the The Stick of Truth in action? Check out our Heads Up video of the game to see some gameplay and hear some of my live commentary.

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