South Park: The Stick of Truth Review
Let's get the most important thing out of the way - South Park: The Stick of Truth definitely isn't your typical lazy tie-in game. It's in fact so far opposed to that that it's one of the most satisfyingly source-loyal and appropriate gaming adaptations of a series from another form of media I've ever played. Obsidian has juggled their RPG-making chops with gameplay machinations that fit the universe of the South Park TV series well.
Obsidian found their perfect fit for the vulgar South Park universe in the unlikeliest of places: Paper Mario. When I think about it properly, I have to admit that connection starts to feel a whole lot less unlikely - South Park began life as a show created from construction paper, a look not that far from Paper Mario's. That tiny similarity shines through the obvious differences, and the turn-based RPG combat with action and timing based abilities that Paper Mario is known for is, it quickly becomes clear, a perfect fit for the boys from Colorado's not-so-quiet little mountain town.
The standard rock-paper-scissors of turn-based combat with status effects, buffs, abilities and all those typical concepts are as you'd expect here, then, but there's a lot of stick-twirling, button tapping and other elements to determine how well moves come out.
There's bonuses for perfectly timed moves and the like, and it gets more complex with status effects that stack and other such features. As time goes on you gain a few forms of magic, and then summon 'monsters' are added - all the typical RPG tropes are here.
The combat is satisfying and, in places, challenging. The game seems to have been designed with a steady difficulty curve on the main story for more casual gamers and South Park fans to jump in, but hardcore RPG fans will find more challenging boss battles in side quests. The battles have been pared and streamlined back so a non-RPG fan can muddle through them, but the RPG experienced will find all the stats and figures they'd expect from an Obsidian game to toy with.
The challenge is absolutely there - one battle featuring a character who could summon several powerful, gun-wielding enemies, had me stuck for hours. A solid variety of enemies means there are almost always new weak points to discover.
Each of the four classes for your protagonist, Fighter, Mage, Thief and Jew (Essentially a Paladin), comes with their own set of abilities and traits, both of which are upgradeable as you level up. Ability level-ups come from EXP, earned in battle, while trait levelling is earned by obtaining Facebook Friends - essentially a measure of completed quests. Story milestones and sidequests will involve the characters behind them friending you on Facebook, because of course that's tantamount to currency amongst 10 year olds.
The battle mechanics are all satisfying, but I wish instructions were surfaced a little more the first time you use each ability. Each move has something different about the inputs of its execution, and I would flub moves as I learned that repeatedly. I struggled to properly use the fart 'magic' for a good few hours, in spite of a lengthy tutorial.
In addition to abilities and traits, players can also customize their character with a wide array of equipment. Gear also has slots on it for equipping 'strap ons', an add-on or two that'll add additional effects to your weapon. It becomes quite granular in the end, and certainly scratched my RPG-nut itch for obtaining, arranging and choosing gear.
There's also a ridiculous amount of non-stat-changing cosmetic gear which can also be dyed different colours, allowing for an impressive level of character customization.
Outside of combat, the overworld of South Park is of a decent size with numerous places to explore, but isn't huge - it feels the size that'd dwarf a ten-year-old. These are kids that can't cross the road unless there's a proper crossing - the concept of a huge world to adventure in is relative to them. Even so, you do go further afield - to space, for one, and a jaunt to Canada that sees the game turn into a 16-bit, SNES-style RPG complete with turn-based battles - but I shan't go into further details there.
It's not like I ever doubted the ability of Obsidian to make one given their pedigree, but I can't emphasize enough - in spite of its licensed state, and where it is licensed from, this is a great RPG. It might not be the most deep or complex system ever built, but it picks its battles carefully and makes sure it wins them.
The South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are verified gamers and RPG nerds. They described Skyrim as an inspiration for this game, but also cite Earthbound as a major inspiration for kids on an RPG adventure. They know their stuff, and paired with Obsidian make for a brilliant match and smart RPG mechanics and design.
With all that said, all of the above would be worthless if The Stick of Truth fell flat as a South Park game, failing to evoke the look and feel of the show proper. It doesn't.
In fact, what Obsidian has accomplished is astonishing. The game looks so much like the show that in any moment it is nigh-on indistinguishable from current TV episodes. Some story sequences of a higher intensity are actually pre-rendered, possibly by the TV team, but most of the time the game is rendered in real time, a necessity to accommodate for your custom-designed and equipped-protagonist. More importantly, it looks great.
South Park isn't exactly the prettiest of TV shows, but that's always been by design. There's artistry to how crappy it looks. The strange bouncing walking animation, the four-or-five frames of mouth movement for talking - it's all here, accurately recreated in gameplay. It looks simple, though if considered properly it becomes obvious that there's an awful lot going on under the hood to keep the game looking like the show.
On PC this isn't an issue - I tried the game out on both top-of-the-range and mid-low range machines without issue. Frame rate purists might want to note that the game is locked to 30, even on PC, but this is again by design - the show airs at around that mark, and a doubled frame rate would stop it looking like the show, which would go against the game's ultimate goal.
The console versions are less lucky. The game stutters at the strangest of moments, sometimes seemingly without provocation. I tested all three versions, and PS3 seemed to suffer the worst, with 360 also having issues. PC was silky smooth, though I heard tale from fellow reviewers of save game problems and glitches - an Obsidian game, then.
The console performance is unfortunate but not enough, I feel, to stop the game from being recommended - it's good enough that I'd give console-only folks the thumbs up to plough through performance issues - though PC is certainly the preferred platform.
With Parker, Stone and South Park Studios directly involved, everything else is authentic - the voices, the designs, the story. In moments The Stick of Truth begins to feel a little bit like a 'Greatest Hits' package - in order to stretch out a couple of episode's worth of concepts into a video game length, fan-favourite moments from the show are revisited.
There's Al Gore's ManBearPig, for instance, and Mr. Garrison's penis-mouse, both used in side-quests. The very first aired episode is revisited heavily with anal-probing, cow-mooing aliens who become a major part of the core story.
Most of the junk loot, useful only to be sold, harks back to older episodes - there's endless copies of Butters' best-selling novel 'The Poop that Took a Pee', while you can find the World of Warcraft 'Sword of One-Thousand Truths' in Randy Marsh's bedside cabinet. At one point, I wander into Stan's bedroom and try to check the closet for loot. A voice calls out angrily -- "I'm never coming out!" As a South Park fan, it's hard not to appreciate.
Other little touches really sell the game as part of the show - there's the map of South Park, which feels accurate, for one. There's also the lovely touch of the banjo riff that plays on the return from a commercial - except here it plays when you load a save game. Top stuff.
All told, The Stick of Truth probably gives a little too much time to fan service and call-outs, but running alongside that reverence for the show is a great little story of its own. The first chapter sees you, the new kid, try to make friends and impress others by taking part in a wizards-and-elves game arranged by Cartman, fighting over the titular Stick of Truth.
Dramatic music underscores what is essentially kids playing with makeshift swords and shields built from junk or sports gear and make-believe magic. As is often the case in South Park, the innocence of childhood is quickly shattered by an invasion from the real world, and very quickly it becomes clear that you and the boys are to be dragged into much more serious events.
By more serious, of course, I also mean more silly. There's corrupt government officials (I have to give the game props for titling a character "Big bad government guy" in the subtitles) and Nazi zombies whose dialogues are clips from Hitler's most famous speeches, for instance, but the boys - while involved - also remain focused on their imaginary fantasy game. As a ten-year-old would.
Sometimes the game pushes buttons a touch too far, perhaps. South Park always goes for the gross-out and the offensive, and elements of the game are probably more that than funny on occasion. There's a section in an abortion clinic that seems destined for a lawsuit - one of the scenes, incidentally, that's been trimmed in the European release.
If you're unfamiliar with South Park's brand of humour, you need to be aware that this game does not flinch. It may offend. If you've seen the show, you know what you're getting into - so strap yourself in for the ride.
Sure enough it risks offence and controversy in places, but The Stick of Truth is flat-out one of the funniest games I've ever played. I won't spoil some of the best jokes, but the story is as good at lampooning the world as South Park always is, while in this medium they have a whole new world to mock - video games.
Fantasy, gaming and RPG tropes are mercilessly prodded at throughout the game with some brilliant humour, further confirmation of Parker and Stone's gaming chops. From characters prodding at the concept of 'levels' to characters musing about why they have to wait their turn in battle - or even complaining about the player taking too long to pick an action - it's all very funny.
One of my favourite jokes prods at the audio diary, several recordings of increasing uselessness found around a dangerous location. One log recounts the mystery man finding another person's audio log, lamenting that it gave him a password to a room where he found some gear which he couldn't even equip. "Why am I recording this when I am in mortal danger?!" the character muses in a later log.
The truth is that this review is running long and I still feel like I could wax lyrical about why I like this game so much for a good while yet. The reason I won't is simple - most of the reasons I have for enjoying it so much, even gameplay ones, are tied to jokes that definitely don't deserve to be spoiled. So I shall shush. Just know that I enjoyed it enormously.
There's one more elephant in the room from preview content and pre-launch rumours. Length. I devoured The Stick of Truth - I completed every side quest, maxed out the level cap, and did everything there is to do barring a few tough-to-get collectables. That's a testament to the game managing to be extremely compelling, dragging me in, and deep in, quickly.
My in-game clock ended up sitting around the fifteen hour mark. If this is enough for you is a question for you and you alone, but I will tell you this: The Stick of Truth does not outstay its welcome.
It doesn't stretch its content out, it doesn't pad or pussyfoot - every minute of its twelve-to-fifteen hours is raucously funny and fun. I'll likely even spend the time over to experience all the jokes again, once the memory fades. I personally would rather that than a 40-hour experience with weak padding - but that is perhaps a wider debate and one for another article.
The important thing is this: South Park: The Stick of Truth is bloody good. Sluggish menus and some visual chugging on consoles can't take that away, and if you're playing the PC version you'll dodge that bullet entirely. Obsidian have proved here that they're not just great at making RPGs for the hardcore, but can make something more immediately accessible and no less fun, too. Pair that with one of the most faithful adaptations of an external property I've ever seen, and you're on to a winner.