South Park: The Stick of Truth Video Game Review
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
I would use the word “authentic” to describe South Park: The Stick of Truth. I can’t think of another adjective. Sure, there are some others that spring to mind: polished, raucous, enormously entertaining. Yet “authentic” is the most genuine compliment I can give this game. Obsidian Entertainment, the offspring of Black Isle Studios and Fallout fame, have created something unique and some might say remarkable. They’ve made the first authentic interactive version of a TV show I’ve ever played. It’s one of the best adaptations of an existing property that’s out there right now. It’s hilarious, juvenile, and oddly charming. It’s South Park, balls to bone, something other South Park games have woefully disregarded.
Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Digital Studios have absolutely nailed the presentation of this game. Do you hear that? It’s the sharp crack of a home run being rocketed out of the ballpark. Characters move with the same jerky, intentionally shitty animation style. All celebrity voices are impersonated… poorly. Your magic system is entirely based on farts. Your weapons range from flaming swords to purple dildos. You fight aborted fetuses and meth-addled hobos. From the animation, art style, the voice work (provided by the show’s cast/creators), the epic music, the lowbrow culturally hip humor, the shock value, everything feels like it’s born from the show’s iconic look and tone. You can even design your own (male only) character using an in-game editor that ends up being more fun than it should. I was annoyed I couldn’t make a female character, but you can purchase wigs and cosmetic items and you can just pretend like Princess Kenny. Still, the lack of a female option is a big oversight.
South Park: The Stick of Truth works best conceptually because it’s not specifically linked to a South Park TV or movie event. There’s no pressure to meet any expectations other than its own. It’s a self-contained adventure in the little quiet mountain town where the kids are playing their own generic version of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a clever storytelling device that prevents the game from having to create any exhausting lore, instead mining the show’s extensive continuity (or lack thereof) for juicy references and fun RPG gameplay. There’s a weird moment when the kids cross over from playtime into using their toy weapons to murder actual creatues, zombies, and even people, which lead to a strange narrative confusion about the kid’s world and the world around them. There’s elves and humans and magic, but also alien conspiracies, Taco Bells, and church, and there’s no clear line as to where the kid’s game ends and the actual danger for them begins. Is it all one big game? I don’t know. I’d like to think it’s a big meta-joke, one of many, that emphasizes the artificial nature of games themselves.
It’s playtime, and I enjoyed how the game continually references the fact the kids are playing a neighborhood game, and by extension so are you, allowing South Park to slyly wink at you through most of the game’s many meta self-references in terms of gaming and the show itself. The characters bemoaning the existence of Nazi zombies (“They’re so overdone!”) or your character’s near-autistic muteness.
The chapters range from fetch quests to sewer exploration, and expand into trips aboard an alien ship, a trip to Canada (my personal favorite excursion), an underground gnome fortress, a meth lab, a military base, and an abortion clinic. You’ll have a level in your character’s parent’s bedroom that will leave you with the most memorable QTE in gaming history. A side adventure with Mister Slave will haunt your dreams. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Most of your time is spent in the hub world of South Park itself, and you can visit every main character’s home, pilfer their stuff, fart on their parents, and explore. After a while, when you see everything in the town, trudging back and forth between quick travel locations becomes a bit of a chore, considering there’s not an infinite number of random encounters to keep you interested.
This is a turn based RPG, not nearly as complex as some of the later Final Fantasy or Xenosaga games, but also missing some of the more emergent strategy that came with that complexity. It’s a good (yet simplified) mix between accessibility and genuinely honoring time-tested RPG gameplay that’s wonderfully retro. There’s some fiddly control issues, especially with your fart magic, and the game is in love with QTE’s to its detriment. Stick to a Xbox 360 or PS3 controller for this, as you can’t rebind the controls on PC. Obsidian does mix up combat by applying status effects on you and your enemies, and enemies can change stances to automatically parry attacks or projectiles, causing you to have to switch up your tactics.
You’re given a total of 5 party members to choose from (Cartman, Kyle, Stan, Butters, Kenny, and Jimmy). They join your party fairly regularly, and by half of the way in, you’ll have all of them. You can swap them as you wish, inside or out of battle, and each of them has their own flavor of combat, ranging from “Grand Wizard” Cartman (of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep, or KKK) with his flatulence-based magical attacks, to Princess Kenny with his/her support abilities, like charming an enemy by flashing a non-existent set of flatchested manboobs. Like I said, this is South Park. You get exactly what you’d expect. I spent most of my time farting on people just to see their reactions. Butters’ giggling is infectiously adorable.
The party members and their abilities reveal the game’s greatest weakness: it’s incredibly unbalanced and not terribly challenging. The equipment is standard fantasy fare to exotic alien weaponry to sex toys, with a wild variety of looks and abilities. The sheer volume of stuff you get make inventory management a chore sometimes. You can augment your weapons and gear with patches and “strap-ons” to buff them, and with the right combination of abilities and gear, you can become overpowered very easily early in the game. In fact, on the standard difficulty, I almost never had to repeat a boss or battle because I could spam Kyle’s Rain of Arrows ability, which after completing a simple QTE, would kill almost everything on screen instantly. Careful builds can annihilate enemies without a scratch on you. Abilities use Power Points (PP), which refill completely at the end of each battle. The numerous buff, health, and PP items are cheap and plentiful. SOme characters, like Jimmy or Kenny, lose value with certain classes. I chose the Jew class, because why not?
Early on, the game’s fights are challenging and tricky, and a costly mistake could mean reloading a save. Once you figure out negative status effects like Grossed Out, Slow, and Bleeding essentially immobilize a target, combat becomes a breeze. The only boss I had any trouble with was one that was totally optional, a cameo by Al Gore and ManBearPig. Trust me, the battle’s super cereal. He’s a hard stop in terms of difficulty, which normally I don’t mind, I enjoy planning a battle, having to try different tactics until I figure out one that works. However, you need to grind a bit before taking him on, and he spams your in-game Facebook feed with notifications until you actually beat him. (Yes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, we know you think Al Gore is annoying, but I also think your scientific illiteracy and your ideological bias against climate change science is embarrassing. Can we just leave it at that?)
For all the effort South Park: The Stick of Truth places on its much-lauded fart magic, I almost never found myself using it in combat unless I was forced to. 95% of my magical toots were used to affect a piece of scenery to advance or to satisfy my inner 7 year old by farting on the town’s mayor or Jesus. The game builds it up so much narratively, its glaring uselessness becomes all the more apparent when you realize simply swinging your dildo bat at an enemy is just as effective. I need a gameplay reason to use this magic in combat. I found myself noticing that about a lot of things in the game: lots of options and almost no reason to employ them. You get comical “summons”, like Mister Slave shoving a regular enemy right up his ass. You can’t use them against bosses, and since your regular attacks are so powerful, your abilities regenerate so quickly, and enemies lack challenge, combat and gameplay became second to story in quick order. Its saving grace is that it’s a hilarious, inventive, colorful, and truly authentic journey into the world of South Park.
It’s a fun, surprising jaunt through the world of South Park with a hard and slightly jarring stop at the end, with an end boss that’s frankly anticlimactic. South Park: The Stick of Truth clocks in at around 15 hours for the main and side quests, which is more than our pathetic expectations for $60 games these days, but also well under what I was expecting. I’m an RPG veteran, and I expected something in the 30-45 hour range at least.Despite its lack of balance and simplistic combat, South Park: The Stick of Truth stands above current releases in terms of sheer entertainment value. There were moments that reduced me to cackling laughter out of sheer shock and disbelief. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll fart. Come on down to South Park and meet some friends of mine. You won’t regret it.