Ever since Atari resorted to burying truckloads of unsold E.T. the Extra Terrestrial cartridges in the New Mexico desert, gamers have known one irrefutable truth about licensed games: they almost always suck.
Your occasional Goldeneye or Arkham Asylum aside, movie and TV tie-ins have earned a deserved reputation for being hastily assembled, poorly designed cash-grabs coasting on the popularity of existing properties. But while there was a time in the past when mentioning “South Park” and “video game” in the same sentence would bring to mind the awkward first-person shooters and uninspired kart racers of bad games past, South Park: The Stick of Truth is so good that it will consign those lame attempts to the toilet bowl of history.
The game gets off to a great start simply by managing to capture the crass, bluntly satirical, and stupidly hilarious feel of South Park. Under the watchful guidance of series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, developer Obsidian (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout: New Vegas) has created a wonderfully authentic version of the quiet little mountain town in Colorado.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Stick of Truth absolutely looks and sounds like an episode of the show, from the self-proclaimed “crappy” animation to the full roster of voice actors bringing the characters to life. It is incredibly fun to just wander the streets in the game, talking to favourite characters, rifling through their houses for memorabilia (remember the Okama Gamesphere?), and seeing the sights around town – City Wok, Tom’s Rhinoplasty, and of course South Park Elementary School.
Behind the nostalgia-tinged pleasures of being able to explore South Park, players will find a pretty solid RPG that’s a distinctly South Parkian riff on classic fantasy. The conceit is constructed in a very cute way: the kids of South Park are involved in an epic game of 24/7 Dungeons & Dragons: "elf" kids and human kids are locked in perpetual battle over the Stick of Truth.
The beginning of the game sees the player, as The New Kid, drafted into Cartman’s Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK for short, naturally), and early on he teaches the player the art of magic – ie. farts (yes, a good percentage of game time is spent breaking wind on enemies, friends, and inanimate objects) – so that the player may aid the kingdom in keeping the stick safe. Of course, things are never that simple, and events escalate quickly to incorporate aliens, the government, and, uh, Nazi zombie foetuses.
Alongside the typical RPG structure of assigning a main quest and several optional side quests, the game uses a turn-based battle system, borrowing heavily from the likes of classic Final Fantasy games. Adding a twist to combat are various real-time commands that require specific timing or a bit of button-mashing to get the most out of attacks. Also different is that each character has two actions each turn – a support action (using a health potion, for example) and an attack, in that order. This does tend to make most fights almost a little too easy, as it is pretty simple to keep characters’ health topped up. Bosses provide more of a challenge, but The Stick of Truth is not a particularly difficult game.
On that note, players who are used to more in-depth RPGs may find the game’s more streamlined approach to the genre somewhat limiting. Players choose a class at the beginning of the game – warrior, mage, thief, or Jew – with each one able to call on different abilities in battle, but outside of that they are functionally the same. Additionally, despite the fact that the player’s party eventually expands to include six other characters, only The New Kid can be equipped with different items, and likewise only The New Kid gets to choose new abilities and perks when levelling up – other characters simply scale with the player. Seasoned RPG players may also find the game is quite a bit shorter than they might expect – though given the light and breezy nature of the gameplay, it’s a good thing that the game doesn’t drag on any longer than it should.
But the humour is the real reason to play this game, and alongside the usual bad taste gags and celebrity burns, it’s great to see the writers having fun with the video game format specifically. They gleefully pick holes in such absurdities as the silent protagonist, fighters taking turns to attack each other, NPCs spouting canned dialogue, and the idea that a person would have time to record multiple audio logs while trying to escape an alien spacecraft. These clever observations really help to make The Stick of Truth feel like a unique project, a natural and relevant extension of the South Park name and not just a part of its merchandising empire.
But even as The Stick of Truth pokes fun at the various inanities typical of this type of game, it is quick to fall back on some pretty tired gameplay tropes. The main offender is the disappointing number of fetch quests that the player is given throughout the game. In the main story and in side quests, being sent from point A to point B to point C, and then back to point A again happens with disappointing frequency. Luckily, the sheer hilarity of many of the intervening cut scenes serves to plaster over what would otherwise be dull repetition, but it does introduce a niggling feeling that much of the gameplay is just filling in time between funny bits.
It is definitely also worth mentioning that copies of the game sold locally have had some of the game’s more offensive scenes censored. A series of scenes of vigorous anal probing on an alien spaceship have been cut, as has a minigame where players are required to perform an abortion on Randy Marsh. The censored scenes reportedly make up only a few minutes of game time, and are replaced with screens of sardonic text that describe – in detail – what the player is missing out on, so it’s not exactly a game-breaking change.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is a remarkably easy game to recommend to anyone with a soft spot for the controversial and long-running TV show. The line in the sand could not be any clearer: fans will absolutely love the story’s frequent laugh-out-loud moments and all the Easter eggs and callbacks to old episodes; those who find South Park too offensive, too one-note or just plain unfunny won’t be swayed by the serviceable but fairly lightweight RPG gameplay. There was never really any doubt that this divide would exist, but it’s gratifying for those in the former camp that so much effort has gone into this game to make it every bit as entertaining as the material it’s based on. In the inglorious history of tie-in games, this one’s a rare winner.