There was a time once when a video game tie-in was as certain as a range of flimsy McDonald’s Happy Meal collectibles. Few would argue that the public had a ravenous appetite for these games, which were usually rushed to market to capitalise on interest generated by the film they so slavishly retreaded, but they performed well enough to generate sustainable business for publishers such as THQ.

No publisher was more synonymous with tie-ins than THQ. Its very name, Toy Head-Quarters, just oozed “licensing deal”. After years of abuse, however, consumers finally became twice shy, and despite a late attempt to break into the triple-A market, THQ folded.

The shame of it is that THQ’s final licensed game may just be its best, but the expired studio's role in its creation may not even be remembered. Even a cursory glance at South Park: The Stick of Truth will reveal this is no ordinary licensed game.

South Park: The Stick of Truth hands-on
South Park: The Stick of Truth hands-on

It’s an RPG developed by Obsidian, a studio recognised as a leader in the genre with entries in the Fallout, Neverwinter, and Knights of the Old Republic franchises, and it can boast the direct involvement of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is the simple, smart marriage of these two facets. There are no overblown cinematics nor any attempt to create 3D models of 2D characters. The game captures the TV series’ deliberately low-fi aesthetic so deftly that an ad break would hardly feel out of place. (That’s a compliment, not a suggestion.)

For its part, Obsidian has bought a fully-fledged party-based RPG that boasts a substantial levelling and itemisation system, plus turn-based combat replete with healing, buffing, damage dealing, and debuffing.

In the game, players control “the new kid” who joins Cartman, Butters, Kenny, Stan, and Kyle in a town-spanning fantasy game of humans versus elves in an unending war over the mystical Stick of Truth.

South Park is renowned for remaining doggedly current by producing episodes in as little as six days – a remarkable achievement that doesn’t translate flawlessly to the game. The Stick of Truth’s swipes at Game of Thrones are evergreen, but its fascination with The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim feels a little dated, as if this were a game intended to be released while the world was still enamoured with “Fus Ro Dah” videos on YouTube, and “Arrow To The Knee” gags everywhere else.

South Park: The Stick of Truth hands-on

When it’s not trying to be topical however, The Stick of Truth shines. The game has almost a score of South Park seasons to draw in-jokes from, and it does so superbly. Visit City Wok and be rewarded with a rant from proprietor Tuong Lu Kim about some Mongolian clientele who won’t leave and who keep ordering the shitty Mongorian beef. Next, be charged with a quest to beat up the Mongolian kids in order to draw the adults away.

Collecting the Tweak coffee “secret ingredient” from a clandestine lab in the McCormack’s garage is a simple fetch quest, but it’s one dressed beautifully in South Park’s unique brand of humour. The boys are often put in situations they’re too naive to fully understand, and the best jokes are derived from that dramatic irony – as when Butters calls the meth cooks “scientists”.

The game’s combat is classic turn-based RPG with one slightly baffling modern concession. The new kid and his ally line up opposite one or more adversaries, and each takes turns to cast spells, attack and defend. There’s an element of strategy to the combat that any RPG player will be familiar with.

South Park: The Stick of Truth hands-on
South Park: The Stick of Truth hands-on

Where it departs from the norm is in making moves executable as if this were Street Fighter. For example, the Jew class has a “Sling of David” move (a rock in a sock), that must first be selected, then executed correctly. The player must charge the sling by rotating the analog stick and pressing ‘A’ when prompted.

Failing to do so will result in diminished damage output, but no diminished loss of Power Points. The system may prove more interesting and entertaining at release, but in the limited time we had with the game, it simply served to artificially inflate the difficulty of combat.

It’s a small gripe, regardless. What’s important is that The Stick of Truth looks set to achieve what few other licensed games have achieved before it, and deliver a substantial, quality product not just worthy of its license, but beneficial to it.

We’ll know for sure when South Park: The Stick of Truth is released on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 7.