Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth

SouthParkTheStickofTruth

What do fantasy role playing, Taco Bell, alien anal probing, and Nazi Zombies have in common? Usually nothing, unless, of course, you are in South Park. Crudely animated yet smartly written, the show has grown into a sharp, high production, satirical powerhouse. While the show can be cringeworthy at times, the social truths that are explored are so damn hysterically spot-on that it is easy to forgive the grotesque that creeps in from time to time. If something in a 30-minute weekly cartoon offends, it can be easily dismissed once the credits roll, but can the same be said for a full length 15+ hour video game?

South Park: The Stick of Truth begins with players controlling The New Kid after his family has moved into the quaint little Colorado town. A terrible and vague past is alluded to by The New Kid’s parents, but is just as quickly dismissed as they encourage him to go make friends. Thus begins the journey developed by Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Digital Studios, written, voiced and overseen by show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. 

Wandering around the neighborhood, The New Kid is invited to join up with the human faction in the Kingdom of Kupa Keep, led by Grand Wizard Eric Cartman. Of course the racist Cartman would be the wizard king of the KKK. That’s South Park. And as the grand wizard, Cartman takes it upon himself to rename The New Kid the much more regal alias of Douchebag. Because as a 10-year-old boy who has no restraint, why wouldn’t he use the word douchebag? That is part of the genius of South Park. The innocence of a young boy hearing something, not understanding the significance, and using it until that word has lost any sense of meaning or connection. Spewed from the mouth of a 10-year-old boy, South Park allows the creators to spotlight deficiencies and unjust social norms. It also allows humor to go unchecked, or to let a joke go two or three steps too far.

Aside from when jokes push the envelope a bit too much (of which I will mention some a bit later), The Stick of Truth coyly skirts the notion of playing a traditional fantasy RPG while remaining rooted in a modern setting. What kid didn’t act out fantastical adventures in their backyard? Jumping from one part of a jungle gym to the next fearing that any bit of ground touched would cause their entire body to burst into flames because the ground was lava? Pretending is what made being a kid fun. Putting that fun into a system of real attack stats, defense bonuses and special ability spells allows for the imagination of an adult’s inner child to run rampant.

Combat isn’t the entire focus of the game, but it does provide players with something to participate with while watching what amounts to an extended, interactive version of an episode of the TV show, including all the voice actors and the distinct paper cutout animation style. Turn-based battles allow each character to use a buff, health or mana potion (either on themselves or on the other party member) prior to selecting a mode of attack. There are moments where The New Kid travels sections of the game without a secondary party member, but even during those situations, combat never feels overwhelming or frustrating. Once the full selection of party members becomes available, I found that I switched out every few combat interactions just to keep from being bored by the repetitious nature of the encounters.

Each party member has a unique skill that can complement whichever class players select for The New Kid. In my run through I picked Thief (the other three classes are Warrior, Wizard and Jew), and found that the Bleed debuff that stacks from multiple attacks of Backstab quickly dispatched any enemies. For any enemy that didn’t die immediately, the other party members’ special attacks would finish off the task. I’m partial to Kenny’s wave of vermin and the unicorn rush; however there is something magical and childlike seeing Butters’ alter ego Professor Chaos burst onto the screen as a full sized kid-imagined anime likeness of Doctor Doom. Cartman has flaming fart powers and a button mashing cursing attack. Stan has a whirlwind area of effect slash and an epic sword attack. Kyle can call forth a barrage of elven archers to rain down deadly arrows. I think one of the best visual attacks is watching Jimmy climb up a hill and blow into a gigantic sloping horn to perform the deadly Brown Note attack.

While each of these attacks is humorous to watch now and again, I did find myself growing tired of the inevitable recycling of the same animations time and again for each combat interaction. Rarely did a group of enemies offer much challenge. Boss encounters also posed very little challenge, aside from when they would be immune to a particular debuff. Maintaining a constant supply of health and mana potions while staying stocked up with energy drinks meant that very rarely did a battle end with me having to load from the last checkpoint. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does means that I spent a fair amount of time micro managing my inventory and scouring every item that could be opened to take the meager loot found inside.

As with anything related to South Park, there is a chance for something to be offensive. Maybe farting as a spell isn’t your thing. Perhaps playing the memory matching Simon as a means for alien anal probing isn’t for you. Or maybe matching the on screen controller movements to perform an abortion on a man dressed as a woman just doesn’t sit well with you. Unfortunately, these are all tasks which can’t be avoided. I don’t get easily offended. I don’t mind when a joke is taken to the next level (or three) for the sake of beating a dead horse just for a laugh. But forcing progression stopping interactions into some of the most personal and unfunny actions gives me pause to continue praising everything that is done well with this game. Crude humor is one thing, but putting fail states on some of these hot button issues occasionally drains all enjoyment out of the game.

I suppose moments as I’ve described above have some poignant meaning to them. Everything in The Stick of Truth has a purpose. It is just a matter of interpreting whether that purpose is funny or not. Fortunately, for every joke that falls flat, there is another zinger or jab waiting in the wings to assault the gamer’s senses. While combat eventually grows a little stale, the story drives forward at a constant pace without dwelling on any particular joke or retelling the same punch line ad nauseam. In true South Park style, Taco Bell is the butt of a long joke, yet comes out in the end as an ironic hero. Thematically, Skyrim is referenced with loving humor; meanwhile, the same gamers who can pick out all of the subtle homages are themselves the butt of many jokes. Nothing is sacred and no punches are pulled. I’ve seen more shriveled wang and sack playing The Stick of Truth than all my former years of going to the gym.

For seventeen years South Park has been poking fun of pop culture while becoming a pop culture icon itself. The Stick of Truth continues that tradition while merging competent fantasy RPG gameplay with biting, no holds barred satire and humor. Going into The Stick of Truth I assumed I would get a decent story because Trey and Matt were so closely associated with the development. I also figured Obsidian would provide a robust RPG system. (I am among the group of fans who thinks Fallout: New Vegas is better than Fallout 3.) On both of my preconceived notions, I was correct. The story is great fun, even if it does lay it on pretty thick sometimes. The role-playing progression and combat also is solid and consistent, with plenty of nerdy stat boosting and collectable gear to find and loot. People who are easily shocked and afraid to laugh at bodily functions should look elsewhere for their entertainment, but fans of the show know exactly what they’re getting in for and absolutely should not miss out on this hilarious RPG adventure.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Tightly written script with faithful production values
+ Party system allows for varied combat encounters
+ Tons of hidden references for fans of the TV show
+ Plenty of side quests and collectibles

Cons:
– Recycled combat animations grow tiresome
– Some humor is a bit tasteless

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment / South Park Digital Studios
Release Date: 3/4/2014
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.