There comes a time every few years that a game comes out that changes the perceptions of humanity at its very core. A game that enlightens and inspires and when all is said and done makes the player feel that they have truly and completely accomplished something magical.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is not that game.
Instead, Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Studios have crafted what can only be described as a love letter to fans of the TV show and the 1999 movie, hitting all of the marks and raising the bar in some cases.
The Stick of Truth at its heart is a classic turn-based RPG. It borrows from Nintendo’s popular Mario and Luigi game series by making combat contextually interactive, but it also creates an identity all its own in the process.
The story involves the first day of “The New Kid,” a character that the player generates after booting up the game for the first time. The New Kid and his family have just moved in, and he is then forced by his overbearing father to go out and make friends. While exploring his new town, The New Kid stumbles into a war fought between the humans, led by Eric Cartman, and the Elves, led by Kyle Broflovski. These two warring factions fight over the mystical, and titular, Stick of Truth. For whosoever holds the stick, holds all of the power in the universe.
Of course, this entire set up is played out in the imaginative minds of the children playing along, but as the game furthers on, real life events begin to seep into the sleepy little Colorado town and, well, in classic South Park fashion, things turn to $#!t real quick.
What makes the game so special is that the writers–including series creators’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone–don’t just rehash bits from the show. Sure, they reflect on them, and some plots are used in the game, but more as the paint in the much larger masterpiece that the developers are creating.
For example, Mr. Hankey makes an appearance, but instead of using any of his TV episode appearances in the narrative, he’s used as a character that has been previously established and then is used to further along the game’s story. This deft handling of the huge menagerie of characters and stories that make up the mythos of the South Park franchise is the major reason why The Stick of Truth works on almost every storytelling level.
The gameplay is quest-based, as The New Kid, who Cartman affectionately dubs “Douchebag,” travels the entirety of South Park meeting new friends for which he adds to his Facebook account. There are over 120 people to meet and essentially collect. Most side quests end with the quest giver becoming a friend, which is the ultimate reason to complete the quest in the first place.
In addition to the 43 total quests, 20 of them side quests. Some quests also unlock character specific summons spells, which allows the player to call on the character to come help. The downside is that each spell can only be used once per day (the game takes place in a three day period) and they cannot be used against bosses, which is a very curious choice by developer Obsidian. The player can also collect 30 Chinpokomon hidden all around town and over 150 different costume and weapon sets.
The player’s character class changes with the equipped weapon and or sub-weapon (melee and ranged), and there are even strap-ons and stickers that add buffs to weapons like the ability to cause burn or shock damage. Magic is handled solely by the butt of the player, as all spells are farts of different degrees and abilities. Yeah, you read that right. Farts are magic. This is South Park.
The game design follows the 2D cutout standard, which makes the Stick of Truth feel like an 18-24 hour episode of the TV show. Parker and Stone lend their voices to the leads and all other show actors–including the late Isaac Hayes–all return to voice their respective characters.
It must also be said that The Stick of Truth is as rude and disgusting as a true South Park game should be. Throughout the course of the adventure, the player is tasked with giving a grown man an abortion, battling meth dealers in Kenny’s garage and even crawling up Mr. Slaves’ ass to save mankind. I kid you not. The irreverent comedy of the TV show is present in all facets and there are no punches pulled. The Stick of Truth has more “F-Bombs” than ALL of Quentin Tarantino’s films combined.
And South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t just rely on juvenile gross out humor. Late in the game, the player is tasked with going into Canada, and the entire art direction shifts from the beautifully recreated 2D art of the TV show to an 8-bit, MIDI-tracked land that resembles Zelda II: Link’s Adventure. The commentary here is that Canada is so behind the U.S. that even in a game, heading up north is like traveling back in video game time. It’s brilliantly funny and expertly executed.
The Stick of Truth is not without its drawbacks. The player’s level caps at a criminally low level 15, which any RPG veteran will hit before the midway point of the story. Hitting the cap prevents additional abilities to be purchased, which forces the player to choose carefully the progression of the character.
Certain items, Chinpokomon, and even friends can be locked out if the player doesn’t act fast during specific times in the campaign. This becomes especially dire for completists as one of the first people you meet is needed for your Facebook, but can be missed, thereby ruining any chance at certain trophies/achievements.
Also, a quest given by Al Gore early in the game becomes a ridiculously difficult boss battle, and with character-driven summons spells blacked out for boss battles, the fight is a long, painfully arduous affair that made me curse a few times. And maybe that was the point.
Also, you cannot skip cut-scenes, which comes into play when you are defeated or during learned contextual moves, such as when the player learns a new fart. If you die, or fail to learn the button combo for the new spell, you have to go through the entire cut-scene again. This becomes a war on your nerves after only a few hours.
All in all, South Park: The Stick of Truth is an incredibly solid game that comes across as a long, epic episode of the TV show, or even a follow up to the 1999 Bigger, Longer & Uncut theatrical release. Fans of the show will be enamored with the story and gameplay, and non-fans will probably question their lives and the decisions they make on a daily basis. I am a fan of the show, and I cannot even fathom how it would be perceived by a non-fan to see some of the things going on in South Park here.
With that being said, I’m also calling The Stick of Truth a strong frontrunner for the game of the year. Even with its flaws, the presentation is incredibly solid, the gameplay is near perfect, and the story is actually as epic as a great RPG should be. I finished the game a few days ago and I’m still haunted by it. I still feel the draw to boot it up and keep playing, (after the main story ends, the player can keep playing to wrap up quests, but most other collectibles are locked out) and to me, that is the sign of a great game.
South Park: The Stick of Truth was purchased for this review and played on PlayStation 3. It was released on March 4, 2014 and also available for Xbox 360 and PC.