Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
This game was provided free of charge by Ubisoft for review purposes.
Author’s Note: You can win a Playstation 3 copy of South Park: The Stick of Truth by entering our competition. Click Here for details.
Warning: some strong language is used in this review. You have been warned.
The South Park license has had a strange history in the world if videogames, managing to feature in no less than five different genres, with this latest effort, South Park: The Stick of Truth, being the sixth. We’ve had a South Park based first-person shooter, kart game and even a tower defense title. Much like those games on paper an RPG doesn’t seem like a natural fit with the South Park name, but to my absolute pleasure it really, really is. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the South Park game to end all South Park games. The wait has been worth it.
When reviewing any licensed product it’s important to stop and talk about one’s relationship with the source material. To put it simply I’ve always had an off-on relationship with the show, often appreciating its satire and madness, and sometimes finding myself unable to laugh. It’s far more clever than people often give it credit for, seeing nothing more than a parade of fart jokes, but not as clever as it sometimes seems to think it is. I’ll make no claims to having watched every episode, but I have watched a very large portion of them. I hope, then, that you view me as able to deliver a fair opinion on Stick of Truth. But if you feel that only someone who has watched every episode at least twice is fully able to deliver a worthy judgement on this game, then you’re free to stop reading now.
The plot of the game starts off innocuously enough with our mute, 9-year old hero and his parents arriving in the town of South Park, having hastily moved away from their previous home under unusual circumstances. Commanded to go and make some friends our unlikely lad staggers out of the door and immediately becomes friends with Butters, who then introduces him to Cartman. As it turns out the youth of South Park are currently involved in a vast real-time role-playing game in which the humans, led by Cartman, whose dressed as a fat-ass wizard, and the Elves, commanded by Kyle, are battling over the mighty Stick of Truth, which grants the owner control over the entire universe. Sounds legit.
Of course things hardly remain that simple, and before too long the script is somehow managing to juggle aliens, conspiracies, Taco Bell, Nazi Zombies, farts and a 8-bit representation of Canada, combining them into one semi-coherent story that’s crammed full of the trademark South Park sense of humour, all while also managing to poke fun at RPGs (both videogame and boardgame form) and all manner of other subjects. To attempt to claim that Stick of Truth is a masterpiece of writing would be completely misrepresenting what South Park is to the uninitiated: it’s rude, coarse, crass humour of the roughest order, delighting in poop jokes and all sorts of depraved comedy, including abortions and shoving things up a gay man’s butthole. If you’re considering purchasing Stick of Truth without any knowledge of the TV show, then I strongly recommend you head to Youtube and do a little research, because there’s a very good chance that this simply isn’t the game for you.
If you can stomach the depravity Stick of Truth is often utterly hilarious, the writers managing to essentially turn this into a 10-12 hour-long episode of the TV show. It doesn’t always hit the mark as the script quite often struggles to turn comedy based on a 20-minute episode format into something that lasts far, far longer. Certain jokes and ideas drag on to long, and if I’m honest some of the humour, for me, at least, fell flat on its face, venturing a little too far over the line, like the writers were trying way too hard to shovel in some shock value. For spoilers reasons I can’t specify what these moments were, but I’m interested to see if once the game is out in the wild if I’m the only one that found those sections lacking. But the game’s comedy hits far more often than it misses.
There’s also the issue of censorship, which garnered some notable press coverage before the games release. There’s a total of seven of relatively small sections of the game that have been censored, but to the developer’s credit they’ve rolled with the punches by including blue screens giving a brief rundown of what’s going on and poking a bit of fun at the whole situation. Most of the censorship screens made me say, “Aw, I didn’t want to miss that.” but then there were also one or two that made me say, “Okay, I’m kind of glad I don’t have to see that.” Things like this are always tough to lay down judgement, but ultimately I’m always in favor of the creator’s being allowed to express their artistry, no matter what form that may take. If it has an 18+ rating, let them run free. The bigger question is actually more why these specific sections were censored, considering just how perverse the rest of the game is.
For the sake of this review I won’t be taking any points of the final score due to censorship, as it doesn’t impact the experience very much and ultimately a review is here to talk about the game, not developement or industry issues outside of it. It did, however, warrant a mention, if only to loudly proclaim that I heavily disagree with the game being censored.
Ultimately the script tends to rely a little too heavily on the basic, crude poop, fart and piss jokes rather than clever social-commentary the show is capable of delivering. Yes, beneath the crass surface South Park has hidden some seriously sharp spines. It’s this mixture of the rude and the smart that resulted in some great television, but the writer’s have often struggled to get that mix just right, especially in recent years, and it’s clearly apparent in the game where cheap laughs tend to be favored. Regardless, though, Stick of Truth is a damn funny game, frequently rendering me to laughter-induced coughing fits.
South Park wastes no time in systematically poking fun at just about every trope of the RPG there is, starting with your name. The game opens by presenting you with a fairly diverse customisation screen where you can play about with almost everything about your character, except, for whatever reason, gender. You’re then given the chance to enter your character’s moniker, but regardless of what you type Cartman calls you Douchebag, and asks if you’re okay with that. You reply no, of course, but Cartman continues on, asking once again if you’re absolutely sure you want to be named Douchebag. You again reply in the negative, and again your ignored and thus branded Douchebag forever. Cheers, Cartman, you rotund prick.
In true RPG fashion our spectacular lead character is entirely mute, which forms the basis for a persistent joke that is smart enough to never draw too much attention to itself and thus become tiring. But it’s when you combine his lack of voice with the vaguely befuddled expression he constantly wears that truly makes me crack a smile. It’s like he’s sharing in the player’s sense of confusion, wondering how the hell he got caught up in all of this madness. His slightly confused expression and muteness underline every moment in the game and was, strangely enough, probably the thing that made me laugh the most.
The game’s clever in how it parodies it’s unfortunate victims, poking fun at the many clichés, tropes and idiosyncrasies of the genre without falling foul of the very same problems itself. Game’s like Deadpool do such things as mock developers for creating boring, terrible sewer levels, and then proceeds to force players to trudge through a boring, terrible sewer level. South Park, on the other hand, does things like make fun of how stupid turn-based battles are before delivering a solid turn-based combat system of its own.
Yes, Stick of Truth uses a turn-based combat system despite one character loudly proclaiming how bloody stupid it is that they have to wait their turn to hit someone in the face. He is, of course, utterly correct, but Cartman gracefully responds by telling him to shut the fuck up, because they’re doing it like olden times. Oh, Cartman, you lovable scamp. On your turn you can choose to launch a normal melee or ranged attack, or you can opt to use a special ability powered by Pee-Pee. Shit, no, I meant PP. Magic is also available in the form of powerful farts, while buddies that can be swapped between also brings a selection of skills to the table, although in what feels like a missed opportunity you can’t customise them or level them up. Your foes, meanwhile, can settle into several difference stances in order to bugger up your plans, such as Riposte, which automatically blocks any melee attack and inflicts substantial damage to whomever was stupid enough to assault them. Various status effects also alter combat, with a good example being Grossed Out which causes your character to vomit every turn and stops you from chugging potions. This takes a back-seat, though, to the sadistic pleasure bestowed by lighting an enemy on fire and watching them run around in circles.
In what appears to be a move stolen directly from the Mario RPGs launching any sort of attack requires the player to go through what is essentially a quick-time-event in order to do the maximum amount of damage. Choose to strike a foe with your Fairy Wand (possibly Of Doom) for instance and you’re prompted to tap the A button whenever a flash is seen, though you can also mix things up by opting to hit X for a heavy attack which is more effective against armor, or even get a little fancy by tapping Y to unleash a quick little fart. Likewise you’re given the opportunity to block an enemy attack by pressing A at just the right time, although against all damn logic you’ll still take damage, just less than if you had not bothered. Screw up and miss the prompts when attacking or defending and you’ll end up looking like a bit of a prat. While it can be annoying to achieve a Perfect block and yet still take a chunk of damage it’s a fun enough system that brings a higher sense of player agency into the turn-based combat system, though I would rather have seen it adjusted so that attacks still do damage regardless of whether or not you time your button press correctly.
Although it’s undeniably fun and features brilliant use of both the roleplaying theme and cool animations the combat system is also easily the weakest aspect of the entire game, largely because of how easy it is and how very little thought it requires, by which I mean it requires no thought at all. At firs glance things are promising: enemies hit hard and there appears to be room for a simple combat system with enough nuance to allow for some tactical play, but as you go through the game you realise that despite the various buff’s and stances the brain never needs to be engaged in order to achieve victory, even on the hardest difficulty. Meanwhile you’re allowed to chug a potion at the start of every turn without losing the ability to attack. When coupled with the abundance of health potions and other consumables lying around the place fights become a breeze. To put it in perspective I only lost a fight twice, and once was because I was too busy grabbing a handful of Haribo Goldbears.
But then, the combat is deliberately easy in order to appeal to the widest audience possible. It’s within the equipment menu where South Park most clearly shows off its design philosophy. The gloves, hats and myriad of weapons don’t boast the reams of detailed stats seen in so many other RPGs, instead their benefits are simply and clearly labelled, with the “best” item usually being pretty obvious. Likewise if you venture into the Abilities menu you see just four special powers for your character, with only two actually available for the first while. Each one can be upgraded, but only along a linear path. Meanwhile Perks are chosen from a list of around 20, and each tends to avoid getting too caught up in listing percentages. In a clever move you can choose a new Perk whenever you make enough friends on the in-game “Facebook.” To make new friends sometimes you just need to simply wander up to them and press A, but other times you’ll need to find them hidden away in the world or impress them by doing a quick quest. The equipment menu, powers and combat all serve to clearly highlight the fact that South Park: The Stick of Truth is a simple, streamlined RPG intended for everyone. And that’s a smart decision, if I’m to be honest. As something that openly parodies the RPG genre it needs to do those selfsame things that it pokes fun at well, else risk coming across as idiotic, a pitiful attempt at comedy which is no better than that it attempts to mock. By keeping the mechanics simple the developers have been able to focus on creating a lite-RPG that is just plain fun to play, albeit it one where combat fairly quickly loses its luster. Furthermore it means that fans of the TV show who don’t play many games can jump in and enjoy themselves.
Of course as someone who plays vidoegames every day of every week of every month the ease at which I sliced through the multitude of enemies intent on getting in my way was disappointing. I want more of a challenge. I want to have to think about each fight, to utilise those moves and abilities to their absolute maximum. But I can appreciate the way developing a South Park game was handled. Because South Park: The Stick of Truth is designed to be easy to play, it almost feels unfair to criticize for being so. It’d be like me complaining Dark Souls is hard, when that’s exactly how it is supposed to be. Yet I do think it’s fair to say that Stick of Truth does need just a little but more complexity in its combat in order to keep players, even those who have never picked up a game before, engaged.
This brings me to what is my biggest negative with the game. At just half-way through the total playtime South Park: The Stick of Truth feels like it has already thrown everything it has got at you, leaving the second half feeling a little repetitive and formulaic, though the strong sense of humour more than manages to carry you through. A few extra abilities are handed to you, and a few more combat tricks are opened up, but none of these really change the gameplay in any meaningful way. You’re left to slog through loads of battles, probably just using the same tactics over and over again. Indeed, I did find it was easy to spam certain abilities during a fight, with certain equipment setups being capable of producing a near infinite supply of PP with which to use them. By no means does the second half of the game feel boring, dull or bad, but it does feel like the developers just needed a few more things to add into the combat and general gameplay for the second half of the game.
South Park is not a vast place to explore, in fact you can run across it in under a minute, but it does have a fair few hidden secrets that make doing so worth your time. As you progress through the game you’ll be handed some new abilities that allow you to gain access to secret treasure chests or characters, and of course there’s also a variety of side-quests to dig into. An alien probe jammed into a somewhat sensitive area, for example, can be extended and used as a teleportation device, while snorting some strange powder you manage to acquire shrinks your character. For the more die-hard fans of the show who own every season on DVD (or blu-ray, for the newer seasons) and watch them regularly there’s an almost terrifying amount of nods and references to be discovered.
The humour manages to extend its dirty tentacles into the game’s combat system. The powerful Dragon’s Breath move is in reality a firework that you light and shove in the enemies face, while another attack involves a bucket of water and a car-battery. Health Potions are actually just bags of crisps, while a bottle of innocent water serves as a way of getting rid of unwanted effects, like puking your guts up. Early in the game weapons and armor are little more than collections of sticks and dressing gowns hastily modified to try to make them look more authentic. In fact the game offers up a steady stream of gear for you to outfit your character with, allowing you to equip helmet, gloves, main armor, melee weapon and ranged weapon, all of which can then be further tweaked with a selection of Patches and Strap-Ons that let you do things like inflict fire damage, leech health or boost your magic. In comparison to other RPGs, which despite its constant mockery Stick of Truth is still trying to be, there’s not a wealth of equipment to play with and it’s generally very obvious which item is best to use, but in the game’s defense the selection available works well with the overall design of the game.
Outside of the turn-based combat the game occasionally gives you the chance to take out a few enemies using the environment, which is a nice little addition. Perhaps a switch can be flipped to electrocute a few goons standing in a handy puddle of water after you lure them over, while an open flame can be turned into an explosive with the help of a well-placed fart.
Several other writers have spoken to me about some bugs and glitches being present in their play throughs of the game, to which I can only tell you that personally my experience with Stick of Truth was relatively problem free, with only a couple of graphical hiccups, like a character disappearing during an animation, popping up from time to time.
And what about pure content? Well, to be blunt about it South Park: Stick of Truth is a pretty lightweight game with very little reason to play it over again. I completed the main storyline and majority of side-quests in 9-hours, and then proceeded to mop up the remainder in another hour or two, bringing us up to 12-hours. Replay value isn’t strong due to the linear nature of the story, but there is plenty of references and little nods to dig up, for anyone inclined to hunt for them. There’s no dialogue options and the story only briefly diverges at a single point when you’re forced to choose between two factions. Even the four classes you choose between at the beginning of the game barely give a reason to play again, as choosing a different class only grants you a different set of four special abilities. None of the weapons or moves are class limited, allowing you to craft whatever kind of character you desire.
As a usage of the official license Stick of Truth is damn near flawless, essentially throwing you into an extended episode of the TV show that could pretty much be a sequel to the South Park movie, albeit one in which you can throw your own feces at an enemy. But that’s not all because South Park: The Stick of Truth also happens to be a good game in its own right, boasting simple but fun gameplay that’s easy to enjoy. It also stands proudly of one of the funniest games to ever grace this ball of dirt that we call Earth. When you combine these elements you get something rather special, a game that I was quite honestly enthralled by.
So, what about scoring it? Well, if the most important thing about this game to you, above all else, is the license, then go ahead and add an entire point to the final score. Seriously, I’m not kidding. If you’re not too bothered about how good a game it is, and are more interested in getting to explore the world of South Park, of getting to immerse yourself in the perverse humour and hang out with your favorite characters, then you’re going to utterly fucking love The Stick of Truth. It’s really that good a use of the license, so faithfully representing the show that any dedicated fan is going to be enthralled from start to finish. It stands as one of the greatest uses of a license within a videogame ever seen, occupying the same level as other titles like the Batman: Arkham series If you’re more interested in The Stick of Truth as a complete package, which is how I believe I must review the game, then I feel my final score is fair, as I hope you will to.
This is a hilarious, fun game to play that ultimately just needed a little more meat on the bone. Had fights been a bit tougher, combat a little more nuanced and a couple more mechanics introduced during the second half, I would have probably surrendered myself and awarded full marks. But as it stands this is the South Park game you’ve been waiting for.
+ Gut-busting humour.
+ Looks, sounds and feels like a South Park episode.
+ Just fun to play.
– Combat is absurdly easy.
– Gameplay mechanics are a little insubstantial.
– Second half feels a bit weaker.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Obsidian Entertainment should be proud of what they have done here, crafted a brilliantly funny RPG which could easily have posed as the premise for another South Park movie.