When I was but a wee boy, definitely too young to be playing it, I remember playing South Park 64 and being appalled at the travesty put in front of me. As a ten-year old at the time my standards were probably about as sky-high as my height, and I still accepted that this was the pits. A few years and a couple of pretty average games later and it seemed that South Park and the gaming world weren’t necessarily a match made in heaven.
That is, until South Park: The Stick of Truth arrived on the scene. Marrying South Park’s humour with RPG stylings makes so much sense that it’s a wonder that no one has really tried anything like it before. It’s an RPG with all the grandeur and pomp of Lord of the Rings, and a propensity for offensive gags that borders on the sublime...
In South Park: The Stick of Truth you play as the new kid in town. It turns out an epic war has been waging for some time now between the Humans and the forces of the Elves over The Stick of Truth. Big-boned cheesy-poof loving chubster Cartman is the leader of the Humans, flanked by Princess Kenny with his lustrous blonde hair. The player is tasked with creating and naming their character, before being taking under Grand Wizard Cartman’s arm and being taught the way of the human warrior.
There’s four classes available for you to pick from; Fighter, Mage, Thief and Jew. Like any self-respecting South Park fan I went straight for the Jew option. The allure of Cartman’s inevitable jibes were too difficult to resist, and besides, the other classes whiffed of the generic. I’d love to know the figures, but it almost seemed as if the choice was made for me.
Before I knew I was wearing a yarmulke and battering unsuspecting elves with my shepherding stick, before engaging in a frenetic bout of Jew-jitsu. Yes, it’s every bit as offensive as you’d ever hoped. Before long you’ll be invoking the Plagues of Egypt, whipping out the Circum-Scythe, or hurling the Sling David. Combat is turn-based and remains largely traditional, although there is a Paper Mario-esque action twist. Each attack does more or less damage depending on the timing of your key presses, and defending as well is also possible with a well-time press of a button just before impact. It keeps you engage in what is otherwise a pretty basic experience combat-wise. It’s an entertaining enough mash-up of JRPG and western RPG combat, but much of the gratification from the combat derives from the situations you find yourself in and the ludicrous enemies you find yourself battling.
Outside of combat though there are a few tweaks to the RPG formula that shake things up. There's a number of skills you can unlock, such as lighting your farts on fire or loosing off an arrow, that can kill enemies without even engaging them in combat. For example you can cup a fart and throw it behind them to force them onto a pool of water, before pulling a switch and electrifying them, or use a basketball to bring a ceiling vent crashing down on them. It's not hugely in depth but it adds a degree of variety to the environments.
Despite the sometimes disappointing lack of tactical nous required in many of The Stick of Truth's fights, it's easily overpowered by the script writing. It pokes fun at any volatile topic it can think of, and is all for breaking down the fourth wall and outwardly mocking the very genre it's imitating. What you’ve come to expect from a traditional RPG is subverted and flipped on its head so many times that by the end you’re not sure whether it’s a parody or an homage. It’s superficial, it’s shallow. For a straight up RPG it’s shockingly basic, but damn if it isn’t fun. What Obsidian have on their hands here is an almost exact replica of the formula that has made the controversial TV show such a runaway success over the past seventeen years.
While I watched my fair share of gameplay videos and trailers before finally getting my hands on South Park: The Stick of Truth, it wasn’t until I actually got to play it that it struck me how alike it is to the TV show. No license tie-in has ever. to my knowledge, had such a singularly focused approach to the source material. The first few hours wandering around South Park are a truly bizarre experience, the connect between game and TV show is so authentic that you feel out of place. While having a stroll through South Park there’s no visible HUD to speak of, which goes a large way to creating a hugely immersive experience.
When you first start playing you’ve got pretty much the entirety of South Park at your disposal, allowing you to wander into nearly every property at your whim. This is easily one of the highlights of the world, allowing you to go poking round Stan’s mums bedside drawer and finding a smorgasbord of sex toys, or accidentally walking into somebody’s front room and finding them stark naked, balls to the wind.
Gamers going in expecting an in-depth, pen and paper inspired RPG will come out of this experience sorely disappointed. Probably more sorely than Stan’s dad's ass post-probing. This is classic RPG-lite fare, trimming off the fat and ensuring this is one heck of a streamlined experience. Within a matter of an hour or two you’ll have unlocked the majority of the Timmy Travel points, and with only one main quest hub it’ll never take you particularly long to get anywhere. There's a stack of hilarious sidequests available that it's always worth doing, purely for inevitable and hilarious cutscenes. These can range from join the hunt for Manbearpig to shrinking yourself down to size and exploring a man's anus. From that sentence alone you should know what to expect from these madcap missions.
It’s puerile, it’s grotesque, it’s strangely beautiful. South Park: The Stick of Truth is a flawed masterpiece. It takes humour in gaming to a new level, shrugging aside Guybrush Threepwood and Conker with ease. It raises the bar on how funny can be, never letting the mechanics get in the way of a good laugh. Every aspect of the gameplay is manipulated to generate laughs rather than be good on its own merit. It’s a double-edged sword, the one stumbling block that prevents it being a truly great game. The combat is one-dimensional and too easy, the side missions rarely go beyond fetch quests for dildos and magical flutes, and the dungeons are basic in the extreme. It’s easy to see why these things are though, and over the course of an eighteen-hour adventure they don’t really detract from the experience. Instead they funnel you down the story at breakneck pace, providing the player with more and more opportunities to laugh their arse off.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is undoubtedly one of funniest, most laugh-out-loud games ever made. Throughout its 15-18 hour length it maintains a nigh on perfect level of quality when it comes to humour, something that has rarely been seen in the gaming world. Sure, there are things that they don’t quite pull off, and the fart gags wear thin almost instantly, but credit where credit’s due the team at Obsidian, with the help of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have achieved something pretty special here. The game’s length will obviously be a thorn in many a hardened RPG addict’s side, but in truth if it were any longer it would be in serious danger of affecting how people feel about the product. South Park: The Stick of Truth is pretty much the same length as two seasons of the show back to back. Any longer and it would no doubt grow enormously wearying. Luckily, it doesn’t. South Park: The Stick of Truth plays out to a climactic finale that is just what you’d expect from a game obsessed which trying to constantly outdo itself. Every encounter is more outrageous and bombastic than the one before.
Just as you thought you’d seen everything they could possibly throw at you, they hurl something so offensive and downright hilarious into the mixer that you can’t help but sigh and sacrifice yourself to the humour gods. There are some moments in The Stick of Truth that you'll have never before seen in gaming, and some scenes that will have your eyes popping at your head. It's flagrantly grotesque but it's truly a joy from vile start to heinous finish. If you're a fan of South Park then this is an absolute must-buy, if you're not then this suddenly becomes a game that's difficult to recommend.
For those of you picking up the console versions in a territory where the censorship stick has been whipped out, have no fear that you're missing out on too much. The five scenes of anal probing, as well as the abortion minigames, are still hilarious in their delivery. Slight spoilers below, but you can check out for yourself the differences between the two versions.