South Park: The Stick Of Truth
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
For an animated series that has gained infamy for the quick turnaround time for episodes, it sure has taken a long time for South Park: The Stick of Truth to get to consoles. At four years in the making each delay in launching made it seem like Obsidian were never going to release their title, but now that it’s finally in our hands was it really worth the wait at a time when many people have already jumped to the next generation of consoles?
The answer to that depends on your opinion of the source material. With the help of South Park creators and perpetual teenagers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, The Stick of Truth is so faithful to the source material that it’s not likely to win over any new fans. This starts from the first scene where you’re introduced to your character who is naturally the new kid in town. There isn’t a single on-screen moment that doesn’t look like it could be part of a broadcast episode. In much the same way as the television show uses movie-quality rendering software to make something look like it was created by hand, your PC, Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 uses its processing capabilities to similar effect. It shouldn’t be as impressive as it is but there’s something charming about the way everything has been duplicated from the television with such authenticity. Right down to the famously dodgy walk animation.
It’s a testament to the design as well as the programming that such deceptively simple visuals can still be so impressive. There are some visual spectacles, including some fantastic backgrounds and intricately (by South Park standards) detailed bosses, but unlike most video games that want to impress with their visuals, you never think about the number of pixels or the definition of the textures on display. It simply pulls you into the moment ultimately by being really good television.
Of course, there’s a reason video games don’t aim to replicate good television; there needs to be a game there somewhere and here we have a relatively simple RPG. The main storyline starts off as an elaborate live-action role-play (LARPing) session the children are taking part in and the player’s character is introduced as the new kid in town. After setting out to make some friends, they’re introduced to the combat classes on offer as well as the mechanics. It’s a turn-based system that plays a lot like the Paper Mario games in that player interaction is required for most of the combat. Whether through performing rhythm-game style sequences to multiply damage or responding to enemy attacks with a well timed button press, the player is constantly engaged. Everything about the combat seems designed to encourage a decent pace, right down to the characters who will complain at the player for taking too long looking up items in the menu. It’s worth noting, though, that there isn’t a world of difference between the character classes (you can choose between Fighter, Mage, Thief or Jew) and given that all of the weapons can be wielded by anyone, there really isn’t enough variety in play styles to justify repeated playthroughs for most players.
The game even goes a long way to explain why the children are engaged in such turn based extreme violence; they’re playing a game. It’s a little more gratuitous than most but the LARPing concept is actually played straight for the most part, or at least as South Park ever could. A magic spell that uses fire, for example is performed with fireworks and a group-effect electrical attack is even performed with a bucket of water and car battery. It’s a shame, then, that actual magic is introduced as early as it is since it seems mildly incongruous to show a character calling lightning from the heavens when so much effort was placed into creating mechanics that have a more real foundation. Of course when the weird really hits the fan, it does so with traditional South Park gusto.
The involvement of the original South Parktalent is evident in every aspect of this game. The story feels authentic and the characters speak completely naturally. Even the world building feels genuine and fleshed out whether you’re reading characters’ social network posts, or the many and varied item descriptions. The story goes at a pace as you follow the main quest line and enough new elements are introduced to never make it feel like you’re suffering padding to lengthen the experience. This does make the game a little shorter than the average game of this type, but at roughly fifteen to twenty hours of solid entertainment you never feel short changed. That play time includes the optional side missions which are generally as interesting as the main storyline and so worth completing. The only problem they occasionally have is that a couple of them require you to advance to certain stages of the story to access suitable abilities. It’s a trapping of the adventure genre, of course, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a puzzle that needs to be solved and an area you can’t access just yet.
It’s also worth pointing out that, yes, the EU version of the console releases are censored. Since this was an action taken prior to submitting it for classification it feels more like another layer of political satire. Taken as such, the text describing the actions the player misses are about as entertaining as actually playing them. Of course this is a world where YouTube is a thing, and so anyone who wants to experience the uncut brutalities is free to do so. The PC version on Steam has not been censored, though.
In a Venn diagram of South Park fans and adventure RPG fans this game exists in the overlap. If you find yourself there too then this game is an absolute no-brainer. It’s inventive, disgusting, in bad taste and absolutely hilarious. If you fall outside that area, however, this isn’t going to convert you into either fandom. It’s the reliance upon the source material that makes it almost perfect to its target audience, but prevents it from getting a perfect score as a game.