Do you like fishsticks?
South Park: The Stick of Truth is finally here and it’s clearly been worth the wait. Over a troubled development including a change of publishers there have been worries about how well the show’s humour could translate into a ten hour RPG – whether or not the graphics would echo the show effectively – whether you’d have much freedom while the developers were constrained by the South Park universe. Thankfully they’ve dealt with all of these issues incredibly well and this is by far the most successful TV-game adaptation we can remember.
You start off as a new kid in town – thrown into a character creator you get a little bit of an insight as to how the art style of South Park works for characters. It’s easy to create someone distinctive, but it’s also impossible to create something that doesn’t fit in – whatever you want to look like you’ll be able to create a rough approximation and then there’s plenty more features like beards and costumes spread out throughout the game – hundreds of them. Sadly you are restricted to being a boy thanks to the plot but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker and should you want to dress up as a girl that’s there for you too. There’s no pre-rendered cut-scenes in the game ( well, one actually come to think of it) so your character appears as you create and dress them. The consistency works wonders for immersion and you quickly identify your character as one of the South Park cast.
The plot revolves around a live-action role playing game the boys are all taking part in, think dungeons and dragons across a whole neighbourhood. This lets Obsidian play with spells, magic, different races and the titular Stick of Truth being some kind of sacred relic, but the real world is always there too. Much of the humour comes from the crossover when the adults and kids are talking at cross purposes or serious real-world events and completely being ignored by Cartman and co. All of the cast regulars make an appearance and the vast majority get a decent share of screen-time; characters like Jesus, Mr Hanky and Mr. Kim are far more than just cameos. Instead they appear as ridiculously powerful and entertaining summons that you can use once each day (so around three times in the game) but only in normal fights, Jesus finds bosses too scary.
The gameplay is fairly typical JRPG fare with turn based combat and character customisation. You’re often paired up with another kid but you only control them in battle – you can’t pick out the weapons or gear or abilities for them. Each have their own strengths and we regularly found ourselves switching them out for utility or sometimes just because we love having Butters around – he’s so sweet. In combat you have a variety of heals and boosts open to you but controlling the battlefield is quite complex. There’s a surprising amount of depth and thanks to a huge number of different enemy types you’re unlikely to keep repeating the same strategy in every fight. As you play through you get experience and gear with different kinds of elemental effects and other bonuses. There’s very few ‘standard’ stats – instead focusing on effects that you’re likely to notice in battle like leeching health or causing enemies to puke. Every gear item and weapon can be modified with strap-ons and patches – adding more elemental or status effects to them. These can thankfully be switched in and out at will in what might be a clunky menu system but still saves the annoyance of upgrading a weapon only to find a better one five minutes later. The weapons and gear designs are absolutely genius. We started off trying to keep our character looking half way sensible but by the end we had a barbarian furry chest plate, a vibrator as our main weapon and a condom on our head. It’s very much South Park.
The main quest is better than that of any RPG we can remember in the last decade or so, save perhaps Mass Effect. It might not hit any particular emotional notes but there is a sense of real drama and tension and it’s laugh out loud funny through 80% of the writing. Of course there’s some jokes that won’t hit home for you depending on taste, the plethora of fart jokes barely raised a smirk here, but there’s always something else going on to tickle your funny bone. The whole world is filled with in-jokes for both the show and gaming in general – there’s tonnes of loot in draws and cupboards but it’s not all randomly placed. Check Ms Cartman’s bedside drawer to see what I mean. All throughout the world there’s little details and references to past episodes – some are more surprising than others and the entire history of the show is considered, right up to three of the most recent episodes of the current season. If you don’t know the show very well it won’t matter, most of the humour is completely inconsequential to the main story and there’s enough comedy that’s simply excellent writing that you would laugh your way through the whole game even if you didn’t get a single reference. There aren’t any branching storylines that you might expect from an Obsidian game, although there are some choices you’ll very quickly end up doing the same thing regardless. This isn’t a game about emotions or drama, it’s comedy, for that the writers have had to stick to a script and it works well but might be jarring for those expect a more open western-RPG style experience.
Sadly the European console versions have had some fairly major gameplay scenes cut from the game and the developers have made quite a big point of this, choosing to simply replace them with a slide explaining what was cut rather than editing it more subtly as is traditional. It sort of work as a joke in itself but when you know it was the developer/publisher’s decision to cut the content for the sake of sales rather than something they were forced into it seems unnecessary and kind of disappointing. Two or three scenes build up to a climax that simply isn’t there, and the game just skips ahead as if you’d completed it, surely an alternative could have been provided?
The comedy translates well into the battles and abilities themselves. Somehow the animations don’t get tedious, the QTE elements aren’t too easy and the effects are always visceral. Watching Kenny try to jump onto a charging unicorn or Kyle lead a group of elves into an arrow flurry was always entertaining, possibly due to the precisely paced nature of the game. The whole game took us ten hours including sidequests and that’s split up into three roughly defined ‘acts’, with the end and beginning of each day working as the end and beginning of episodes. Ten hours might not seem like a lot for an RPG and there’s close to zero replayability – unless you love the combat enough to play as another class – but any longer and some elements would begin to wear thin. This is clearly a comedy game and it never stops being funny from the moment your character wakes up to the final scene. There’s never a sense of having to grind or jokes overstaying their welcome, there’s never a character that takes up too much of the dialogue. It’s all so balanced it’s nearly perfect.
The graphics are similarly an amazing accomplishment. While no one would ever claim that South Park is a technological marvel, this game almost is. It doesn’t just capture the essence of the cartoons, it looks exactly like it – right down to the slightly grainy paper-like textures that make up everything and the 3D models that are occasionally used with the alien spacecraft. With the combination of the look being right and all of the voice actors being present it’s only the combat that doesn’t seem lifted directly from the show. Unfortunately on Xbox 360 there is some significant slow-down in parts but thankfully it never affects the gameplay.
The only real flaw with the game is the clunky menu system and reloads. There’s a few fights (including a certain ex-presidential candidate) that took five or six tries and the process of restarting is quite a pain. At least most of the cut-scenes are skippable, but it just takes too long – especially when some of the fights go on for quite a long time. Changing gear is also more of a hassle than it needs to be, especially at the rate you get new items. If you get a whole new set (which happens repeatedly) you have to find all of the old ones, take out all the modifiers, and then go through each piece and put modifiers back in. Thankfully this doesn’t get in the way too much and the menu system does feature an entertaining Facebook wall where people you’ve ‘friended’ (an important goal in the game is to friend as many people as possible) will leave messages.
Overall the only people we can’t recommend this game to are people who have a strong dislike for South Park. If you don’t like the humour or you find it offensive and crass, this is unlikely to win you over. In some ways it’s a ‘best-of’ of some of the more distasteful jokes – South Park has never been for the sensitive. However if you you’re neutral towards the show or are in any way a fan – this is a fantastic game and well worth your time and money. We’re really hoping this turns into a franchise as there’s so much more that could be done with the template. We can’t wait to head on back to South Park and have ourselves a time.