Video Game Review: ‘South Park: The Stick of Truth’ Spares the Satire, Spoils the Fans

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

CHICAGO – In May 13, 1996, I didn’t know what an RPG was. That all changed with “Super Mario RPG: The Legend of The Seven Stars”. The term was right there in the title! Not only did they popularize the genre, Square Enix streamlined the numbers heavy RPGs of the past into something challenging, charming, thrilling, and accessible. The combat was required timed button presses, and the story was oddly touching; bittersweet moments supplementing the generally upbeat and zany antics. It was almost a kid-friendly water-slide prelude to the pop-culture Tsunami that was to be “Final Fantasy VII” only a few months later, at which point pretty much everyone knew what an RPG was and what to expect to from one. Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 4.0/5.0

A few months after “Final Fantasy VII”, the not-kid-friendly-in-any-way “South Park” debuted on Comedy Central and was instantly popular with kids. In my school there was a VHS tape with the first five episodes of the first season being shared around with such secrecy and importance you’d think it was the one ring to rule them all. In the seventeen years since, “South Park” and RPGS have endured and evolved, and people along with them. RPGs have gone from niche games to massively popular experiences where turn-based combat is almost a relic, favoring real-time input in games like “Mass Effect” “Skyrim” and “The Witcher”. Experience points found their way into pretty much every genre, to the point where you could call “Grand Theft Auto V” an action RPG and get away with it.

If Kurt Vonnegut was the “Moralist with a Whoopee Cushion”, “South Park” packs a flaming bag of dog doo instead. Through 247 episodes and counting, “South Park” grew into itself, the intelligent writing and unique point of view hovering below the scatalogical surface becoming apparent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s brain child became something of a socio-economic court jester, using Kyle, Stan, Cartman, Kenny, and a supporting cast of dozens to call out society’s hypocrisy and extreme polarization, while being foul mouthed and ribald and touching and scatalogical and subversive and popular and instantly quotable all at the same time. And now RPGs and “South Park” have combined via Obsidian’s oft-delayed, publisher shifting “South Park: The Stick of Truth”, which is certainly “South Park”’s biggest undertaking in the gaming space, ever, and yet another high-profile licensed title from Obsidian, who’ve previously taken the reigns of “Star Wars” and “Fallout”.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.
“South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.”
Image credit: Ubisoft

And “Stick of Truth” plays great once you get your hands around the gelatinous nature of the combat and environmental interaction. By which I mean the tutorial and introduction to the gameplay is anything but solid. A cohort I shared the first four hours with openly cursed when Cartman mocked her inability to parse the strong / weak attack timing mechanics for the fifth time. Battles are turn-based, fast-paced, input-intensive, and getting comfortable with the timing, item management, and various buffs and debuffs will take a couple of hours, plus one or two more if you want to figure out the best way to synergize all your equipment modifications for a proper build. Attacks require hitting the right button at the right time for a ‘perfect’ hit, and you’re encouraged to hit “A” when being attacked to block some incoming damage. It actually feels quite a lot like the “Super Mario RPG: Legend of The Seven Stars” in that every spell or attack involves some sort of mini-game or input from the player to achieve the optimal result. Also like “Mario RPG” is the way you can affect battle conditions via environmental factors. Fart on enemies, they’re “grossed out” to start the battle. Hit them with your bow? Dazed. Knock a lamp onto an enemy or two? The boss battle starts with two enemies already downed. It’s really creative and lends an almost point-and-click adventure appeal to the non-combat parts of the game.

The combat difficulty is scalable, and on the normal setting I found hitting one or two powerful attacks could vanquish most enemies with ease if you know their weakness. Boss battles are tougher encounters, and you’ll find yourself engaged in a great back-and-forth struggle as enemies throw their best attacks and various defensive maneuvers at you - a particularly enjoyable battle involves being sure to defend every attack from an umbilical cord or else it regenerates life infinitely. Once you’re cozy with all the systems, the whole shebang is quite a lot of fun. A neat addition is that you can also use items and attack on the same turn, which makes battles go by way faster, and a little easier to swallow for non-gamers or folks who picked this up for the “South Park” name but generally avoid RPGS. If you’re a game dev looking for a gameplay innovation worth popularizing, this would be a great one.

Ultimately combat feels great once you get the hang of it, and is made all the more sweet by the various South Park tropes that are layered on top. You’ll be utilizing things like bathroom robes for wizard cloaks, tin foil for helmets, cardboard for horses, and so on - in addition to actual ‘real’ looking weapons and armor too. Beyond that, you get to pick from several South Park mainstays as a battle companion. Butters is a lighting focused Paladin who decries “I uh…I was just seeing if it worked!” upon knocking out a fake elf with a very real ball-peen hammer. Jimmy is a bard, his special attacks requiring you hammer the “A” button when he stutters during one of his debuff creating songs. Stan uses his dog in all manner of not-PC ways in combat, and Cartman, of course, lights his farts on fire for AOE damage.

However one problem is the size of “The Stick of Truth”’s proverbial boat, versus its motion in it’s the ocean. I played “South Park” in about a week’s time, savoring a fair amount of the content, talking to pretty much everyone and completing the sidequests that seemed interesting, and clocked in at around 12 hours play time if the save screen is to be believed. A lot of this 12 hours involved walking from Point A to Point B, arranging equipment, and watching cut-scenes. With such a robust combat system and litany of customization options, it’s a shame you find yourself nearing the final third of the game before you know it. I’m not one to harp on game-length, but I can’t help but feeling bummed by how quickly the whole thing wrapped up.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.
“South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.”
Image credit: Ubisoft

But the length could also be a “South Park” problem. There’s only so much to do in a single mountain town (and parts of Canada), and maybe Obsidian didn’t want to overstay its welcome, or Trey Parker and Matt Stone simply didn’t have it in them to write and perform the dialog required for a sprawling 30-40 hour RPG. Regardless, it’s impressive how well the RPG part of “South Park: The Stick of Truth” comes together, to the point where it steals the show from the narrative. The only real gameplay misstep being the two non-combat special abilities you earn. One allows you to teleport over gaps, and the other allows you to shrink. While novel, switching from your bow to cross a gap, then hastily switching back to your bow to get a quick pot shot off at an enemy to daze them before combat, is a hassle, especially when a jump button would have been welcome and felt a little more organic to the experience.

Speaking of organic experiences, it’s almost…sublime how developer Obsidian managed to capture “South Park”’s crappy animation to perfection. Friends *will* think you’re watching the show if they casually glance at the screen. The school, all the characters’ houses, Tom’s Rhinoplasty - it’s all here and accessible to explore, and all completely authentic to the show. There are literally hundreds of callbacks to prior episodes spread across the open world, with cameos by the underpants gnomes, Mr. Hankey, the aliens from the pilot (“Cartman gets an anal probe”), Mongolians and the “Chitty wall”, and countless more in the various item descriptions and NPC one-liners. The bigger the fan of the show you are, the more masterful the world becomes, down to correct geography, and the diegetic audio being popular songs from the series. It’s a real nostalgia trip, with many moments not only calling back to a specific episode, but subconsciously stirring up the memories of whatever you were doing at that time in your life, too. And of course, Cartman, Kenny, Butters, Stan, and the supporting cast all get moments to throw in their most known phrases, and naturally Kyle’s mom gets called a…well, you know.

So It’s kind of a big fat bitch that the tale told in this fantastic world feels a little underwhelming. Look, I didn’t expect to be moved emotionally, nor did I want some grand deconstruction of gaming. I did expect some level of intellectual stimulation, be it a message, theme, blatant allegory - anything! Instead ”Stick of Truth” presents itself as a high-quality farce and nothing more, which is fine. “Airplane” is a high quality farce. So is “The Naked Gun”, “Young Frankenstein”, and “Family Guy”. But “South Park” is a farce with a point, damn it. “South Park: The Stick of Truth” delivers shocking content in droves. wangs, balls, racism, abortions, sexism - it’s all here, and a lot of it will make you laugh in the “how did they get away with that?!” way. Yet, there’s little context to set up a lot of this stuff…so in a way it’s just a lot of (funny) racist, sexist, offensive, humor…without a point, which, if my memory serves me, is the exact same thing “Cartoon Wars” got all bent in a tizzy about in regards to “Family Guy”.

Previously, when “South Park” dipped its toes into the interactive media space - the N64 FPS being something of a cult-classic, “Chef’s Love Shack” trying to do the ‘Mario party’ thing, poorly, cart racers, tower defense games, and beat em’ ups, the titles were received lukewarmly. The problem with these titles is they took the look and feel and style of South Park, but none of the creative pungency of Matt Stone and Trey Parker - creating a “South Park” experience in name only.

My theory? I don’t think Trey Parker and Matt Stone are very big gamers. They’ve tackled videogame related topics in “South Park” before, and have done so admirably, but generally those episodes have treated games as a sort of macguffin to arrive at a larger point - The “Chinpokomon” episode generally speaking to how fads can be good and bad, and it’s best not to get too riled up about them. Similarly, “Towlie” featured the ubiquitous Okama Gamesphere as an object of single-minded desire for the characters, but had little to say about gaming culture. The “World of Warcraft” episode is lauded, but ultimately closed with a lasting image of our South Park heroes sacrificing their lives and well being for a pointless MMO. Toss in the brutal message at the end of the “Black Friday’ trilogy about how the kids should use their imagination to play - not needing 500 dollar consoles to have fun, and not only do I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone aren’t gamers - I don’t think they “get” gaming.

Which is…okay. One thing Parker and Stone do very well is educate themselves on a topic before tackling it. I’m sure they’ve played games, lots of games in fact, because their entire livelihood depends upon being up-to-date with pop culture, and “South Park” certainly know the broad strokes of the who, why, how, and where of video gaming culture. But considering their generally sour take on the medium, I don’t think they have anything (more) to say about gaming. Especially considering what they’ve said before is that gaming is a life-sinking, imagination killing, electronic, interactive, dopamine dispenser - all things you probably don’t want to communicate through a video game people pay hard earned money for.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.
“South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available on Xbox360, PC, and PS3.”
Image credit: Ubisoft

Thus I find myself in territory similar to Remedy’s “Alan Wake” - a game I bought for the story, but loved for the gameplay. Here, “South Park: The Stick of Truth” delivers fantastic combat, customization, and strategy in droves - you can sink your teeth into the system and feel mostly full by the time you’re done chewing. However, if you’re a person who loves “South Park” for what it says, versus how it says it, you may find the story portions a little malnourished, not because they aren’t good, or entertaining, or funny, but because ultimately it’s mostly empty calories. Look, there’s no way a game where this much care, and effort, and personality doesn’t get a proverbial thumbs up from me. It’s a high-quality game that doesn’t quite live up to *my* high-standards of what “South Park” is, and can be, but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating it for what it is - a surprisingly deep, terrifyingly funny, oh-so-very beautiful, old-school, RPG that despite being brand new, will flash your brain back to 1997 and all the years in between with startlingly regularity as through not only a game, but 17 years worth of television history that may just be a little more important to you than you may think.

“South Park: The Stick of Truth” was reviewed on the Xbox 360, but is also available on Playstation 3, PC, and Okama Gamesphere. video game critic Paul Meekin

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