It's tempting to dive into a review of South Park: The Stick of Truth by telling you about the game's most outrageous scenes. Truthfully, it's better if you discover them yourself. And, when the backlash against the 'did that really just happen?' moments inevitably occurs, it will totally miss the point. The Stick of Truth is more than just wang-waving controversy - quite simply, it's the most accurate video game adaptation of anything, ever. Yes, even Batman.
The whole thing feels effortless. One of the greatest compliments we can pay Obsidian is that it seems like the Stick of Truth's world has always existed. The story starts with your silent New Kid stumbling into an imaginary fantasy war between Cartman's humans and Kyle's elves, all for the sake of the titular stick. It's a logical step rather than a cheap cash in. Wobbling around the streets of South Park feels like being on the set of the show, if such a thing existed, and almost every nod to the series imaginable is here (as well as a few you'll have forgotten about). It's so densely layered that it makes Arkham City seem sparse.
Making you a silent, customisable protagonist is also smart. At first it feels like you're intruding on someone else's D&D session, because it's meant to. It magnificently captures the feeling of being the outsider in a way few 'serious' games do: the menial quests, the grasping desire for acceptance and the (sometimes not so) gentle bullying. Gradually ingratiating yourself means that there's a genuine thrill to unlocking every new buddy.
Half the time, you'll be doing stuff just to see how each character reacts - whether it's casual vandalism or launching bottom-biscuits at Cartman's mum (if farting on strangers is wrong, we don't want to be right). Daft as it sounds, this is why the game works: for all it's deliberate foulness, Stick of Truth compels you to explore and socialise in a way that echoes some classic RPGs - think Neverwinter Nights or Knights of the Old Republic, but with Facebook and poo jokes.
The only way that a game this ridiculous can work is by taking the behind the scenes stuff exceedingly seriously. Thankfully, there's a remarkably solid system underneath the choppy cartoon visuals - give this a reskin and it would totally work as a stern, blood-and-thunder fantasy RPG. The combat works especially well, thanks to Obsidian's supple leather Gauntlets of Guidance. You have a choice of four classes: Warrior, Mage, Thief and, of course, Jew.
They work largely as you'd expect: for example, the Thief is all about pinching items and sneaky backstabbery whereas the Mage uses a elemental magics to exploit enemy weaknesses. The Jew is essentially a monk in a Tallit; slinging stones in socks and attacking with Krav Maga-style fisiticuffs (shamelessly called Jew-Jitsu). When combined with some narrative side-switching, the variety alone is enough to encourage a second playthrough.
Fighting is about picking the right moves and timing them correctly. Some enemies can reflect ranged attacks, while others riposte your melee advances. It's a deceptively deep mechanic that rarely gets boring, thanks to the tight visual prompts and an elegant system of rock, toilet paper, scissors. The classes are flexible, so being a mage doesn't mean that you'll never get to swing a blade (or vibrator) in combat. It's not a particularly difficult game - it's only towards the end that you'll really start munching through your supply of cheesy poof health potions - but you will need to pay attention. Messing up your timing on blocks or attacks can quickly turn combat into a grind.
"Stick of Truth compels you to explore and socialise in ways that echo classic RPGs - think Neverwinter Nights with poo jokes."
As well as the standard attacks, buffs can be added to weapons in the form of Strap-Ons. What else would they be called? It's a system similar in depth to Final Fantasy's materia, allowing you to add transferrable buffs to slots on your gear. Other pickups can also be used offensively. To pick a suitably lavatorial example, using toilets throughout South Park triggers a scatalogical minigame that 'rewards' you with a fecal projectile to hurl at enemies.
At first it's just enough to raise a childish smile, but as the game gets tougher you'll almost forget what you're doing. Before you know it you're using man-eggs strategically and casually combining farts with fire attacks for maximum effect - it's like seeing the Matrix in brown. There's just enough variation that it always feels like reactive fun, even for gamers who'd usually scoff at turn-based combat.
So the standard scrapping holds up well, but it's the specials that stand out. Not only does each class have a range of staggering super-moves, but your buddies also have massively on-message super attacks. It's these moments that reinforce just how much love the team have for the source material: no opportunity for a visual gag is left un-rimshotted. You can also collect special summons which can be used on grunts: devastating one-shots that call for assistance from South Park characters you've helped.
Spoilers notwithstanding, you owe it to yourself to find Mr Slave immediately and ask for his 'help'. We're not sure if it's the defining moment of the game, or something that will damage your very soul.
There are only two gripes with the combat: firstly, the presentation, appropriate as it is, sometimes results in visual prompts being obscured. Secondly, after you've heard Jimmy stuttering through a saucy limerick for the hundredth time, it might start to grate. In light of the general awesomeness, however, these are minor concerns. Cleverly, the option to dodge fighting altogether is presented by some neat little environmental puzzles.
You can use ranged attacks out of combat to damage the scenery and immediately take out enemies. These opportunities are rare enough that it always feels like a treat when you nail them, especially as they get more convoluted later on.
Along the way you'll also unlock new abilities that alter how you navigate the world. This provides the opportunity for some Lego-style gear gating and a bit of gentle puzzling. There's very little here that you won't solve in a matter of seconds, but it's a pleasing distraction. Better yet, some of the set-pieces that occur alongside your new powers provide the game's most outrageous moments. Do not be fooled by the seven censored scenes in the European version - this is still a knowing, relentlessly offensive game.
That leads us to a brick-subtle conclusion: your enjoyment of the Stick of Truth is wholly reliant on how much you like South Park. If Lemmiwinks, super cereal and cows mean nothing to you, this is will just feel like a solid, workmanlike RPG. For everyone else, it's like getting your first Okama Gamesphere: it's the South Park game you've been waiting for since forever.
Shameless, hilarious and surprisingly complex - an essential purchase for RPG fans with even a passing interest in the show.
- Surprisingly solid RPG foundation for a game full of poo gags
- Looks so perfect it's like controlling an episode of the show
- Some disappointing technical wobbles mar the overall experience
- The lengthy special moves will eventually get tiresome