Let's get this out of the way first: if you're coming to South Park: The Stick of Truth because you like turn-based RPGs, you're going to be disappointed. This isn't a game for RPG fans. This isn't a game for those who love in-depth gameplay or intense battles. This isn't a game designed to engross you in minute details of inventory management. What it is, is pure, unfiltered, unbridled, utterly unabashed fan service. Stick of Truth is a game for those who've watched and loved the adventures of four crudely drawn boys as they navigate the quiet mountain town of South Park, Colorado. Whether you've watched slavishly for all 17 seasons or only dipped your toes into a few of the intensely rude, satirical and hilarious episodes the show has to offer, you'll find something to love in South Park: The Stick of Truth. If you aren't a fan of South Park, well... you need to re-evaluate your life.
Stick of Truth is the latest title to attempt to convert the much-loved show into a game that can do justice to the source material. The late '90s and early '00s were littered with licensed games in which the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had little or no input -- and they sucked. Hard. Titles like South Park Rally and Chef's Luv Shack spoofed other games, but were devoid of the humor or charm of the series and often brought terrible gameplay with them. After a long dry spell, two more underwhelming games were made: a tower-defense game in 2009 and a platformer in 2012, both of which debuted to mixed reviews. The desire of fans for a South Parkgame which wasn't abhorrent forced the show's creators to step in and take over production of the next title in the series. Parker and Stone have overseen every aspect of the game, and, as such, The Stick of Truth is in essence a playable, extended series of the TV show.
I'll admit, I've not been the most reliable of viewers. I've fallen in and out of the series as it's progressed, but I've always enjoyed it, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is not only a great movie, but possibly one of the greatest musicals ever made. If you're like me, and haven't heard every joke or seen every reference, don't worry -- there's still much to enjoy here.
Let's start with the most obvious thing: more so than any other game based on a TV series or movie, The Stick of Truth nails it in terms of making you feel like you're essentially playing an episode of the show. Many praisedThe Simpsons Game when it debuted in 2007, with cell-shaded graphics that took the 2D cartoon into the third dimension. It worked, and it looked great, but instead of trying to expand dimensions, South Park is very much a 2.5D game -- everything is viewed from one perspective, with characters and objects moving within planes on that perspective. Yes, exactly like the TV show. I played the game on a decent PC, and never witnessed a framerate drop or graphical bug -- it was rock-solid throughout, and the level of immersion was intense. Wandering around the city of South Park, mapped out for the first time, is a nostalgia trip. Characters hobble along just like they do in the show, mouths animate in scribbled fashion, limbs and objects jerk around as if they were being animated for every frame that appears on screen. The aesthetic isn't close to the look and feel of the TV show, it perfectly matches it in every scene -- regardless of whether it's a cutscene or actual gameplay. The graphics are mind-blowing, not for their fidelity or complexity, but for never removing you from feeling like you're existing within the world of South Park. It's incredible.
Of course, that's where the fun begins. The Stick of Truth starts with you as the new kid in town. You create a custom avatar and are immediately sucked into a massive roleplaying fantasy battle between the humans -- Cartman, Kenny, Butters and more -- and the elves -- Kyle, Stan and a similarly large group of youths. You'll start with the humans, and their leader Cartman, where you'll select between four classes: the standard RPG three of Fighter, Mage and Thief, and a unique fourth class, Jew. Hovering over that latter class leads Cartman to say "Jew, huh? So I guess we'll never really be friends." That's just a small taster of the intensely crude, offensive humor that Parker and Stone's show is known for.
After a tutorial level that brilliantly spoofs tutorials in other games, you're given free reign to start exploring South Park. A climb to the top of the cardboard castle in Cartman's backyard slowly pans into an epic vista of the town available to you -- and almost all of it can be explored. Indeed, that's how I spent my first few hours with Stick of Truth. I visited every home, every building, every location I could remember from the series. The town of South Park is a treasure trove of sight gags, references, nostalgic throwbacks and fresh comedy. I'm going to avoid spoiling the jokes for you, but suffice to say that Stick of Truth is crammed full of them. Even little things, like the in-game Facebook parody, which is used to manage your inventory and stats: I met Butters' parents when I walked through his house looking for loot, and after I left received a message from his father apologizing for Butters. Not for anything in specific, just apologizing. The details filling the game are often where the most humor can be found. Princess Kenny was captured in one mission, and rather than rescue her I kept raking through drawers and cupboards for loot. This prompted my buddy to say "Our Princess is upstairs getting raped, but you just keep searching for treasure." Venture into Cartman's mom's room and her bedside tables are filled with dildos. Switch on a TV and listen to highly amusing audio from Terrance and Phillip. Accidentally fart, and people will mock you for shitting your pants or walk away in disgust.
Of course, farting is a key component to gameplay. Stick of Truth takes much inspiration from Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, spoofing its dramatic, nordic music style and its dragon shout combat system -- though here the shouts used to take down dragons are farts used to overcome enemies and ignite flames to move obstacles or wreak destruction. Watching Cartman teach me how to cup my fart and aim it in a specific direction drew out my inner 5-year-old as I laughed heartily -- and this is all within the game's opening hours. It remains consistently funny throughout, without ever feeling repetitive.
The same can't be said for the rest of the gameplay. Actual combat is turn-based and very much on the light end of that spectrum, much like Paper Mario. Battles between humans and elves, or against hobos, rats, wolves, Mongolian warriors, aliens, Shelly Marsh and a whole host of other enemies are rather simple. There's none of the depth of most other turn-based games -- here, it's possible to adopt the same strategy for most battles and grind to victory. Battles are waged with the player and one other buddy, who is interchangeable during battle and each brings a special set of skills. Players can use melee attacks, ranged attacks, power attacks and fart attacks, as well as imbibe potions and items to boost health or increase strength or revive a fallen buddy. While a few of the battles required some degree of strategy and thinking, and the sense of reward that comes with beating them, at many points I felt like the battles were simply getting in the way of my enjoying being in the South Park world. If I saw members of the rival faction on a street corner I'd either run past or walk away, to avoid having another fight. The game doesn't force you into random encounters, which is good, but sometimes I would find myself reloading the game to a checkpoint and finding a route that didn't involve battle.
Of course, in battle, the humor is still ever present. Employ Princess Kenny as a buddy and he can kiss an enemy, grossing them out and limiting their attacks. Block an attack successfully, and the attacker will bend over in front of you and allow a free strike to their ass. Shelly Marsh appears with the "bleeding" debuff already affecting her, but it isn't from being cut -- it's her time of the month, and this is reiterated when she throws used tampons as one of her attacks. The humor keeps the battles from becoming monotonous, but I still found myself less enamored with them as the game went on.
Of course, outside of the battles, gameplay is a dream. There are a few obstacles that can arise due to the limited viewpoint offered -- I got stuck behind terrain items more than once -- but for the most part, navigating South Park and its many building interiors is simple and enjoyable. The game gets out of your way to let you explore. The reward of exploration (and winning battles) is loot, items that can be equipped or worn, new hairstyles to try, make-ups to apply, or a seemingly endless list of humorous junk items that can be sold to pay for better weapons and armor, or new upgrades. Most of what can be found is either a reference to something from the series, or a spoof of the useless items that fill up a lot of RPGs (and thus, player inventories).
What really brings everything together, though, is the sound. From character voices to in-game music to ambient sounds, South Park feels as real as an animated TV show can feel. Passers-by commenting on my actions, the constant chatter from my buddy or other characters, the guitar riff accompanying each new day or welcoming you back when you load a save -- just like the show when it returns from commercial break. There are songs from the show's canon dispersed throughout South Park, waiting to play at the right moment. The classic "shuffling" of the characters' feet as they move across a scene is here. Every voice is spot on -- and because it was written by the show's creators, it feels genuine.
Of course, above all else, the real treat is the barrage of crude, gross, satirical, intelligent, emotional humor that South Park is so well known for. I didn't think it could sustain it for an entire game, but it does. For those who love the show, or even those who just enjoy laughing loudly for half a day, South Park delivers on every front. Sight gags, jokes, references, nostalgic throwbacks -- it's all impeccable. Stick of Truth feels like a polished season, or a super-extended movie.
As a game, Stick of Truth is more of an exploration game. Or, at least, that's where it's at its most enjoyable. Seeking out every joke, exploring every building, finding every bit of treasure -- I loved my time scanning every inch of the town of South Park (and beyond). Where it can falter is in the occasionally repetitive battle system that, while still injected with humor, isn't in-depth enough to captivate for the full length of the game. A sign of this is that, aside from some limited abilities, it doesn't really matter what class you start as. A Mage can wield weapons just as well as a Fighter -- there's no real reason to favor one over the other.
Complaints about gameplay all feel slightly irrelevant, however. Overall, as a game, it works. As an extension of the show, it works. As a way of feeling like you're a part of its world, it works. From the clean UI to the design to the graphics to the sound, never before has a game based on a TV show felt so much like the real deal. Every time I paused the game, it was like I'd paused the DVR. Every time I played the game, it was like I was playing an episode written specifically for me to enjoy. Fans will adore it. I urge you to check out the main characters' closets -- the phrase treasure trove doesn't cover it. For normal gamers, there's still a lot here to love -- if you're not a fan of the series, this game will do little to persuade you otherwise, but it doesn't shut out those willing to take the plunge. It offers jokes that reach both old fans and new.
It's polished, side-splittingly funny, broad in its scope and yet focused in its ability to make you laugh at a rape joke, a fart joke or a racist joke. It offers the same "Can I laugh at that?" humor as the show, while giving you the controls to explore it all at your own pace. The game underneath may not be as solid as some are expecting, but for those waiting for the perfect South Park game I say this: it has arrived.
South Park: Stick of Truth (FOUR STARS) is $59.99 and available for PS3, Xbox 360, PC and as a PC download.