One simple question: do you want to play through a really lengthy episode of South Park? Yes? Then you’ll really, really like South Park: The Stick of Truth.
Bear that in mind, because that really is the crux of whether or not you’ll enjoy this game. If you hate South Park, you should stay well away (although if you couldn’t work that out for yourself I’m going to assume you’re not allowed to eat cereal without a helmet). If you want an in-depth RPG full of choice and character development, you need to look elsewhere. The flipside, though, is this: if you want an authentic South Park game that lets you explore the town, meet with familiar characters, battle familiar foes, and – assuming this is your sort of humour – laugh, a lot, then you will thoroughly enjoy this game.
South Park: The Stick of Truth smartly sidesteps one of the issues usually faced by licensed games by having you play a silent protagonist who has just moved to town. You’re the new kid (referred to, naturally, as either “New Kid” or “Douchebag”), and your first quest – issued by your parents – is to get out of the house and make some friends. It’s not long before you bump into perennial South Park victim Butters, save him from a beating, and get introduced to the kids’ live-action fantasy-RPG battle for the Stick of Truth.
The battle for the Stick (between Grand Wizard Cartman’s Kingdom of Kupa Keep, and the hideous Drow Elves) forms the crux of the game’s plot, but huge amounts of past South Park characters, monsters, and events are referenced here. Most get smaller roles, appearing as side characters or getting little mentions in item descriptions. Others, like ManBearPig and the Underpants Gnomes, play a bit of a bigger role. For the most part these nods are entirely welcome, although they do occasionally venture a bit too far into “pandering” territory.
This isn’t just a retread of old ground, though, and considering South Park‘s excellent lampooning of World of Warcraft and Minecraft that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. This game lovingly mocks plenty of other titles, from the RPGs it borrowed its combat from through to, ooh, Skyrim. Actually, there’s a lot of Skyrim. The first “magic spell” (read: “super fart”) Cartman teaches you is called Dragonshout. Nothing from skippable cutscenes to audio logs to Nazi zombies manage to escape the scathing gaze of the game’s script.
Once you’ve signed up with the KKK and selected your class from a choice of Fighter, Mage, Thief, and Jew, you’re pretty much free to either follow the plot or go exploring the town, which has plenty of distractions. For instance: one of your general goals is to make friends with as many people as possible and, just like in real life, this means getting them to befriend you on Facebook.
Everyone has different requirements for friending you. Some, you just need to talk to. Some will have little quests for you to undertake, like when the local priest tells you to (literally) find Jesus. Some will only deign to friend you when you’re already popular. This doesn’t go unrewarded: other than the amusing little messages they’ll post on Facebook, which doubles as your in-game menu, hitting a certain threshold of friends gives you a point that can be spent on a combat perk.
Which I suppose is as good a segue as I’m going to get to talk about the combat, which is pretty important because it’s basically the crux of the actual “game” part of South Park: The Stick of Truth. It works like the Mario RPGs, or like Costume Quest: it’s all turn-based, but timed button presses when attacking or defending let you dish out more damage or block an assault. Most special attacks also require button presses for them to come off properly – Princess Kenny’s ability to summon a flood of rats and send them at the enemies requires you to mash left and right to shake them off, or they’ll attack him instead.
Your chosen class doesn’t actually matter too much, in that it largely just gives you access to five different special attacks. Equipment is far more important, and any class can wear or wield any piece of equipment you find.
Equipment doesn’t offer flat upgrades, instead hurling a staggering variety of buffs at you. Sure, some might offer armour, but not all of them do. Some might increase your health. Others might cause you to inflict extra damage on bleeding targets, or let you regain power points when you hit someone that’s Grossed Out. You can modify equipment further with patches, which add on another little buff; sellotaping a Lit Match to your cardboard sword obviously means that it’ll inflict some bonus fire damage.
Which all sounds pretty good, right? A neat combat system that isn’t massively level-dependent, with a fair bit of customisation and room for min-maxing. There’s just one issue: combat is unbelievably easy. This means that it rapidly fades into irrelevance, and this also means there’s less incentive to seek out and complete sidequests, because getting bigger and better gear isn’t really necessary. There was exactly one fight in the entire game which I lost, and that was because it was a sidequest for which I was underlevelled.
Health and PP are recharged to full at the end of every battle, so you don’t really need to ration items, and the monstrously powerful summon spells – letting you, for instance, have Mr. Hankey deliver a very literal shitstorm – aren’t available in boss battles, which are pretty much the only times they might be needed. This all saves a bit of legwork and a bit of grinding, but at the expense of turning fights into miniscule speedbumps. Even raising the difficulty doesn’t do much, because as far as I can tell that just narrows the timing window for perfect attacks and blocks.
On the plus side, combat can often be sidestepped by being clever with the environment. When roaming around you can see all enemies, and plenty of them can be dispatched by either shooting at things with your ranged weapon, or using the explosive power of your magic farts. You might be able to shoot out a vent, causing it to land on the heads of a pair of Drow Elves. You might be able to fart on a campfire, triggering a hobo-frying explosion. Again, combat’s never hard enough to make this necessary, but it’s nice to have the option to think your way around a lot of fights.
I’d quite understand if you’d read this far and figured the game sounds a little bit pointless. In terms of pure mechanics, you’re not far off. You’re missing one key point, though: this is South Park, and it’s bloody funny.
The reason combat is turn-based is because “that’s what they did in the Middle Ages”, which does lead to a lot of in-combat whining by allies and enemies alike if you spend awhile deciding what to do. You’re largely not using “real” weapons, instead favouring things like used tampons (as poison grenades, inflicting Gross Out damage) and anal probes. You can shit yourself in battle if your “mana” is too high and you don’t fart. The special attacks on offer are ridiculous and hilarious; Kenny, for instance, can summon a unicorn… but if you muff up the button prompts, said unicorn spears him through the head before trampling the enemy. And that’s without mentioning a boss fight that has you, miniaturised, fighting on your parents’ bed. And they’ve having sex on the bed. And you occasionally have to perform QTEs to dodge your dad’s swinging testicles.
The mechanics of fighting are almost irrelevant, and the fact that combat is so easy is as much of a boon as it is a shame. You won’t get tied up in a tricky boss battle, or have to grind for an hour to get through the Obligatory Sewer Level (which isn’t actually that bad, in truth). You can pretty much glide through, continually seeing insane plot developments and hilarious exchanges, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gleaned from that.
Most of this review has been “the combat’s not exactly great”, but everything else more than makes up for it. The Stick of Truth is a genuine South Park game. It looks like South Park. It sounds like South Park. It feels like South Park, to the extent that most of the cutscenes and dialogue could pretty much have been pulled from a South Park episode.
Here’s the thing: I really enjoyed South Park: The Stick of Truth. No, it doesn’t offer much in the way of character building, or deep tactical combat, or replayability. There are very few branch points in the game, and they don’t make any big difference. For an RPG, it’s pretty short, clocking in at around 12 hours.
But that’s sort of missing the point. I mentioned Costume Quest earlier, and that’s a really good comparison because that suffered all of the same problems mentioned above, and yet that was also brilliant. This is Costume Quest with a South Park theme and a massive budget. It’s clever, and well-written, and genuinely funny. It’s not a fantastic RPG, no, but as an experience that drops you in South Park and lets you interact with familiar characters, explore a familiar location, and laugh a hell of a lot at ridiculous situations and dialogue, it’s utterly sublime.
Which brings me back to the opening paragraph. Do you want to play through an episode of South Park? Then you know whether or not this is for you.