When a game has a long, protracted and seemingly tortured development, it's understandable when if it finally comes out if it doesn't live up to the years of hype. What usually happens is that the publisher finally goes "get it out in two months or it'll be cancelled" leading to the ridiculous situation of a years-in-development game being massively rushed. In short, a game with too many years on the clock is usually not good, and often is by Gearbox. Obsidian even have one on their belt already, the good-but-not-quite-there Alpha Protocol. So it's with a profound sense of relief that I say that not only is their South Park: The Stick of Truth great, funny, and perfectly captures the show, it's also an amazing RPG and potentially a game of the year contender. Yes, I'm being super cereal.
There's so much greatness in The Stick of Truth there is absolutely no way I'll stuff it all in a single review, so I better get on with it starting with the cool story. Apart from parodying many games it frames the action perfectly, and there's plenty of wonderful moments in there too. You're a new kid in South Park (made with the excellent character creator) with a mysterious past, apparently no voice which everyone makes fun of you for and with parents determined to kick you out the door to meet friends. You become the lynchpin in the (Live Action Role-Playing) war between Wizard Cartman and Princess Kenny's humans and Kyle and Stan's elves for control of the Stick of Truth - for he who controls the Stick controls the universe. Of course this being South Park things don't stop with a bit of childish role-playing and soon involves aliens, a secret government organisation, Facebook, Taco Bell and Nazi Zombies, with the fate of the whole town in your hands.
That's me in front. No, really, that's me. I love this character creator
The best thing about the story is how while the war over the Stick of Truth is purely in the imagination of the kids and the whole aliens/government/end of the world thing is completely serious, you're playing as a kid so the hunt for the Stick of Truth is always more important to you. What's better though is the dialogue, which is as hilarious as the best episodes of South Park. At more than one point I laughed so hard I a) woke my sleeping girlfriend up and b) almost dislocated my jaw. The map screen of Canada alone had me laughing out loud for ten solid seconds. Beyond humour there are absolutely tons of references and call-backs to popular episodes, and I could fill this review just listing the best. Al Gore's continual hunt for ManBearPig, Lemmiwinks the gerbil-king, the Underpants Gnomes and catching Chinpokomon are just some of the highlights, so if you're a fan of the show you'll be in heaven. It even continues on from the most recent episodes of the show (notably December's 'Black Friday' trilogy), which should have been impossible for a years-in-development videogame but somehow Obsidian have managed it.
I've a feeling I'm not surprising anyone so far. The Stick of Truth being reverential to the show and extremely funny are things that have seemed on the cards for a while, especially with Trey Parker and Matt Stone heavily involved. What I was mostly worried about was that the gameplay itself would seem half-assed (heh) like some sort of linear Final Fantasy clone, after Obsidian finally got fed up with Trey and Matt's demands and just said "right, f**k this". It therefore gives me maximum pleasure (Ooooh, Jesus Christ!) to say that the RPG side of The Stick of Truth is not only good, it's great. There's definite influence from Nintendo's Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi RPGs, an excellent series to crib from and fitting for the 2D cardboard cut-out art style of South Park, but Obsidian have also used all their skill at RPG creation to add plenty of compelling tweaks to the formula. And yes, Tweek's in it too.
In the normal open world you can explore the whole of South Park and go in pretty much every building along with near-enough every room. Most people can be talked to, all the important ones will give you some form of side-quest (and all of those are worth doing), and there are secrets everywhere. What's even better is that as you go through the game you acquire special abilities, such as shrinking (from the Underpants Gnomes) or teleporting (from the alien anal probe stuck up your butt), that allow you to gain access to new areas. Sometimes mini-puzzles even show up that you have to use several powers to overcome. You'll wander down the same street several times and continually spot new places to go. You're also accompanied by a buddy, with a choice of Cartman, Butters, Kyle, Stan, Princess Kenny and Jimmy, and all have a special extra power you can use, not to mention different abilities in combat.
Like the best RPGs, you can often choose when to fight. Enemies are usually wandering around and you can cleverly shoot them or fart on them (I'll explain shortly) to damage them before combat starts or even lead them into danger. Battles are turn-based ("you have to wait your turn to attack, just like in the Middle Ages") and never less than involving. Buffing/healing items can be used before another action, attacks have to be well-timed along with certain button presses for higher damage, and blocks have to be pulled off correctly by pressing Right Mouse Button at the right time or you'll get hurt a lot more. Paper Mario is clearly a reference here, but the amount you have to think about and pull off perfectly puts even Nintendo to shame. Enemies can even choose to 'Riposte' or 'Reflect' attacks which makes them immune to melee or ranged attacks. Fights are exciting and never a case of just clicking 'Attack' and watching an animation, you're always completely involved. Plus a swift kick to the balls solves most problems.
Call on Timmy to transport you around town
Then we get to Magic, which in true South Park fashion is actually farting. There are four different types of fart "spells" to pick up during the game and all are usable both in and out of combat to different devastating effects. You can power up weapons with "magic", lure enemies away, and even destroy the environment. And get a laugh out of Butters or Cartman every time. It's funny, disgusting, and useful all at the same time. Personally I love how Right Mouse Button out of combat just makes your character do a tiny fart that makes everyone around comment.
The master stroke Obsidian has made is in making gaining friends on Facebook the central part of the whole game. As you complete quests or talk to people you gain friends, and the more friends you get the more special Fallout-style Perks you can unlock. The whole point of the game from your character's perspective is to make friends in this quiet mountain town, so to have that idea a central mechanic that actually makes you more powerful is actually quite delightful. Furthermore those friends will regularly post amusing comments on your Facebook wall which makes it doubly worthwhile, although try not to make friends with Al Gore or he'll spam you. One of my favourite facts about the game is that the mission to "Unfriend" Al Gore is probably the toughest here.
Running down audio and visuals quick, it's absolutely perfectly South Park. It looks and sounds exactly like the show, with Trey and Matt doing most of the voices and everything looking intentionally made out of cardboard, but I'm not going to undersell the insane amount of detail Obsidian have packed into every scene. People wander around, cars drive past, backgrounds move along with you, and a look in Cartman's closet shows a reference to near enough every episode of the show. Even the damn music is funny just by being over-the-top epic orchestrated fantasy fare, with the occasional snatch of Cartman singing a Skyrim-like "dumb Jews".
I'm honestly finding it hard to criticise The Stick of Truth in any area, and the few problems I encountered are the very definition of "nitpicking". The biggest probably is that there's no 'Sell All' button for Junk which can be a pain, but I think Obsidian want you to read the amusing description on every item. A slightly more annoying problem is that with four Magic Spells and four special abilities to choose from all the time things can get quite fiddly, especially if an enemy is chasing you and you want to shoot it but instead you activate the alien anal probe instead. Oh, and there's possibly a few too many loading screens breaking the game's flow. In terms of being South Park it's pretty much perfect, but surprisingly a few popular characters have been cut out despite featuring on early artwork, screenshots or even the game's loading screens - Satan, hippies, Crab People (well, there's one) and Towelie for example.
Me and Jimmy the Bard versus undead Nazi cattle. What's hard to understand about that?
Finally, and this is entirely up to you whether this is a bad thing, The Stick of Truth is astonishingly offensive. You may laugh and say "that's what South Park is always like", but honestly - this is Trey Parker and Matt Stone without boundaries or (unless you're in Germany or Australia, or playing on console) censorship. Unfiltered swearing, hardcore sex scenes, ridiculous abortions, painful anal probing of both adults and small children, bodily fluids, children being eaten by zombies, the actual voice of Adolf Hitler on all the Nazi Zombies, and literally the most disturbing boss battle of all time lies within. There were several moments where I had to look around to make sure my girlfriend wasn't watching, so beware if you're thinking of playing The Stick of Truth in your living room. Fortunately this is still all very, very funny, but it's a shame there's at least no Brutal Legend-style swear-bleep option (which I actually think is funnier).
SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH VERDICT
Cards on the table time: not since Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games has a developer so successfully made such an amazing title out of a licensed property, one that not only is a perfect South Park game but an incredible RPG as well. It may not offer you tons of choices or a gigantic open-world like The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition will probably end up doing, but already they have a challenger for RPG of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Stick of Truth has loads of fun things to do, clever and involving combat, well-thought-out mechanics and abilities that open up the town Metroidvania-like, and above all else it’s goddamn hilarious. Taking most side-quests into account it took me 15 hours to complete and I utterly loved every minute of it, from silly beginning to glorious ending. It’s currently the best game I’ve played so far this year, and while it’s got stiff competition coming up I can’t imagine any title beating it in terms of perfectly recreating its source material or in laughs-per-minute. Buy it, love it, play it again with a different buddy, but always remember - never fart on another man’s balls. Okay? Good, we’re done.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Every ten minutes I found a new Top Game Moment, but overall I’m going to have to say Canada. I’ll let you find out.