South Park: The Stick of Truth has been in development for some time by Obsidian, and whilst eagerly anticipated there has been some concern about the progress and quality from the gaming community, particularly when THQ sold off its IPs and the rights to this game moved to another publisher. After Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines in recent years you can understand why. The release date has been pushed back a couple of times, information has been scarce at points, and it’s all started to lead to questions on if it’s going to be a big steaming pile of Mr. Hankey. Don’t worry, it’s definitely not.
The first thing to bear in mind here, if you don’t like South Park you’re probably not going to like the game; Stick of Truth is a South Park episode in playable form. You may as well stop reading here and go and find something else to do, like browse the rest of our content. Using the episode “The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers” as inspiration for the story, you play the New Kid arriving in South Park just at the point where the Cartman and his Humans are at war with Kyle and his Elves over the Stick of Truth, a symbol of ultimate power in the universe that grants the holder unlimited power. This being just like an episode, the kids playing at mock Lord of the Rings is only the backdrop to what’s really going on, and you get embroiled in the most unusual (and sometimes disgusting) missions to help stop the town falling apart. Being a silent protagonist (and deliberately referenced at every possible opportunity) means the story and settings are conveyed through every character encountered, and keeps the focus on the situation instead of trying to rationalise how you should be reacting – both a standard from the historical role in videogames, and absolutely essential considering how insane Matt Stone and Trey Parker can be.
Gameplay is a relatively basic RPG style that puts me in mind of Costume Quest, bizarrely. Pick your character from fighter, mage, thief or Jew; select some colouring and how you’re going to look, then head out the door. The whole of the town is open for you to walk around in the 2.5 dimensional style we’re all used to. You can visit all your favourite places from Tom’s Rhinoplasty to the High School, and even Canada! It’s all in a reasonable distance as well, with the time taken to cross the map only minutes. Skyrim size this is not, but you’ll spot the Elder Scrolls tongue-in-cheek nods all over the place. As you’d expect with a TV property known for is cutting social commentary and up-to-the-minute references, it’s not lacking on that front. The Stick of Truth is as happy pulling out old gags from the show as it is lampooning gaming stereotypes, and there’s no lack of targets – Lord of the Rings, Breaking Bad, Fallout, Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy and Call of Duty to name a few. Do the jokes get tired? Not in the context of the game, but I’ve not watched every episode of every series several times. Or maybe I’ve just never grown up and am still a sucker for dick and fart jokes.
I thought combat would be the standard turn based RPG fare, and it is, to a degree. Whilst it’s the usual “attack and wait” style, you have to hit specific commands depending on what you’ve chosen to hit the enemy with. For example, to perform one of the magic fart attacks you need to hold the right stick down until the gas becomes visible, then push the stick up to release at the enemy. This adds an extra dimension to the fights and mean that they don’t always play out in the same way, especially as there’s a decent selection of moves available, but more so when your button presses don’t register (I even swapped controllers to make sure that wasn’t the problem). Battles are triggered by encounters in the game world (as expected), but there’s a nice mechanic for disabling foes using environmental attacks so you don’t have to fight them at all, and the game becomes almost a stealth puzzler for certain sections. You’ll want to get into combat though, the special abilities of all the characters are great to watch and there are a lot to see, and will even do damage if you get the button presses right. Jimmy’s use of a lute is inspired and Butters can be a badass!
For combat you’re accompanied by your new found companions in the form of the core South Park characters, and though you can only have one at a time in the fight they can be swapped out if you need a fresh approach. On top of your friends you also get the chance to help ancillary characters that will come to your aid once a day if you’ve completed their quest lines. They’re not really necessary most of the time because they’re overpowered and will defeat all enemies, but they’re fun to summon into the battle, and it’s a sight to behold having Jesus dropping in with an M16 to clear a room. You can’t use them in a boss fight though, so there you have to use your full repertoire of moves. Bosses aren’t impossible, but they can be intense if you’re not equipped correctly, and there’s one that happens in a place that you will never, ever forget (it’s imprinted on my mind forever).
Getting the right equipment is pretty easy, the game throws new weapons and clothing at you with alarming regularity, so much so that you won’t get chance to use it before you get something better. I tend to prefer this approach instead of things being eeked out over 100+ hours – it feels more accessible and that you have decent choice. Abilities are upgraded through the XP system we all know and love, and you’ll be grinding that as quickly as possible to get your Roshambo up to full gross-out level. Perks are awarded through making friends on Facebook and all the menu interfaces are based on this faux system, so it’s here you’ll swap your kit out for the latest fashion, read what your friends are abusing you with, and manage your inventory. Improvements for your weapons and garb come in the form of strap-ons and patches and, once you’ve figured how to modify them, they are very handy. In fact, the whole interface and switch between gameplay and cutscenes is very nice, the game shines here because the source material is perfect for matching the game too. Unfortunately, not everything in the game is perfect for matching to the countries it’s being sold in.
For us lucky Europeans there are 7 scenes that we’re not allowed to see because they involve minigames that might offend our sensibilities. By the time you’ve reached the first one you’ve heard the worlds supply of swear words, probably seen Kenny get decapitated several times, and murdered scores of enemies. This however (according to the censors), is not enough to prepare us for the horror of wiggling a stick to perform some actions on screen. The subject matter is the problem, the first batch of censored screens is performing alien anal probes on the protagonist and Randy Marsh, the second batch are to do with abortions. I understand why they scenes are cut, and there are placeholders there describing the “action” that have been approved by Matt and Trey apologising for it. I’m leaning to think these have more impact than having the original minigames, though the intent is clearly to avoid controversy in the EU member states.
On the technical side, the loading is relatively quick, though you’ll get some jerky movement each time you more to a new area and the game autosaves. The feature works well by storing the last 3 checkpoints and constantly overwriting the oldest so you’ve always got a way to return to an earlier point, and you can make manual saves too. Audio is decent, but the game doesn’t actually require anything special beyond it being crisp and clear. There were a couple of points where the audio dropped out, or certain animations didn’t complete, that left me stuck in a battle with no way of continuing, though the autosave load fixed them. So, what do you get for gameplay length? There’s the main story arc that is reasonable, and plenty of sidequests to crack on with, though you’ll probably have got through most of that in around 10 hours. You can play through as each of the different classes too, in fact, some of the trophies are character specific so you’ll need the multiple playthroughs to get them all. The trophy list by the way is probably one of the best I’ve seen to date, a blend of progression and specific tasks that you’ll have to really work for, as well as being well titled.
The censoring doesn’t really detract from the game, the story is random, rude and gross enough that the replacement static images fit. Think about it, how can any game where your magic power is farting and hurling it at your foes be sensible and coherent anyway? There’s been a lot of effort gone in to recreating the feel of the series with lots of animation and dialogue recorded. There are touches, references and jokes everywhere and not just South Park, the Team America soundtrack gets a look in at a few points, and the heart that’s gone in to crafting a true South Park experience comes across in the execution. It isn’t often licensed games make you feel a part of the story or reproduce the feeling you get from watching, South Park: The Stick of Truth does, and that’s the best thing about it.
PlayStation 3 review copy provided by the Ubisoft PR team. South Park: The Stick of Truth is out on PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360 on the 4th March in the US and 7th March in the EU.