South Park: The Stick of Truth review: A true South Park game for true South Park fans
At a Glance
Over the course of South Park: The Stick of Truth's 12-plus hour running time it throws probably a thousand (or more) jokes at you. Big jokes. Small jokes. Short jokes. Sight gags. Elaborate jokes. Dumb jokes. Offensive jokes. Political satires. Sociological commentaries. Video game commentaries. Commentary commentaries.
In other words, everything you'd expect from a South Park game. And therein lies both its biggest strength—and biggest problem.
The South Park half
The game is an open-world RPG, with the entire town of South Park—and part of Canada—for you to explore. You control the New Kid, a.k.a. Douchebag, on a quest to make friends. This quest sucks you into a war between Cartman's human and Kyle's drow elf kingdoms. They're fighting for the titular Stick of Truth—your average, garden-variety stick, except this one has the power to control the universe, ostensibly.
And then around hour six everything goes off the rails and it all gets way weirder, though I'll leave you to find out how.
Stick of Truth is, in many ways, similar to a two-hour episode of the show stretched over too many hours of game. It looks like South Park and thanks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's involvement, it sounds like South Park too. Kudos to everyone involved—this is a South Park game that does its lineage proud, at least aesthetically.
South Park: The Stick of Truth had the promise of an unfettered Trey Parker and Matt Stone experience. Freed from the confines of television's oh-heavens-think-of-the-children morality, Stick of Truth could do all the things Parker and Stone couldn't get away with normally.
And in some ways it did. There are no bleeps here. No blurs either. Just pure, uncensored (sorry Europe) swearing and nudity and fetuses and anuses and farts. As always, South Park is not for those easily offended. Like, seriously. I cannot stress enough how much you should not play this game if you are easily offended or triggered by subjects like, oh I don't know, rape.
Yet despite some so-absurdly-horrific-I-can't-really-decide-whether-I'm-offended occurrences in the latter half, Stick of Truth feels predictable. Like Celine Dion trotting out on stage to sing "My Heart Will Go On" just one more time, I can't shake the feeling that Stick of Truth does what's expected of it and nothing more.
South Park the TV show has made its mark lampooning pop culture, and Stick of Truth is at its best when it's cracking meta-jokes about video games—like lampooning me for spending so much time on side quests and urging me to get back to the main story.
But South Park's best feature is the rapidity with which Parker and Stone put together an episode. (Watch the fantastic documentary 6 Days to Air if you get a chance.) It bestows upon South Park a wonderful responsiveness no other show matches—a sense of being there, of understanding pop culture and reacting to it on the fly.
Game development is clearly a different beast. Stick of Truth went through one round of delays after another, and while the story is remarkably current for such a troubled game, it mostly relies on your nostalgia for the show.
Set up the ol' favorites and fart 'em down. Al Gore. Chinpokomon. Jesus. Mister Hankey, the Christmas Poo. At one point you'll battle the Penis Mouse. There's no joke, per se. Just a pleading, "Remember the Penis Mouse? Remember how funny that episode was?" Sure I do, South Park. Sure I do. But just showing me something that was funny previously doesn't make it funny again.
As I said, Stick of Truth does what's expected of it, and what's expected of it is fan service. I can't fault them for it, but I also don't think the game is that funny as a result. It's a parade of old South Park jokes you've no doubt seen before or assimilated through the cultural hivemind, and only in rare moments will it really surprise you.
The Obsidian half
That being said, I really enjoyed playing the game. The aforementioned aesthetics are part of it—this is undeniably South Park, construction paper and all. But Obsidian did its job well.
Outside of a criminally limited Options menu on the PC (you can change resolution and gamma and...that's it) and some obnoxious screen tearing (no way to enable Vsync) the game even managed to avoid that legendary Obsidian bugginess during my playthrough—though it sounds like the console versions may not be so lucky.
Character customization is endless here. I ran most of the game as a fourth grade David Bowie, with glam makeup and red mullet, but you could just as easily play as a Goth kid or a bearded hobo with mud on his face.
Combat is active turn-based—similar to the Mario & Luigi games, if you've played them. Your attack can be bolstered or hindered by the way you respond to quick-time events in the midst of combat. For instance, during a standard melee attack if you right click at the correct time you'll do a power attack and inflict more damage.
You can also use your "magic"—farts—against enemies. You unlock new farts over the course of the game (through some of the worst tutorial segments I've seen in recent history) and each has its own uses in combat. Nagasaki, for instance, can blow enemies out of the combat arena if used properly.
But any sense of tactical depth is largely unnecessary. Combat is fun, but poorly balanced. You'll always fight alongside one companion, and the two of you combined will easily walk through most fights. By the end I was one-hitting most enemies, and thanks to a handy helmet that let me attack again after KOing an opponent I'd then kill every single enemy in my first turn.
Even the harder fights are rendered silly by the sheer number of potions the game gives you. It's hard to feel threatened when you're sitting on a stockpile of fifty or sixty health potions by the end of the game.
Stick of Truth also falls into the Final Fantasy hole—some of the most powerful attacks are tied to a fifteen or twenty second animation that's funny once, a bit lengthy the second time, and tedious by the third. You end up brute-forcing many battles with the simplest moves just to avoid watching those scenes again, which is a shame.
All that said, the combat is engaging—at least more so than straight turn-based systems. And the team really outdid itself coming up with character-specific abilities; unlocking new companions for use was always exciting.
The real joy, however, comes from exploration. Because it's in exploration that Stick of Truth's fan service feels least obtrusive—just wandering around South Park opening drawers and learning more about the town's denizens. Finding new abilities, Metroidvania style, to open previously unaccessible areas. Reaching that treasure chest you were confused by earlier, and finding a sweet wig inside. It's actually funny the game nags you about returning to the main storyline while exploring, because I found the latter far more interesting.
If you're not a South Park fan, well, there's not much to recommend. Stick of Truth is the same brand of humor, only distilled. The game is so reference-based, it's hard to know how much you'd understand if you don't watch the show regularly.
But the game's a lot of fun, though less in a laugh-out-loud funny way than a this-is-satisfying way. As I said, Stick of Truth throws a thousand jokes at you and most of those jokes don't stick. There's enough here, however, that South Park fans will want to check it out. This is a respectful and faithful adaptation—something other tie-in games could learn from.