Prior to The Stick of Truth, I'm not sure I can remember the last time a video game literally made me cry with laughter.
I'm sure it's happened, of course, but few games have elicited such genuine belly laughter as a scene in The Stick of Truth where New Kid, the player character, faces off against Cartman in a battle of flatulence that had me laughing so hard I had difficulty holding on to my controller. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and probably showing myself up as a critic in the process. What can I say? I still find a good fart joke funny, and I frankly fear the day when I no longer feel that way.
The Stick of Truth is a 15-hour South Park episode in which a character of your own design is the star. And calling it a South Park episode isn't an exaggeration, either; great pains have clearly been taken with the game to make it look as true to the TV show as possible, right down to everything being overlaid with a subtle but noticeable construction paper texture. It looks like South Park, it sounds like South Park -- and it has the humor of South Park.
The latter aspect is what will probably divide the potential audience of this game most significantly. We're talking about a game riddled with fart jokes, anal probes, more fart jokes, sentient poo, a few more fart jokes, several interactive abortions and one hell of a lot of swearing.
We're also dealing with a game that masterfully blends elements of both Western and Eastern role-playing games to produce an experience that is extremely satisfying to play, a lot of fun to explore, and which has a surprising amount of depth beneath the provocative exterior.
We're also dealing with a game that, much like the show, brilliantly and intelligently lampoons certain aspects of society and culture amid all the seemingly juvenile humor. The Stick of Truth takes specific aim at everything from Facebook to Skyrim and silent video game protagonists, with particular attention paid to the self-absorption and narcissism of the social media age. And, like the show, this means it will make you laugh on a moment-to-moment basis with superficial, silly things, but allow you to walk away from it thinking "Hmm, yes, that was quite clever, actually." Matt Stone and Trey Parker may not be above a good poop joke, but there are also clearly a lot of things they know a lot about and have a lot of affection for -- and they choose to demonstrate this through mocking said things mercilessly from a well-informed perspective.
Let's talk a little about the game itself. Structurally, it actually bears a surprising resemblance to the old Dungeons and Dragons games of the Infinity Engine era in that you travel around a world that is almost completely open to you from the outset, completing quests, battling enemies and collecting loot. As you progress through the game, you'll level up, which unlocks access to more powerful battle abilities, and you'll also collect Facebook friends, which, at various milestones not tied to your experience level, unlock passive Perks. You'll also collect equipment and be able to attach stickers and "strap-ons" to it in order to boost your abilities, allowing you to customize your character to a pretty strong degree, even within the limitations of the game's four available classes.
Yes, classes; although The Stick of Truth is set in modern-day South Park, the gameplay is framed as a live-action fantasy role-playing game that the boys of the small town are playing. The humans, led by Wizard King Cartman, are at war with the elves over the titular Stick, possession of which grants the wielder control of the universe. The outset of the game sees you siding with the humans, but later in the game you have the option of switching sides and playing for the other team -- the decision you make here affects which of the available Buddy characters you'll have on your side -- before the two paths then converge again for the finale.
Combat is straight out of Paper Mario -- strangely appropriate for a show originally produced using paper and card -- and unfolds in a turn-based fashion on a separate screen to field exploration. Both New Kid and your Buddy's abilities have various button combinations or movements to power them up, and there's a strong focus on timing both your hits and blocking incoming enemy attacks. You can't just mash the Attack button here.
Status effects are a lot more useful than in some other role-playing games, too -- and in true South Park tradition, they're suitably ridiculous. Flinging a lump of excrement (produced by yourself at any of the many in-game toilets, of course) at someone causes them to become Grossed Out, for example, which prevents them from healing themselves because they can't stomach the thought of food. Meanwhile, set someone on fire and make them bleed and it's entirely possible that they'll keel over from damage over time on their own turn, which is always satisfying.
Alongside all that, you'll have to deal with enemies that have shields -- allowing them to completely block a certain number of attacks -- and armor, which reduces the amount of damage taken from an attack. Lucky, then, that New Kid has a wide variety of different attacks at his disposal, with some significant differences between the four classes and the various Buddies available. (I played as a Jew, incidentally, whose armor-shattering Circum-Scythe move is both wince-inducing and extremely useful.)
But it's not necessarily the combat itself that's the most interesting thing about The Stick of Truth's gameplay -- it's the fact that combat is rarely mandatory. During the more scripted sequences of the game -- "dungeons" if you will -- you'll see that enemies are often surrounded by various objects, and taking full advantage of these objects in the right order can often see you defeating an entire enemy party without having to enter combat at all. And yes, you still get the experience points for doing it this way -- plus you get to feel smug and superior for outwitting the game.
Outside of combat, the game has elements of Metroidvania about it in the sense that you gradually unlock abilities over the course of the story that allow you to access areas you could previously see but not reach. Negotiating the game world eventually becomes a bizarre combination of using four different types of fart (sorry, "magic"), shrinking yourself, using an alien probe stuck up your ass, shooting arrows at things and asking your Buddy to do things for you, with each Buddy having their own unique specialism. The crutches-bound Jimmy is able to open wheelchair-accessible entrances, for example, while Stan can summon his dog to pee on things.
Let's talk about that "15 hours" figure, since prior to the publication of this review there's been a little controversy surrounding it on the Internet at large. For me, I found that the game's story wrapped itself up at just the right time; there was enough variety in the game to keep things interesting -- though combat does get a little repetitive in the early hours of the game when you don't have many Buddies or abilities -- and I never felt like it was outstaying its welcome or padding things out with filler content.
There are sidequests in the game, yes, but they all feel meaningful and interesting -- plus the additional Facebook friends you tend to get out of them provide a tangible benefit to completing them, too. In other words, it's a tightly focused experience that never feels like a grind throughout -- you're always doing something worthwhile, and it's always leading you onwards to the next belly laugh, wince or cringe. It's also not afraid to shake things up on several occasions -- while the majority of the game unfolds in and around South Park, there are a couple of sequences later in the game that I won't spoil, but which were an absolute delight to come across.
Plus, of course, if you enjoy it, you can always play it again as a different class.
There are actually very few criticisms I want to level at The Stick of Truth. The humor won't be to everyone's taste, but that's something of a given with the source material -- and, as previously mentioned, the jokes are actually a lot sharper, wittier and socially aware than you might think at first glance if you're unfamiliar with the show.
I was also initially disappointed at the inability to play as a female character, but this is justified by the narrative and setting -- South Park the show has always been about a group of young boys causing havoc, with girls treated as some sort of mysterious Other (with cooties), and The Stick of Truth is no exception. There is, however, a sequence that forces you to disguise New Kid as a girl, and you are thereafter free to remain in full makeup and girls' clothes for the rest of the game if you see fit -- there are even several sets of stereotypically "female" armor for you to continue your adventure in.
There's a couple of aspects that seem a little undercooked -- collecting the Chinpokomon hidden around South Park appears to have no discernible purpose aside from unlocking an achievement, for example, and try as I might I simply could not find the last Fast Travel flag, though I wouldn't put it past the game to be trolling me -- but these are ultimately minor flaws on an otherwise excellent, highly polished package. And, unusually for a newly-released Obsidian game, it appears to be completely bug-free, too, as least in its PC incarnation.
The Stick of Truth is well worth your time and money, then -- and while some may balk at its relatively short length compared to some RPGs, I would question whether the game would have actually been any more fun had it been twice or three times the length. I suspect not; as it stands, it's an enjoyable, well-paced, self-consciously silly and unashamedly offensive romp through Matt Stone and Trey Parker's respective imaginations -- and, without a doubt, one of the best uses of a TV or movie license I've ever seen in gaming.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: It looks just like the show in every possible respect -- both during gameplay and cutscenes.
- Music and Sound: Could have perhaps used a few more background music tracks, but those that are there are all high quality -- and the voice acting, much like the visuals, is completely authentic to the show.
- Interface: Navigating the menus with a gamepad is occasionally a little fiddly, but the game otherwise works well with various control schemes.
- Lasting Appeal: It'll take about 15 hours for a playthrough with most of the sidequests -- plus then you can play it through again with the other three classes. A single playthrough neither outstays its welcome nor feels like it's over prematurely, and some fun achievements encourage you to experiment with the game mechanics.