South Park: The Stick of Truth Review – a side-splitting RPG with real character

Thanks to the apropos talent of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park: The Stick Of Truth delivers familiar tongue-in-cheek, satirical humour and crude language that has helped make the animated series such a huge hit. Yet underneath its close-to-the-bone jibes at Jews, anal-probing incidents, and fart-powered combat lies an in-depth and satisfying role-playing experience the likes of which you will never have played before.

What South Park’s talent and Obsidian Entertainment’s RPG veterans have done with The Stick Of Truth is remarkable. Not only have they reproduced everything that fans love about the series, including the memorable cast of characters, clever wit, and hours’ worth of side-splitting dialogue, but they’ve blended it magnificently with a heroic, fantasy-fueled storyline and a creative combat system that is just as rewarding and challenging as it is fun to play.

The antics begin with the creation of your own unique South Park character. Rather than play as an existing member of the cast, you arrive in South Park with your family as the new kid on the block. The creation system allows you to mold your character the way you see fit with clothing, hairstyles, and facial features, like black eyes, plasters, or measles, enabling you to create a brand new cool-looking dude or dudette who, despite being silent throughout the game, fits perfectly into the bright and colourful world of South Park. With plenty of opportunity to change his appearance throughout the game by buying and looting outfits, armour, weapons, and cosmetic items, Stick of Truth carries a personal touch that RPG fans will certainly appreciate.

This new character slots neatly into the existing cartoon world that fans have grown accustomed to and, consequently, it feels like you’re walking through and interacting with a very long South Park episode. Following character creation, the game tasks players with exploring the town of South Park and making friends. Indeed, the friends system becomes fairly crucial to overall progress. Some people are instantly glad to meet you and will friend you on the spot, while others (generally, the more fan-favorite characters like Mr. Kim and Al Gore) will require certain conditions be met, like completion of a side quest. At certain friends-met milestones, you’ll earn a point toward unlocking one of 20 available Perks, like shortened debuffs or less damage from Bleeding enemies. Pursuing some friendships even unlocks Summon abilities for devastating once-per-day attacks, and some of the game’s better gear awaits down these side stories.

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Your first friend is ne’er-lucky Paladin Butters, who takes you to the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), a makeshift camp in ‘Grand Wizard’ Cartman’s backyard complete with an armoury, a lookout post, and stables (a sandpit). Kupa Keep is the initial hub from where you and Cartman’s gang–the Humans–protect the Stick of Truth from the Elves, the opposing faction. The Stick of Truth is soon stolen from the camp and the new kid on the block, amicably named ‘Douchebag’ by the Grand Wizard, is called upon to help out the group by traipsing around the town of South Park carrying out quests and fighting elves and other enemies. At this point, you’re introduced to the class system, where you get to choose between becoming a Fighter, Mage, Thief, or Jew, with each sporting different attributes, abilities, and gear sets unlocked throughout the game.

Like most RPGs, gameplay boils down to NPC interaction, combat, exploration, and side quests of the kill-fetch-escort variety. Unlike most RPGs, however, the game world is fairly small, with players able to walk from South Park Elementary School in the West to Kenny’s House in the East in less than a couple of minutes. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to explore with most of the buildings in South Park, like City Wok, Tom’s Rhinoplasty, and many kids’ houses, open for exploration. Though it’s great to able to explore some of the locations that we’re familiar with, there’s no doubt that the game would have benefited from an on-screen mini-map or quest arrows. Such is the multi-tiered layout of South Park and its streets–I was constantly opening and closing the game’s map to gauge my position, be reminded of quest locations, and check for the quickest routes.

That doesn’t mean that exploration is mundane; far from it, in fact. From a handful of pubes that can be sold at the armoury to clothing that gives you a tactical advantage in battle, there are tons of nostalgic items to collect and it’s great fun exploring the likes of Cartman’s bedroom or a hobo’s camp, thanks largely to the unpredictable nature of what might happen, or be said, next. Ruffling through the bedroom drawers and businesses of the neighborhood in the community center which makes searching for items as entertaining as it is useful. There’s also collectibles to search for, such as Chinpokomon, and plenty of opportunity to interact with the familiar cast of characters and scour areas for dozens of items hidden away that will help you with your quests.

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The whole South Park cast is on standby to provide much amusement and disguise what could be described as generally standard RPG quests; you’ll be doing a lot of moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and then back to ‘A’ with fetched items, for example. Interactions with the likes of Cartman, Kenny, Kyle, and Stan, who deliver their unique brand of humour with some style and take their role-playing fantasy incredibly seriously, rarely fail to amuse and there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments during the entertaining campaign. Still, the humour can feel "safe"–not in a politically correct way (it most certainly isn’t), but in a way that relies too strongly on mainstay jokes that series fans have heard time and time again. Immense respect for the source material is probably preferable to a game that takes too many risks and mutates what makes South Park so great. But more new material could have elevated Stick of Truth to a place of importance in series canon and made the whole thing feel less like a franchise highlight reel.

And despite a great deal of missions made more entertaining for their unique themes, some mundane sections persist that we couldn’t wait to get through, none more so then the utterly boring quest aboard a spaceship (which also annoyed with its U.K. censorship of numerous scenes). Also, the flow of quests are somewhat tainted by extremely frequent (albeit brief) loading screens and severe framerate drops when transitioning to new areas. On a broader technical level, however, Stick of Truth impresses. Music riffs on high fantasy orchestra to pleasant effect and combat tunes suggest the kids’ (and creators’) obsession with Skyrim. Visually, the game is indistinguishable from the show, especially since the HUD disappears during exploration. And all manner of nice touches give life to the world–kids and adults alike pull out their cell phones when standing around, comment on the player’s action, and take humourous jibes at in-game events. The fourth-wall-breaking stuff is just fantastic: as I stepped away from the game at one point to browse the Internet, my character pulled out his phone and Butters remarked: "If you’re texting your friends about this game, tell ’em it’s good!"

Indeed it is–gameplay is surprisingly in-depth, with a well-paced XP system, a series of sub-menus (which demand an unfortunate amount of visits and attention), and some inventory management playing fairly large roles campaign. These sub-menus are very cleanly displayed and intuitive to navigate, which makes equipping your character with the right items and allocating Perks, abilities, and magic a breeze. Indeed, spending time within the sub-menus, making sure you have the right items equipped, becomes increasingly important as combat grows complex and side quests start coming in fast.

Battles take place whenever you bump into enemies on the street, although there are also instances where you’ll fight bosses or walk into a battle as part of a quest. Though the turn-based system may put off players who enjoy sword-clashing thrills, the developer has done a superb job at creating an engaging, tactical, and often humourous take on an age-old concept. There’s a wide range of class-based weapons to buy and upgrade with stat-modifying stickers (same goes for armour), and timed button presses change the nature of your attacks for dealing with armored and ranged foes. Abilities are visually diverse and tactically interesting–"Dragonshout," a powerful fart with the power to stun enemies, could give your party breathing room to reduce the shields of other enemies or open serious damage-dealing potential based on your Perk choices and equipment stats. Others, like the Thief’s ‘Mug,’ has the chance of stunning AND procuring an item–but it relies on a different resource (ability’s PP vs. farting’s Mana). And many battles rely on the help of unlocked friends, like Jimmy the Bard or Princess Kenny, who uses womanly wiles to distract foes.

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As combat is a highly timing-based affair, your success can often live or die on your ability to hit X at the right time. Timed button presses make combat more involved, but it feels somewhat counter-intuitive in a turn-based RPG to fail at the hands of a couple errors in timing. The sheer wealth of tactical options counters this somewhat. Do enough side quests, or find the right combination of gear and Perks, and you could be gaining extra turns with Attack Up on perfect timings and dealing massive Bleeding, Burning, or Grossed Out damage–all before the enemy gets a say. The wide range of enemy types, without going into spoiler-y detail, also provide a fair amount of tactical challenge. Combat can be a highly thoughtful balancing act of defence, potion-taking, and attacking while managing the interplay of HP, PP, Mana, and enemy eccentricities. Foes might, for example, adopt a riposte stance that counters melee, or take up a reflect stance that counters ranged attacks. Others might flee in the face of overpowering attacks, or focus all their efforts on buffing comrades. Enemy attributes, strengths, and weaknesses factor heavily into all of your combat decisions, and it’s all handled with often-hilarious callbacks to the series, from Mana- (fart-) restoring apple juice to some highly creative and amusing enemy attacks that channel the nostalgic personalities we love and hate.

Aside from combat, there’s also some environmental puzzle-solving that comes into play, with players able to use a variety of abilities to open new paths, snag collectibles, or get the drop on enemies and avoid combat altogether. Your chosen party member (usually swappable at will) has a unique ‘Buddy Command’ ability (like Jimmy’s access to a handicap-accessible elevator), and you’ve got arrows for hitting out-of-reach switches and objects. It’s fun to see how the interplay of these abilities can change the environment and create advantages, like by dropping a ceiling light onto other fourth graders or lowering a ladder to secret attic loot. You’ll also be using your fart powers cause explosions with open flame or distract guards during brief stealth sections, and a few highly situational uses of later abilities change up the gameplay formula with genuine puzzle-solving. These sections, breaking away from the RPG core, are hit-and-miss in terms of execution, with trial-and-error progress or inadequate signposting creating problems.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth does real justice to the South Park license, never failing to entertain with its humour, while boasting a fun storyline and addictive, in-depth combat that will resonate with turn-based RPG fans. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect, with some mundane quests and navigation hampered by the need to continuously delve into the map, as well as loading times and framerate drops interrupting flow. Still, Stick of Truth is an essential experience for series fans that mercifully offers the gameplay chops to match outstanding presentation and truly thoughtful design.



The Final Word

A side-splitting romp with all the sharp satirical humour we've come to expect from South Park. Strip away its wit and, despite a few flaws, you'll find a satisfyingly deep RPG.