It takes less than a week to create an episode of South Park, the rude, crude animated TV comedy. But South Park: The Stick of Truth is quite a different story; a game that has been on a rocky production road and missed its 2013 scheduled release date by an entire year.
As a franchise that relies on its diehard fan base, that might not be a problem. But a not-so-small thing happened in the gaming world in 2013: the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hit the shelves.
Fans of the TV show will be all too aware of Cartman’s inability to wait a mere three weeks to get hold of Nintendo’s latest console (then the Wii, back in 2006), so surely the show’s creators were ready to time-travel into the future to ensure the title’s success on the necessary platforms?
Um, no. The Stick of Truth will be available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 only. But then it doesn’t need masses of graphical processing power because the game looks exactly like the TV show. In fact, it looks gloriously like the show, recreating the computerised paper-cut-out style with perfection.
Is The Stick of Truth as thin as the cut-out figures, or as rich as the show’s 17 seasons have led its characters to become? We’ve been playing this role-playing game, now under Ubisoft’s guidance following THQ’s closure, to see if we got along like the Super Best Friends.
For the fans, not the kids
It should go without saying, but South Park isn’t a series aimed at kids. This is adult entertainment, and the game doesn’t shy away from that one little bit. Any series with episodes entitled Cripple Fight, Sexual Harassment Panda, and Cat Orgy makes that abundantly clear.
In the game, which opens in a similar fashion to its original 2012 trailer from the E3 gaming expo, we see Cartman - or, sorry, “The Grand Wizard” - unravelling the story’s premise like a Hollywood fantasy movie. The show’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, are used to mocking pretty much everything - and here the familiar mix of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit satire echo throughout.
Of course all this happens in modern day South Park, where you play “the new kid”, later named by a certain big-boned Wizard with a more offensive title that we’ll leave you to discover. You can pick the way your character looks, whether it's an apparent Goth loser or “Go Cows!” jock, by selecting from all sorts of facial and clothing styles, and it’s then your first job to make friends. That’s right, “You Have 0 Friends”.
The style of it all is spot on, leading from preset sequences to user-navigable scenes that look just like the TV show. Everything is here - from collectible Chinpokomon to Terrence and Philips’ oft-hilarious flatulence - all complete with unabashed swears. No bleep-out censoring as is required for broadcast on Comedy Central, which for us takes away at some of the charm.
Super Fun Time?
The game is a turn-based role-playing game, otherwise known as RPG if you're not into gaming talk. But one thing is clear: you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. A bit like the show itself.
At first we were unsure about The Stick of Truth’s battle plan. Learning the various attacks, blocks, when to guzzle that restorative potion - you have health points (HP) and power points (PP, or “pee pee” as the game obviously goes for) - familiar to playing classic Final Fantasy. Only this is South Park, and in this format the fights at the early stages felt somewhat repetitive, while vocal jibes also quickly became familiar. It needs some more dialogue to throw around in these key fight scenes.
But given a bit of time, as all these kinds of games require, and we got into the flow of it. You will learn new moves, level up, buy new weapons, and can control multiple characters as the story progresses. It still probably won’t stop you getting bored of roshamboing - that’s a kick “squaaaare in the nuts” - your enemies to the same select number of vocal sound bites though.
We were also disappointed to run into any loading screens at all. Jumping into fights is introduced with lightning strikes that last a couple of seconds before the action is on, while moving from sections of South Park's streets - speeded up by “Timmy Travel” at marked flag points, complete with our favourite chariot-riding character Timmy should you wish - also requires a short pause. But then urgency never feels like the number one factor in this game - it’s not as though taking your eyes off the screen for a minute will result in immediate death by wiffle bat.
As fans of the show the ability to explore the streets of South Park, lovingly recreated for the game, is the highlight. It’s an essential for gameplay as you’ll need to meet new characters and collect valuables in order to progress - but it’s what will sell the game too. This is South Park looking just as South Park should, no 3D Nintendo 64 nonsense to be found here.
It’s those South-Park-isms that are the most riveting part of the game, or the most childish depending on your take. Meeting Al Gore in "disguise" behind Tweek’s coffee house to investigate ManBearPig; getting into a fight with a bum by Kenny’s house who gets regenerative powers from his Jack Daniels; all those truly silly South Park things. There will be a lot more no doubt, but in our 60-minutes or so of exploring we only skimmed the surface of the game.
As much as we loved treading the streets, and some of the more organic shooting and destruction of objects that's possible by targeting while on the move, we did find the lack of an always-visible map frustrating. Instead you'll need to dig into tedious menus to see where you are. And that's is about as much fun as having a dolphinoplasty.
It’s commonplace to need to check where you are positioned and where to head next to complete quest items - quests that stack up the more interaction there is with various characters. We suspect that this will build up in true RPG fashion to leave many quest threads open at any one time, to keep the game away from linearity - but after only an hour it’s hard to judge how deep that will go.
Quest For Ratings
It does get our minds flowing with creative possibilities though, and it seems the creators have gone all out with pushing the limits of acceptability: the game is being censored for Australian release, will certainly be a PEGI 18 in the UK, while the US ratings board (ESRB) highlighted that "one level takes place inside the rectum/colon of a character". Classic South Park.
Stone and Parker have obviously been deeply involved in the game’s making. All the characters are here, voice acted by them as ever, with just as much veracity as if it were a real, televised episode of South Park. It delivers the brand, but packages it in a way that won’t appeal to all fans of the show, because 22-minutes of mindless watching compared to 22-hours of in-depth RPG play don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Writing this preview a full long weekend after playing the game - we like to sleep on these things - and we’re keener than Kenny in a room full of cats to go back in for another session. Not because we’re turn-based RPG fans, as such, but because we’re South Park fans. And despite the series' and the game’s low moments - the less said about Funnybot the better - there are always those highs and childish giggles to be found in among the madness.
And fret not, this game doesn’t cower from the madness. After all, all this fighting is over nothing more than a stick of wood.
South Park: The Stick of Truth will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in the UK from 7 March 2014.