If Mortal Kombat was offensive in its day then surely South Park: The Stick of Truth is 2014’s coup for the crown. But not so much because of blood, guts ’n’ gore. Instead The Stick of Truth takes the turn-based role-playing genre, douses it with fuel high up the offence-o-meter, then sets it on fire… via flatulence to open flame.
And in that one sentence you’ve probably already made up your mind as to whether this game has any chance of being for you. Fart jokes, casual swearing and downright oddness that, at times, is so extreme it didn’t pass the cutting table without some intervention. And we don’t mean divine intervention - although Jesus donning a machine gun and shades is one in-game attack feature - but rather decision to censor some content in the EU. Still interested? We thought so you little devils.
If you’re a South Park fan then you’ll know all too well how the show collides current political and social comment with the inane to often hilarious effect. It’s not as devious as it may sound, though, as the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker typically deliver content with purpose, even if it does surf the wave of questionable at times. But if you’re a comedy liberal then seeing how far you can be pushed to laugh and/or cringe is all part of the fun.
Taking that notion and wrapping a game around it is no easy task. Let’s face it: South Park games of old have all been pretty lame. The Stick of Truth, on the other hand, takes developers Obsidian Entertainment, with the backing of publishing giant Ubisoft, and creates an immersive, rich South Park experience and RPG-meets-puzzler-platform title that is probably the biggest deal for the franchise to date. If there’s a game to keep that PS3 or Xbox 360 from taking a trip to the console graveyard then South Park: The Stick of Truth could well be it.
Not-so-quiet mountain town
Arriving a year later than planned and on generation-old consoles might not be the best way to make a noise that echoes throughout the mountain tops, but South Park relies on other gems to make itself heard. A major factor is its significant international fanbase that, whether casual gamers or otherwise, will likely assure its success. And the more gaming-knowledgeable will see the Obsidian and Ubisoft names almost as stamps of approval.
But the biggest approval of all will come from the fans. And here The Stick of Truth won’t let you down; this isn’t a half-baked attempt at looking like South Park, it’s like actually playing South Park on your TV screen. The town, the characters, the voice acting - every single element is perfectly crafted in an echo of the show’s distinctive paper-cut-out style. Ok, we know it’s all made on computers anyway, but you know what we mean.
Navigating the world sees you, the new boy in town, bopping around like a familiar South-Park-ite on the hunt for new friends on Facebook. But for all the style, The Stick of Truth can occasionally lack the elegance: there are times when the game stutters in-between scenes, the number of screen-to-screen loads is somewhat irksome, and some special magic moves such as Stan's swordplay show a noticeable frame-rate drop on the PS3 version we tested.
Here the next-gen consoles could have helped step up to deliver a smoother experience because there's such a huge amount of dialogue that needs to load. Other small glitches with directional controls and the occasional freeze were present in our build of the game, but a day one update patch should resolve such issues.
Even so, the odd hiccup isn’t enough to hold the game back. The story, threading itself around the current Game of Thrones trend and injecting Parker & Stone’s usual smattering of movie and celebrity references playfully perches it on the line somewhere between kids at play and something far more sinister. We won't give it all away, as that's part of the fun of playing through the story for yourself.
A role-player at heart
Mixing South Park with the RPG genre sounds like a real-life re-hash of the episode Make Love, Not Warcraft, and yet The Stick of Truth really pulls together and delivers an invested game with plenty of detail.
The idea of a turn-based game may sound boring to some, but the game is a tidy balance of timed button-bashing, thought-out attack routines and puzzle-esque platform moments interspersed throughout the turn-based battles.
You’ll progress from wearing your standard attire as selected at the beginning of the game to acquiring new protective garments and potions to help on your quests. A vast menu of inventory, level, magic, perks, powers and much more is the base of where a not inconsiderable portion of the game happens.
You’ll need to learn how to use weapons to best effect, but also defend yourself - all of which can be aided with gear that you select. You’ll be able to buy and sell at various outlets, so hunting for treasure like those favourite Canadian characters is a necessity. Whether that’s a case of fighting for a tinfoil hat, buying a basketball to bounce in enemies’ faces or waving a magic wand - and by “magic wand” there are multiple meanings to that in this game in typical crude South Park style - to slap your enemies around with, there are hundreds of options and combinations.
Even for those not fluent in the turn-based play concept, it all soon falls into place. Attack up, defence down, debuffs and such can be explored through a trial-and-error method of learning on the go. Your chosen path of Fighter, Mage, Thief or - and here’s another of those bite-your-tongue moments - Jew develops as you progress throughout and you’ll be able to focus on whether you want to inflict more damage in specific areas, such as with a two-handed weapon, or by magic abilities. Some enemies are resistant to certain attacks and have specific weak spots, so using your repertoire and collaborative buddies is crucial.
And yet the game never felt that difficult to us in its default “Normal” setting. We hadn’t died after a number of evening’s worth of gameplay, only to be killed by a gang of Mongolians on horseback due to lack of potions in the bank. Some bosses are a little tougher, but the right mix of two-turn “Speed” potions and magic attacks will most likely see you through no problems.
The method of selecting these potions in battle can be somehwhat slow as you'll acquire so many if you hunt out every possible source as we did - and because of this we think the developers should have included a "favourites" bin to speed up the selection process for some more frequently used options.
Pushing the right boundaries?
One thing you’ll certainly have to get on board when playing The Stick of Truth is flatulence. Farting, breaking wind, guffing, tooting - whatever you want to call it - is a key form of attack throughout the game. It becomes so casual that it ceases to be funny and just another tool, which is one of the strange impacts of the game: hearing Cartman in full swear mode after x-number of hours’ play just doesn’t resonate as strongly as a 22-minute episode in the late of night on TV.
Don’t get us wrong, though, the game has plenty of funny moments that made us laugh. Side quests where the likes of Al Gore, Mr Slave and Mr Kim are among the highlights, while most of your South Park favourite characters make an appearance in some format or other. It’s the true South Park quirks that maintain the game’s interest and that’s why we were keenly revisiting the title day after day.
We've completed the game, maxed out the 10,000 experience points and befriended 99 people so far and there's only a handful of characters that haven't shown up during our time within the game world. Towelie seems resigned to a loading screen animation, while characters killed off earlier in the series, such as Ms Crabtree, remain absent. There are still references though: toy models of The Super Best Friends, Willzyx and various Chinpokomon are strewn throughout the game.
But for all its humour and fun, the nature of the game can feel repetitive at times. We actively avoided many turn-based fights where possible in order to focus on the exploring aspect or to finish up those side-quest missions. And what of online? There’s no multiplayer option to delve into which feels limiting compared to other RPG titles out there.
Hardly pushing the boundaries in that sense. Instead The Stick of Truth opts to push other boundaries: namely the censors. If the fanbase alone isn’t enough to assure the title’s success then the imminent fallout from some of the game’s content will publicise it in other ways that will garner it plenty of attention.
We'll admit, there are moments of play when you’ll think to turn the volume down, or simply cringe that you’re about to fight a giant aborted Nazi foetus, for example. The Stick of Truth is a game for South Park fans, that much is clear, but in having free rein in the game's authorship Stone & Parker have managed to step beyond the TV-broadcast boundaries of Comedy Central in creating a challenging game - and we don't mean in gameplay terms. It may look cartoony but this is adult content without limits (ignoring the all-too-ironic EU censorship).
South Park: The Stick of Truth is a curiously addictive, often hilarious, yet frequently offensive - or, again, just hilarious depending on your take - turn-based RPG that’s not content with just a single finger in the toilet-humour pie, but a whole fist.
If the slur of farting and swearing wasn’t going to be enough, then the creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have really gone all-out to try and ensure outrage. The EU version of The Stick of Truth has been censored with content such as a mini-game involving, well, let’s just say Randy dressed as a woman with his heels in some steel stirrups, being removed. Even so, the game still manages to squeeze in its usual blend of the absurd: a hoarde of Nazi cats, casual male nudity, a whole level played out in Mr Slave’s ass (no, really), and a bizarre scene where dodging a swinging ballsack while fighting a garden gnome (again: no, really) is crucial to survive.
And you know what? We love the audacity of it all. Those are just some of what to expect in among the mix of references from TV episodes past and the ongoing sorta-kinda Game of Thrones narrative. Yup, it could only really be South Park.
As a game, and despite never being particularly taxing, the mix of RPG-meets-puzzle-platformer is a tidy balance that develops well. It's not South Park with some mini games lobbed at it as an afterthought, but rather a detailed turn-based caper from the team at Obsidian Entertainment. That's the key: despite all the attempted offence and oddities there's still real gameplay at its core.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is not a game to play with your kids. It’s not a game your parents would be proud to see you play. In fact, it’s a game that shouldn’t really be played with anyone at all - not that you can, as there’s no online mode. But perhaps that’s for the best.
In a world of never-ending online RPG games there's a finite end to this South Park title that, to a non-fan, may feel limited. But as fans of the show it's impossible not to appreciate this dose of South Park in its greatest gaming format yet. It's the perfect excuse to hold onto that PS3 or 360.
South Park: The Stick of Truth will be available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in the UK from 7 March 2014.