The core of South Park: The Stick of Truth is good. It’s functional, first and foremost, perhaps far more than you’d expect from a game delayed two years and thrown between publishers, and also quite fun. There’s pedigree coming from both the mechanical side of things through Obsidian Entertainment and the narrative side with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker heavily involved in its development.
To get to the point of understanding and enjoying its layers, though, you have to break through a top-level carapace. You have to not only like South Park but you have to get South Park. You have to break through this admittedly high barrier (lowbrow poop jokes often stand side-by-side with biting, laser-precise satire) to get to the meat.
The Stick of Truth takes a page from Ghostbusters: The Video Game and puts you in the shoes of a silent newcomer, in this case one only known as The New Kid, or Douchebag. In the midst of your arrival, there is a citywide game of violent and impressively comprehensive make-believe where Cartman has assumed the role of a grand wizard, leading the humans against Kyle’s elves in a battle for The Stick of Truth.
Which turns out to be really just a stick, as it is presented to you in the early moments. This is part of what makes The Stick of Truth work so well. It, much like the show, leans so heavily into its own oddly cobbled mythos of reality and parody and absurdism that it sucks you in whole. It has just enough of grounded truth (these kids are whacking each other with sticks and casting fart spells) but expounds out into the imagination that you relate to some nostalgic component of your aging, wrinkling brain.
For instance, one of Butters’ special abilities is to turn into his alter ego Professor Chaos, but a highly stylized version, one akin to the overly anime slant of the “Good Times With Weapons” episode of the show. And he lays waste to enemies in this form. It’s obviously just how he sees himself and, thus, how everyone else sees him while playing this game, but it reminds you of what exact type of world you find yourself in.
It’s also one of the game’s primary problems in that that’s actually all it does. Don’t get me wrong; it does it incredibly well, and far better than any other show or video game has or probably will for a long time. But it only digs its heels into what it has previously established and doesn’t go into new frontiers of social commentary, something the show itself has become known for after shedding its desire to only curse and kill Kenny as much as possible.
This is why having a deeply rooted and established foundation of South Park appreciation is essential to playing The Stick of Truth. The story itself is original and quite a fun romp through a world you’ve always wanted to explore of your volition, but all the struts and beams between the walls are made of old references. Mr. Slave, Mr. Hankey, Underpants Gnomes, etc. If you don’t remember, you will, and if you can’t remember, then, well, too bad?
Of course, it doesn’t need to make any apologies for now being an introductory piece to the franchise. (Besides, it’s still really quite funny.) It’s been around for 17—seven-fucking-teen—seasons, so if you haven’t gotten in on it by now, you probably won’t, but it is disappointing it doesn’t explore beyond what it’s already marked on the map, as if it were afraid to add this game to its 200-plus episodes of television canon.
Luckily, the gameplay is there to put these worries at ease. Obsidian, known for developing high-water mark RPGs like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Fallout: New Vegas, has crafted a combat and customization system far deeper than you’d think would be attempted for a South Park game.
Battles operate very much like the active systems of Mario & Luigi where you take turns attacking enemies and defending from attacks with timed button presses to respectively boost and mitigate damage. It’s a simple twist that keeps you mostly engaged as you float between battles. But then there’s the difference of stances.
Enemies can assume different stances such as riposte and shielded or might be taking shelter on the back line. And each situation must be dealt with accordingly, forcing you to switch up tactics. It’s like rock, paper, scissors but with a lot more armaments and matches added to the fray. It keeps you on your toes.
At least in theory it does. When you force yourself to play with vigilance, you are engaged with the idea of call and response. But the game is actually ridiculously easy. As the fart-based magic attacks and other systems are added, the difficulty is reduced as if it were afraid to overwhelm the player. I honestly think I could have just kept mashing A and gotten through most of the game’s encounters. It never gets boring or anything, but it is disappointing because the potential is so tangible, so near.
Outside of combat, there’s a surprising amount of interaction. Ability-gated areas hide collectibles and treasures as well as the eventual (and satisfying) conclusions to many side quests. You can direct and aim farts to take out whole swaths of enemies, allowing you to skip entire battles. You can whack people just to see what they’ll say. And you can even deposit money in the bank for, uh, well, you’ll see.
I think that’s where The Stick of Truth eventually wins you over if it hasn’t already. It starts off rather low-key, indulging you in the whimsy of childhood games, but soon ramps up into an unforgiving onslaught of South Park-isms. It is deafening in the same way you get closer to the stage at a concert, the energy of the die-hard fans infecting you to your core. Nazi cows, flaming hobos, straight-up aliens, and so much more.
And you so rarely encounter the same thing twice. I was actually surprised when I heard repeated barks or see copy-pasted elements. Nearly everything is completely unique to its particular location and utility in the game. It reminds me of how the show is, which is to say custom-crafted for its own myriad reasons. It’s actually quite impressive and further supports the idea of being part of something as storied as South Park.
Part of that is the audio and visual aesthetic. It looks like a picture-perfect recreation of the show, which isn’t terribly hard in static images, but everything—including flappy Canadians and the wobbly walk—moves like you remember or would expect. And the voice actors of the show bring to life their video game counterparts, keeping the entire experience whole from screen to screen.
There are, however, some legitimately broken parts to the game beyond the subjective portions of South Park jollies. This is a buggy game, popping characters in and out of cutscenes at random, stuttering to a remarkable degree, erasing save files, and muting out audio. And then the tutorial, which might have been buggy or simply inscrutable. Parts of what it tries to teach you aren’t even employed in the rest of the game.
When it works, though, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a stellar product. And I don’t just mean “works” in the technical sense, but in its attempt to be a South Park video game. You have to fight through its offensive veneer and realize that when everyone and everything is fair game, it starts becoming something barely attached to reality. It may not try anything new, but it is a truly, honestly funny game and, just as importantly, a fun game to play.
+ Legitimately funny (so long as you already find South Park funny)
+ Robust and technical RPG mechanics
+ Immerses you via audio and visual elements that wholly recreate the show’s aesthetic
+ Really commits to the sweded fantasy world
– Broken in parts and limited PC options
– Disappointingly unwilling to explore new South Park territory
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth
Release: March 4, 2014
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3