South Park: The Stick of Truth review
To say this rocked is only a half truth
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
If there's one thing that I can say about the bulk of Obsidian Entertainment's back catalog, it's that they are ambitious games plagued by feeling unfinished. For the longest time, Knights Of The Old Republic 2 lacked an ending. Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and Dungeon Siege 3 either had some unpolished moments or flat out crashed on you. However, they also had plenty of concepts that were either fully or at least kind of realized, all of which make up for the sloppiness of the games by feeling surprisingly intuitive whilst having their own voice in the crowd. With that being said, there are times where you have to turn it down a notch and be realistic with yourself. Most of Obsidian's games lacked polish because by the time the deadline had come, they realized that they'd only done about 50-75% of the game so they just hand it to the publishers to press to discs. So here's their attempt at being realistic about their ambitions whilst having some great ideas – South Park: The Stick Of Truth. Oddly enough, it's the kind of game that could've benefitted from being bigger as it often feels like more dungeons could've been added to the mix; that more plotlines could've been written in; that more ideas could've been implemented. Thing is, it was bigger than it ended up being, but Ubisoft saw it fit to truncate 20% of the game because it'd take too long and cost too much to implement them. With that being said, a moderately fun and intuitive battle system juxtaposed by a faithfully recreated world is enough to garner one's interest, especially if they're fans of South Park.
In fact, the game's selling point is its fanservice. There are plenty of moments and knick knacks that immediately remind you of South Park – from big moments everybody knows of to small things that some may have noticed after watching certain episodes a million times (or they just have a keen eye for it I guess), there's a *bleep*load of South Park goodness to consume. Couple that with the fact that the town is lovingly reconstructed to include most of the big South Park locations being placed where they would've been in the show with the characters we know and love, then add a sprinkle of the wacky, out there humor involving aliens and the kids taking something so small so seriously with the casual tone and sometimes snarky commentary from Stan and Kyle (and occasionally Cartman), and you pretty much have a game that's undeniably South Park. The plot, itself, even feels like something you'd expect from the show – the kids are seperated into two factions and are at war for control of the Stick Of Truth, which gives the wielder unspeakable amounts of power. The thing is, it's just a stick, they're mostly playing with wooden equipment while their armor is simple a set of clothes from a costume shop, and they take it in turns to whack each other on the head. Just to go further with this, they prophecize that a new kid can change the tide of battle, which is where you come in.
Further amplifying this is that whenever you're exploring South Park or engaged in battle, there's some symphonic music that plays as if you're in some kind of epic adventure. Whether it's the flute sounding off a calmer tone (sort of a mix between a town theme and an overworld theme from a JRPG) while you take a trip to the elementary school to free Craig from detention or the more urgent tone portrayed by double bass violins as you fight the biggest ginger hallway monitor, the music reflects what the boys think their war is. To really drive it home is when you're in non-mission locations like somebody's house, the photo shop or City Wok. Instead of the Lord Of The Rings kind of soundtrack, you instead get songs from the show or audio clips from the overly vulgar show within a show, Terrance & Phillip. Of course, going into the cinemas will allow you to hear all of the movie previews from the show like Rob Schneider Is A Carrot and Rated Argh For Pirates *bleep* You. Aside from maybe the song from the episode Good Times With Weapons (the idea was to take the piss out of older anime dubs for poor translation – like back when Cowboy Bebop's dub was the exception and not the rule like it would be today) which played during a fantasy sequence, it makes sense – one song was a hit in the show, one song was performed by Puff Daddy, and some of the other songs sound like the kind of music you'd expect to hear in a waiting room. It brings everything back down to Earth, reminding you that it's all a game with the kids, at least until the second half of the game.
To top it all off is the visual style. Unlike the other South Park games (yeah, there were others, though you're right in forgetting that they had existed), this uses the sort of cardboard cutout style that the show uses. I say sort of because it's all done on computers and some things here and there are portrayed using a more traditional computer animated style. Regardless, it looks just as it does on the show – that is to say, it's got a vibrant color scheme and simple designs for everything but the bigger bosses and the more extravagant moments in battle (such as when Kenny summons his unicorn to attack everyone – another example of something that uses more traditional animation). From an authenticity standpoint, this would be an automatic 10/10, but on a technical scale, it's a bit rough around the edges. Long load times followed by a few seconds of slowdown can be quite annoying since it'll need to load quite often, especially if you're going into houses and stores since it'll then need to fetch the town all over again. The main menu is also a bit laggy as it can often take a few seconds to load it up and then switch tabs. I suppose that's Obsidian Entertainment for you... though other than that, the game runs smoothly for the most part. I've encountered some freezing during the tutorial if you approach the battles in a different order from what the game intends for you to do it in, though I've heard reports of it freezing and erasing your game somewhere near the end point... it must've been patched, though, as I've not encountered it myself, but be on the lookout just in case.
I'm not going to lie – this game starts off a bit boring. I mean, the story and all that shit is fun, but battling isn't quite so much. The issue is that it's almost too easy. You don't have access to too many abilities, but you likely wouldn't need them because the enemies go down rather quickly and easily with your regular attacks. It's odd because it implements a timed hit system ala Super Mario RPG, and that game was fun from start to finish. What gives here? Simply put, most of the enemies have paper thin defenses, and you and your partner are about as strong as Hulk Hogan in his prime. The first time you're likely to truly have fun is when you encounter the first boss – the aforementioned ginger hallway monitor. His attacks are more powerful, he can take hits like a champ, and you'll find yourself resorting to special attacks in an effort to bring him down quicker. The thing with special attacks is that instead of simply pressing X before each attack, you'll have to input different commands like pressing X at just the right time or rotating the left analog stick, giving it all more variety. Not to mention that you won't be destroying him in one turn and his attacks have slightly different timing from one another, forcing you to pay attention to when he attacks. This applies to all bosses – they're strong, they take a lot of shit and aren't afraid to dish it back at you. Anybody who claims that this game's bosses are simply bigger enemies are only half right – sure, most of them wouldn't hold a candle to the bosses from Super Mario RPG, but compared to the enemies, they're climactic enough to qualify as bosses.
Thankfully, things get more interesting once you've been abducted by aliens. Besides them taking the piss out of how games use audio logs as a means of giving the player exposition without pausing the game, the enemies are significantly stronger. It's not just the fact that you're on your own for this part; the aliens deal more damage and don't seem to be as easily defeated as the elves (the faction that you, Butters and Cartman are against) or lesser ginger hallway monitors. Suddenly, you're required to be a bit more tactical. That doesn't even mention the mini boss and then the boss of the spaceship, which requires you to figure out exactly how to defeat them without getting slaughtered. Unfortunately, the further into the game you get, the more you'll find that this game is not particularly well balanced. For one thing, HP and PP are fully restored at the end of each battle, meaning that you can theoretically enter combat, unload your special attacks and massacre the enemies, and then you'll be fully restored, ready to kill more enemies in the same way; it just comes down to getting the action commands right, which isn't really difficult when you've been doing that over and over again.
Suddenly, regular battles just aren't as exciting. I mean, there are some where they can survive such an onslaught and you'll then need to defend yourself, but that's about it. I'm getting flashbacks to Eternal Sonata – it, too, got boring once you got the hang of the battle system until you got to the next boss. Bosses will still require a lot of hits dealt to them after you empty your PP, but unlike Eternal Sonata, Stick Of Truth contains a very easy way to speed up battles, and that... is through the bleeding status effect. Just stack that shit onto your opponent (if you don't already kill them in one hit) and watch as they lose a lot of HP. But it doesn't turn boss battles into a formality; it simply speeds up what would likely be a battle that'd take a *bleep*ing eternity! Since enemies and bosses' levels scale with yours, grinding is heavily discouraged. This is especially so since at the highest level, bosses will accumulate a shitload of HP and defense. After all that's said and done, the boss fights become a ton of fun, especially since you may find yourself using loads of special abilities requiring different button prompts, and they have a fair few attacks requiring you to time the defend action command at different times. Oh sure, most of them could pass off for being enemies with loads of HP and defense, but between the giant aborted foetus, the Mongolian army (no general in sight, though) and the final boss, some of them have plenty of flair to them that more than make them worthy fights – provided that you make them bleed, of course.
I'm actually pretty disappointed in the town as well. Not because of its aesthetics since it's about as faithful of a recreation of South Park as it comes, but more because it's mostly an empty sandbox. While it's amusing how Matt and Trey have everybody on their phones to justify them not talking to you, unfortunately, that also means that there's no means to really communicate with them beyond them telling you that they're busy or maybe they'll be your friend if you have lots of friends. In fact, the only times you get to talk to anybody is to do a quest for them – usually involving the acquisition of items, but it can extend to killing certain enemies too – and reporting the completion of the quest to them so they'll become your Facebook friend. On top of that, the whole Facebook thing... given that South Park is driven heavily by its characters and the way that they act in bizarre situations, it's a missed opportunity to really go nuts with it. Instead of having plenty of Facebook statuses about what's going on, you just get maybe one or two if you're lucky. I'm not saying to do it in real time and give us hundreds of messages because I understand that it'd be difficult to come up with that much after every bit; what I am saying, though, is give us more then just a couple of messages. What's there is hilarious and pretty much what you'd expect; it's the short quantity that's not so cool. Even then, I honestly can't tell if it was because deadlines were approaching and THQ and eventually Ubisoft couldn't spare them any more time and money, or if Matt and Trey used up too much material on the show and left their creative tanks empty when it came time to add some NPC dialogue. Then again, I bet they were hoping we'd get the joke about how people are too attached to their phones to be bothered to speak. Who knows? I probably should've asked Chris Avellone at Avcon last month about this... ah well.
Speaking of Ubisoft, them putting an insurmountable value of faith in Watch Dogs was likely what resulted in some content being cut from The Stick Of Truth. Have you ever played a game and asked yourself “wasn't there meant to be a thing there?” This game will trigger that on a few occasions. For instance, the woodland critters were meant to be more involved than they ultimately were (Facebook friends... no, I'm not joking), as were the crab people. Ditto for the underpants gnomes. Oh, and there were meant to be hippies, as well as Christmas Town in the sewers instead of the house Mr Hankey lives in. There was also meant to be another quest involving the gingers. Oh, and that dragon from the trailer! Satan, as well!? There's a few more, but those were just the fanboy in me bellyaching – the rest was the video game player wondering what's up. All of that alone didn't hit the game in any way, but given that the game can be completed in about 15 hours and there's basically no replay value given that the four classes are too similar to one another – the action commands and special effects are different, but the actual attacks are quite similar between them and they can wield any and all weapons in the game – all of that would really add more to the game.
It's difficult to say whether this is a good game or simply mediocre. South Park: The Stick Of Truth is the definitive South Park game as it contains a ton of fanservice and honestly feels like an episode of the show. Funny enough, I'd actually go as far as to say that it would've been a better fit as an episode than a game because the game itself is only truly compelling in spades. Whether it's one of the more climactic boss battles or the regular battles in the middle of the game – really, when the action command driven battle system actually gets to shine – it shows plenty of promise. Sadly, poor difficulty balancing makes the game feel like a formality most of the time, diluting the enjoyability of the overall experience until something comes to give you a halfway decent challenge. I don't expect every turn based RPG to be Shin Megami Tensei because Super Mario RPG is about as far away from that as possible and it's a *bleep*ing rad game; however, I do expect a video game to be consistently fun to play. I mean, I'd take Earth Defense Force 2017 which is well renowed for PS2 quality graphics and loads of fun, exciting action over something like El Shaddai that's known best for having a beautiful art style, sublime soundtrack and a decent story on top of actively annoying gameplay.
In short, South Park: The Stick Of Truth is a moderately fun game on the whole that'll appeal to South Park fans and at least give moments of fun and excitement to RPG fans, provided that they have in mind the fact that it's a more simplified RPG ala Super Mario RPG.
PS. If you're playing a PAL region copy, some scenes will be censored. There's some snarky commentary to be found alongside a description of what's being censored, but man, it goes to show how uptight video game ratings boards are compared to TV boa-- OH SHIT I BETTER NOT GIVE THEM IDEAS!
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