Trigger Warning: This review contains references to racism, anti-semitism, and forced cross dressing. The game itself contains depictions of the above in addition to gore, nudity, scatology, sodomy, abortions (performed on a man), miscarriages, and Nazis (of the zombie variety).
Just looking at the creation process of South Park: The Stick of Truth, it is easy to see practically endless ways how this game could have been a colossal disappointment. First of all, there is the fact that it is indeed a licensed game, which sets the bar low seeing as how most licensed games tend to be average at best even when they have a significant amount of potential and hype. Even ignoring that this is a licensed game, this was the first time that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had any involvement in a game based off their license (they have admitted in the past to being displeased with previous South Park
games, which is why they made sure to be more closely involved with this game). To add to this, the game went through development hell due to THQ going out of business and the publishing being transferred to Ubisoft. There were practically thousands of reasons to be skeptical that this game would turn out well, whether they be concerns about how South Park’s heavy emphasis on political and pop culture based writing would not transfer over well into a video game, or even looking at Obsidian Entertainment’s track record of having their games released plagued with bugs and glitches that would out due even Bethesda’s games.
Despite there being practically thousands of things that can go wrong, Obsidian, Ubisoft, and Stone and Parker themselves made sure to avoid each and every one of these potential missteps and created what is not just a great South Park game or a great licensed game, but also just a fantastic game in general. It was always clear from the beginning that Stone and Parker wanted to make sure they created something that was a not only faithful representation and tribute to their series, but to games in general as well.
Among many other things, the main premise and execution of this game’s narrative is something that shows this game’s brilliance. Stone and Parker could have just created a game with a formulaic RPG plot that just so happens to involve the cast of South Park, and just replace its pop culture parodies with video game parodies and call it a day; and a lot of people probably would have accepted that. Despite this, Stone and Parker knew that there have already been plenty of games that have lampooned other video games, and that having their own game do that would not help it stand out. They also realized that such a game would not be what South Park is about.
Despite the fact that recent episodes of South Park have relied on a lot of pop culture parodies, Stick of Truth relies very little on this aspect and instead it takes inspiration from the one source that matters; South Park itself. Every bit of the game’s humor comes from South Park’s own characters, situations, and writing, except for one specific instance near the end of the game that was brilliant in its usage. If you are even remotely familiar with the show then you will probably recognize something, and if you are a diehard fan then this game will be an absolute treat. There are several references and nods to seventeen seasons of the show and none of them feel forced in any way.
In fact, what is really brilliant about how the game handles its humor is that it actually improves and advances on it. Chances are that if anyone other than Stone or Parker handled this, then these references would be the type of, “hey remember this thing, well here it is again,” type of references. Instead, Stone and Parker were subtle about how these things were incorporated, and they were handled in ways that you would get them if you were familiar with the show. For example, if you examine Stan’s closet at any point in the game, you will hear a voice saying ‘I’m never coming out.” Chances are that most fans would get that this is referencing an episode where Tom Cruise locked himself in Stan’s closet and refused to come out, which caused people to proclaim that “Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet.”
The reason I decided to point this specific example is simply because the game does not explain the joke to you. If you have seen that episode then you will get the joke simply by hearing that line and that nothing needs to be explained. Note this is only one example out of literally hundreds of subtle nods to episodes of South Park. Hell it shows just how much thought has been put into creating a tribute to the show when even the game’s trash loot is based on props from various episodes of the show and they never need to directly explain the reference even then.
Stick of Truth is able to handle more than just referencing older episodes though, as the game’s writing in the main storyline is also solid and will still offer something new even if you have seen every episode of South Park. One of the first ways that one will notice that Stick of Truth intends to provide a unique take on the show is how you are not playing as any of the main characters from the show. Instead you play as your own, created character that is new to South Park. This already works in helping immerse the player into the world of South Park and is a key component that turns Stick of Truth into more than just a playable South Park episode. With the perspective of your own character, you view the world of South Park as if you are actually a part of it and witness every aspect firsthand; almost as if you are actually a part of the game’s events yourself.
Right from the beginning of the game, you are given the option to choose your character’s appearance similarly to many other RPGs. While you do not have that many different options at first, you are given a lot of options in terms of various items you can find to change up your character’s appearance throughout the game. In addition to every individual piece of equipment having their own unique appearance, you get various other options in terms of hair styles, make up, facial hair, and even the ability to change the color of any of the above items. If you want to, you can even give your character a female appearance despite the main character being male canonically (in fact, this will actually be required at one point in the game for storyline purposes).
Your first introduction to the town of South Park occurs when you arrive at your new house and begin your new life. It is stated in the very beginning that the reason your main character’s family moved was to hopefully start a new life after people wanted your character for some special ability he possessed. Conveniently, your character does not remember what it is that happened (although even if he did, he is a silent protagonist and does not talk, and yes this is acknowledged frequently by the other characters). Afterwards his parents awkwardly tell you to go make friends without much of a reason and you go outside and do so pretty much because they said so. Your introduction to the cast of South Park is through a game that a large majority of the cast is in on that is based around LARPing. It is through this game that a majority of the game’s narrative is told.
The back story of said game involves the titular Stick of Truth, a magical relic that gives whoever posses it control over the universe and the laws of reality. There has been a war between the Humans of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep and the Elves over which race has control of the stick of truth. Your character is first introduced to Butters, who introduces you to the human side where you meet Cartman, who serves the role of the Grand Wizard and the leader of the human classes (yes, that makes Cartman the Grand Wizard of the KKK). At this point, you input your name as part of the introduction process, only for Cartman to respond with “you have selected Douchebag as your name” regardless of what you enter. After hilariously invoking the “but thou must” trope and saving on the voice acting budget, your first assignment is to recruit others to your side in order to fight the elves.
What is ultimately unique about the way that Stick of Truth handles its story is due to the dual focus it has between the game the characters are playing and the game’s actual storyline. Despite the fact that the events taking place during the character’s game obviously having a sense of self awareness in regards to it being fictional within the context of the South Park world, it is still given just as much precedence with the actual events of the game’s world that do get quite a bit out of hand. Ultimately, these involve such aspects as alien invasions and secret government conspiracies that also just so happen to coincide with our main character’s back story.
Yet these occur simultaneously with the Stick of Truth storyline simply because the characters actually care more about their game than the actual events, and due to the way the game presents it, you will be just as caught up in the events of their storyline as well. The reason this approach works so well is because South Park was always a character driven show based on comedic and absurd plots that still manage to get you caught up in them anyway. Naturally this extends to Stick of Truth itself to the point that, despite the premise itself sounding incredibly mundane, it works as well as it does simply due to its execution.
This is one of the huge reasons why Stick of Truth’s way of adapting the show into a game is as brilliant as it is; it manages to still feel exactly like South Park without either removing authenticity for the sake of a compelling narrative, or having a mundane narrative that is not enough to carry a fifteen hour game. Stick of Truth manages to find just the right balance between these to the point where the story is utterly insane yet still compelling enough to keep your attention.
There are some people who have assume that being animated in a 2D style similar to the show’s art style somehow means that the graphics of Stick of Truth were cheap. I can only assume that the people who say this are unfamiliar with how graphic design works in game. First of all, the idea that 2D animation is cheap needs to die. Oftentimes, sprite work can be just as difficult and painstaking as graphical rendering of 3D games. This complaint makes even less sense regarding Stick of Truth due to two specific reasons.
The first is that the graphics were made in the Dungeon Siege 3 engine. Let that sink in for a moment. A 3D game engine was used to recreate South Park, a show where all the characters and images are based off of construction paper, and it was done well. The second reason is that the game’s in game graphics look practically identical to the cutscene graphics and look as if they were taken straight from an episode from the show itself.
What also helps a lot are the game’s creative attack animations. As stated before, everything that you have equipped shows up on your character during gameplay and cutscenes, but there is even more to that. Based on your weapon, the attack animations will be different and each feels somewhat different. However, it is the creativity of the game’s special attacks and how you and enemies react to them that helps give the game its own added flair.
Perhaps one aspect that contributes the most to the game’s bizarre type of story is the music. The game’s soundtrack is about as far from what one would think of as appropriate for a South Park game. The game’s musical score is made up of the orchestral style music that one would expect more out of a large scale fantasy adventure like the Lord of the Rings or Skyrim. However, said dissonance is what really helps brings out the best in the game’s atmosphere. The style of music used certainly is not fitting for South Park itself, but it is perfectly fitting for what the game’s cast view their adventure as, and even if we are going on the quality of the music itself; the game still excels. The music is all very well composed, atmospheric, and elegant. The only real complaint is that most of the songs are not very strong melody wise and that a lot of them sound quite similar. There are a few notable exceptions to the general direction the game’s music takes, but they are ones that I would prefer not to spoil.
What helps with the atmosphere of Stick of Truth even more so is that you hear the high fantasy style music while exploring the town, but when you enter the various buildings, the audio changes to one of the songs from the show. A complaint I tend to have with open world sandbox games is the lack of music most of the time. While silence can be effective at setting the mood at appropriate points, having the entire game be silent just for the sake of realism feels counterproductive to the overall quality. Stick of Truth, however, manages to know when silence is appropriate for the game to give it that realistic vibe while the in game music helps give off the opposite vibe that the kid’s game is supposed to have. Based on wherever you are, you may hear familiar songs from the show, or you may hear different audio that sets the mood. For example, if you enter the movie theater, you hear familiar parody movie trailers that fans of the show would recognize from previous episodes. If you turn the TV on in someone’s house, you hear audio of the Terrance and Phillip Show.
The voice acting and sound effects are also top notch. Pretty much everyone from the show reprises their role for their respective character and they all do a fantastic job. Every character was just as recognizable in Stick of Truth as they were in the show and even newer characters would not sound out of place in a South Park episode. What is also impressive is just how many characters are voiced. Normal enemies and random NPCs all have their own lines, and your party members all have specific responses to certain areas or actions. The sound effects are also great at giving the creative, and admittedly gruesome, special attacks that extra punch that makes using them all the more satisfying. The only real issue I found with the audio is that it got annoying to hear your characters chastise you for not selecting your move fast enough when you have barely even got your turn.
A lot of people who have played Stick of Truth have often compared the game to Paper Mario. While it is not hard to see where the comparison comes in, there is another game that I personally believe is a much more fitting comparison; that game being the indie title Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain Slick of Darkness. The way that Stick of Truth is similar to the first two Penny Arcade Adventures games is that both game attempt to combine a point and click adventure style of gameplay with a turn based RPG. The main difference between these two games, however, is that while Penny Arcade Adventures had very little puzzle elements, exploration, and often felt like it was missing a huge part of what was necessary for a solid RPG, Stick of Truth has those things while still maintaining the point and click style of the game.
Despite the fact that Stick of Truth does not have as huge a world as games like Skyrim or Mass Effect, the town of South Park still has quite a bit to it. There is actually a Metroidvania type aspect to it where you gain access to more areas of the town as you gain new abilities that can get you to pass certain obstacles, and you will often see these roadblocks way before you can actually pass them. Unlike the Metroidvania games, however, there is usually not enough incentive to go out of your way to get access these areas. Usually your only rewards are other weapons or armor, which will oftentimes be weaker than what you currently have, or an item in one of the game’s collectathon sidequests, which you also have little incentive to complete.
To give a more in depth explanation, this game’s collectathon is based on Facebook friends. This is an interesting concept seeing as how it shows how many characters you have helped or met throughout the game and because you get status update messages from some characters at specific points in the game. The problem with this concept is that it is incredibly underutilized. The maximum amount of people in the game that you can friend in the game is 120, yet you do not even get close to that many status updates throughout the game. A majority of characters that you friend never say anything, and the few that do usually only do so once or twice. It would have been a very interesting concept to see how various characters would interact with each other via social media and seeing what each of them have to say about various things. If this was executed on a grander scale, it would basically be able to potentially show the point of view of the game’s events from multiple different characters perspective, and seeing as how South Park is a character driven series, that would have added a great element of depth to the game’s world.
Instead the Facebook aspect feels tacked on as if they just wanted to give you something to collect that technically extends the length but adds little to the actual game. What makes this side quest even more pointless is that there are often some absurd requirements the game has in order to complete this, and there are often points where you only have one chance to get something and cannot go back afterwards. This is made even more frustrating seeing as how the game does not even give you a new game plus option, which means that the only way that you could get a 100% completion rating is by looking at a guide the entire time.
Thankfully, the game’s normal sidequests are much more engaging. These side quests are generally given to you by familiar characters from the show and they can involve either a small fetch quest or their own optional dungeons and boss fights. What really makes the game’s normal sidequests interesting is, once again, that they are based around South Park’s characters and they can often involve actual humor or background info relating to said characters. In addition to this, the dungeons and boss fights that are accessed generally play well and you gain decent rewards in terms of in game items.
Stick of Truth’s battle mechanics are generally pretty well thought out and well balanced, but they suffer from a few flaws. The first of these flaws is that the game’s class system is incredibly limited. The only option you are given is a choice between four character classes (one of which is “Jew” in typical South Park fashion) that you will be using for the entire game without any option to choose another class aside from starting over from the beginning. One could argue that playing through the game with different character classes could add replay value, but the problem with that argument is that taking away the player’s ability to access everything in a single playthrough is not a good way of adding replay value. The game ultimately ends up with a class system that is no better than Final Fantasy 1, and that game was back on the NES. I would not harp on this one aspect of the game if it were not for the fact that the game included it just so that it could say it had a class system.
Thankfully, gameplay will not be altered too much depending on your character class. Battles are done in a turn based fashion where you only have two party members out at one time. A lot of your actions in battle are based on action commands where you need to time your button presses or make the right button movements in order to successfully execute commands. There are a few different perspectives one can take regarding the action commands in Stick of Truth’s battles system. One could either see them as gimmicky and intrusive, or one could think that they at a bit of spice to the game’s combat system. I generally find myself leaning towards the latter thought, although I do not think as highly of action commands in RPGs as some people do. Chances are that, if you have ever played any other RPG with action commands, then you know what the bulk of Stick of Truth’s battle system will be made up of.
That is not to say that Stick of Truth’s battle mechanics are bad by any means. In fact, the simplicity of the battle system made it easier to formulate strategies on some of the harder bosses. A lot of the game’s trickier boss battles felt a bit like puzzles where you needed to figure out the right approach to take in order to beat them. Unfortunately, while the battles in Stick of Truth are still fun in their own right, the gameplay mechanics in general feel like a poor man’s Paper Mario. The main reason I make this comparison is that, while Paper Mario made every individual boss battle, and even most normal enemies to an extent, feel unique and require different strategies, Stick of Truth’s boss battles tend to be a lot easier to take advantage of and seem a bit more interchangeable.
However, despite not being as well balanced as Paper Mario’s boss battles, it is still important to know that the balancing is still above average and still requires enough thought to engage the player. You will still need to carefully choose which party member you need based on the situation and you cannot simply expect to brute force your way through. What is also a really nice element of this game is that you can kill normal enemies by setting off traps using your abilities, and by doing so you will still gain experience from doing so. This adds yet another addictive element to Stick of Truth when it comes to its battle mechanics and helps make the gameplay even more enjoyable.
South Park: The Stick of Truth sets a new bar for licensed games in terms of how they should be handled. Stick of Truth is handled very carefully and is made sure to both pay tribute and faithfully represent the show it is based on. I do technically have some gripes with the mechanics but even then, they are very minor and they provide a gateway into which one can experience Stick of Truth, which is the only excuse one should need. Even though Stick of Truth may be lacking in comparison to the open worlds of Skyrim or the cinematic nature of Final Fantasy, it is still a fun and unique game in its own right.
Ultimately the game is one that can be enjoyed even if you know nothing about South Park. In an industry where most games based off of licenses try to put in a half assed effort in order to cash in on the success of said license, it is great to see that we have a game that is both a faithful representation of its original source material and a good game in its own right. Overall I highly suggest buying this game not just because it is a good game, but because this may start encouraging developers to put more effort into licensed games and have them reach the potential they deserve.
South Park: The Stick of Truth can be purchased here (PS3 physical), here (PS3 digital), here (XBox 360 physical), here (Xbox 360/One digital), and here (PC physical). Stick of Truth is also included with its sequel The Fractured But Whole, which can be purchased here (PS4 physical), here (PS4 digital), here (Xbox One physical), here (Xbox One digital), here (PC physical), and here (PC digital).
This review was originally put up on GameFAQS on March 26th of 2014, and has been re-edited and given enhanced presentation.
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