Also On: PS3, Xbox 360
Maybe you don’t watch a lot of South Park. I know I don’t—not because I detest the show, but it never demands my attention. I don’t crave it. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, and happen to like the movie. This was important to me when I sat down to play The Stick of Truth, because while Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been working for over a decade to establish a very specific type of humor, its success has always been in accessibility. The fact that it’s not necessary to marathon four seasons and still laugh at the toxicity of gingers or watch Stan puke out of nervousness is remarkable, and bringing such a close approximation of the show into the world of games should maintain that charisma.
I’m here to talk about whether it does that or not.
If you followed any of the marketing then you know that half of the game’s jokes write themselves, starting with you: the new kid. A blank slate, you’ll design a kid to your liking. Immediately, the inferred silliness of features is encouraging, with little touches like a teardrop tattoo for an elementary school student, followed by the class you’ll assign your character to. Somehow I made it to this portion without prior knowledge to the Jew class, which is an immediate barometer for what foot we’re starting on, and irresistible in conforming to that tone.
So there you are, the new kid in town. Your parents seem to care too much about how you’re doing after whatever happened before the move, and everyone wants to know why you don’t have any dialog. Within the first 10 minutes, your dad is a jerk to you, the game ignores your input name for Cartman’s suggestion of Douchebag, and I think there are some stray underpants in a dresser drawer that you’re going to collect five of. In all this, you’re recruited to steal back the stick of truth from the LARP rival elves, and we're off.
The story plays out in typical fashion of the show’s four characters arguing over some petty grievance (in this case who has a tree branch), which inevitably goes as far off the rails as you’d expect—in terms of both scale and absurdity. This is miraculously stretched over about 12 hours of game, as opposed to the typical half-hour structure.
Oh right, I almost forgot. This game is 12 hours long at best; 11 if I believe the save file. Should we talk about that? Is that a problem?
While it’s traditionally better to leave your audience wanting more than it is to overstay your welcome, Stick of Truth’s length will find audiences divided. I’m a believer that this game could have easily been three times as long, but at what cost? A great majority of the game is written and voice-acted by just two guys, with several thousand lines of dialog to think up and make funny. If that’s not strapped for resources, then I don’t know what is.
In some ways the length of South Park is a blessing, saving the limited scope of aspects such as VO barks from risking fatigue, and not drawing out hours with the tedium of turn-based battles. It’s a smash-and-grab game that plays out (except for the awful Canada section) at a breakneck pace reflective of what the show delivers in about 20 minutes.
While there are things to be grateful for in Stick of Truth’s succinct nature, it’s the underlying weaknesses that make it look better for not being so long. The battle system, for instance, is initially fun, but on the game’s default Normal difficulty, enemy encounters become routine at best once you figure out that inflicting a bleed debuff (or any for that matter) is greatly overpowered.
Stick of Truth borrows heavily from other RPGs, seemingly more on the traditional and JRPG side in its turn-based nature, and ultimately plays like a watered-down Paper Mario. Good for it that it’s able to piggyback on the inventive nature of Nintendo’s active turn-based battles, but without an understanding of what makes turn-based combat sing, the mark of an imitator is apparent throughout the game.
There’s no shame in borrowing from other games if it’s inspired, and Stick of Truth at least understands that open-world gameplay—along with its battle mechanics—will thrive based on character. While the battles become lukewarm, the theatrics of special attacks—coupled with the precious animations and volatile voicework—are enough of a staying factor to keep the mood going. I’m remiss to say that I’m pretty sure that thanks to the basic gameplay, I maybe only used a handful of special attacks, and never had a need to experiment with different characters in most of the combat.
This sucks, and it shouldn’t. Within the first few hours, we run into the guy from City Wok, referencing an episode I was lucky enough to catch offhand, and after fulfilling a mission to rid him of “Mongorians” are granted the option to use him as a summon. Out of curiosity I used him once, one of my favorite characters in the South Park universe, because there is never a need to use summons outside of the entertainment factor. You’re overpowered enough, as it is, and they give you a handful of these things.
Probably the greatest misstep here is that summons aren’t allowed for use in boss battles—the only place they’d really come in handy. It’s a shame that the game has all these great ideas around, because it never really comes up with a good reason to put them to use. A few tried-and-true weapon/ability combinations meant I would never experience with different stickers (for buffing weapons), clothing presented a handful of garments with superior effects, and for all the little bits of referential item descriptions, I was never compelled to look twice at all the text someone worked hard to make worth inspecting items over. Items that are only good for pawning off, mind you.
While small in scope as a game (there are maybe a dozen sidequests overall), I probably managed to miss a lot of gags just due to how accessible Stick of Truth wants to make itself as an RPG. It begs to be mainlined, never compels you to poke around, and quickly sets a precedent for frivolous looting. These factors belittle what is otherwise a fantastic realization of what a licensed game can be capable of, especially one with such a flexible sense of humor.
Stick of Truth’s trademark cutout visuals, coupled with the situational commentary on topics from Facebook to abortion, are representative of the crass wit that the show is known for. Al Gore spamming you with messages about ManBearPig gets a light laugh, while the nighttime segments have the audacity to feature some of South park’s filthiest material yet. Despite the strong translation into game narrative, this isn’t one you want to marathon.
In fact, Stick of Truth is more successful when played a few hours at a time—if only for the fact that loading the game opens with the well-known guitar strum on an establishing shot of city limits. You’ll otherwise grow tired of the silliness, even if the game continues to come up with fun takes on video game staples.
The sense of place is strong, conferred by the visuals and voicework, but also in the LARP-y overworld music. Little costume touches, cameos, and thoughtful planning of the town’s design similarly compliment the notion this is a seamless move into an extended stay in South Park, which by its end feels short-lived. This isn’t just apparent in repeatedly mentioning its length, but in my experience having hit the level cap of 15 with at least three hours of game left.
Talk about a buzzkill. Are they serious? There’s no way I maxed out levels, I must only have been reaching the third act. I guess that’ll teach me to confront every enemy I see in the wild. I can only hope that this doesn’t turn out to be the general experience for most players.
South Park: The Stick of Truth excels at maintaining its pedigree as a comedy showcase, but is easily winded as a game. I’m happy to recommend it for its entertainment value in meta-commentary and sophomoric gags, but the only thing it’s good for once you’ve finished is to lend to a friend. The length is less to blame than the overall design as an RPG, where players will notice things such as a striking contrast between pacing when considering how strong the story is. Stick of Truth’s main concern ultimately lies in its ability to match a good game to a really entertaining premise, which is a far more alienating factor than whether people like your show.
Look no further for a game to trick you into laughing at things you definitely shouldn’t, though.