Meet some friends of mine.
It’s really quite remarkable how South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have slowly ramped up the shock value over the past 17 years to keep the show sharp. Whether they and developer Obsidian could pull off the same for a 14-hour game instead of a 22-minute show was never a sure thing. But there I was, shrunk down to Underpants Gnome-size, crawling up Mr. Slave’s orifices to retrieve a WMD, slicing through gobs of bodily fluids in turn-based JRPG combat and climbing up half-digested corn-on-the-cob as I went, laughing hysterically the whole way. I’m floored at how consistently funny it is, and at how well the outrageous comedy melds with the relatively simple gameplay to create not just an amazing South Park game, but an intelligent and witty satire of roleplaying mechanics.
As for the story, it’s a clever premise that allows The Stick of Truth to take place in a recognizable and painstakingly recreated South Park setting, but also brings in all the usual fantasy roleplaying tropes through the power of children’s imagination. It’s a trick used many times in the show, and it works great for the game, too. An epic LARPing session (as casually set up by last year’s “Black Friday” trilogy of episodes) has your custom-created new kid in town joining either Cartman’s Humans or Kyle’s Elves, all dressed in amusingly bad makeshift cosplay outfits. True to the show, things escalate wildly and hilariously, leading to conspiracies involving the government, aliens, and Taco Bell.
Though it manifests itself in typically over-the-top South Park-ian ways, The Stick of Truth is a Paper Mario-esque RPG-lite. You and your single extra party member (you’ll unlock several South Park regulars, though only one can fight with you at a time) take turns battling formations of enemies, be it the Gingers, crazy homeless guys, aliens, and more. Typical buffs and debuffs are ably skinned in screwed-up fourth grader verbiage (throwing feces to add “gross out” effects) mixed with mana-powered spells and timed button-press attacks and blocks to keep you on your toes during combat. It keeps things simple enough while still leaving room for some tactical depth. And Obsidian refreshingly leaves out time-sink annoyances like character encumbrance and random battles you can’t avoid.
I couldn’t resist the curious lure of playing as the Jew class over the archetypal Fighter, Thief, and Mage options, but the differences between them turned out to be disappointingly slight. Sure, each has their own special abilities, but there are effectively no class-specific weapons or items, and there’s nothing to stop a Mage from choosing melee-enhancing gear and carving up foes with a blade just as well as a Fighter. All classes eventually learn special farting magic (a crude parody of Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts) though both the thumbstick motions and especially the tutorial sessions for your powers of flatulence tend to be cumbersome. Achievement or Trophy hunting aside, this lack of class differentiation or significant choices in the story are big reasons why I don’t feel much incentive to replay the campaign.
The other unfortunate offense is that some extremely useful things are poorly explained, if they’re even mentioned at all. Tricks like being able to switch your Buddy at any time by pressing down on the D-pad to access the Party menu, or taking the first swing at overworld enemies so that you get the first turn when the battle starts, and what your Buddies can do and are specifically good at are all up to us to discover accidentally. One other puzzling issue is the slipperiness of the action-selection wheel during combat – it’s strangely difficult to get your pointer to stick on the option you want, particularly if it’s in a diagonal slot on the wheel.
But that’s about the extent of the damage. Aesthetically, The Stick of Truth might be the most beautiful crappy-looking-on-purpose game I’ve ever seen. While it may seem trivial to make a role-playing game resemble the crude, construction-paper cutout style of the show, it’s executed so well here that the two mediums are almost indistinguishable. You’ll never see a HUD when walking around town, for instance, unless you tap the Y/Triangle button. Only the very rare stuck animation on an overworld enemy and (on both consoles, but not a capable PC) the occasional frame rate stutter when a new area loaded in for the first time reminded me that this was a game and not the show. And that was the extent of the technical problems I encountered.
Speaking of the quiet Colorado mountain town, it is itself one of the stars of The Stick of Truth. For the first time in the series’ history, it has been fully mapped out and given official geographical context. As a superfan who’s seen every episode of the show, I spent the first two to three hours of Stick of Truth exploring every kid’s house and each recognizable location, and from Stan’s bedroom closet (be sure to check it!) to Stark’s Pond and South Park Elementary, they’re all packed incredibly densely with in-jokes. Even every piece of inventory junk loot I collected is a show reference with a funny description attached to it.
A convenient fast-travel system eases post-exploration navigation, but various quests provide plenty of enticing reasons to comb the town throughout the adventure. Classic songs like “Taco-Flavored Kisses” and “Kyle’s Mom is a B****” are deployed with deft comedic subtlety on radios and in shops, and you absolutely must listen carefully for the particularly perfect use of Bigger, Longer, & Uncut’s “Blame Canada.”
The roughly 14 hours of absurdity and satire feels just right, from beginning to end. That being said, despite featuring over 100 characters and countless references, I wanted more. Towelie only ever shows up in a loading screen. Ditto the Talking Taco That Craps Ice Cream. The always-hilarious Christmas Critters have a criminally short cameo that is literally off-the-beaten-path. And while I’m being picky, I was also hoping for some sort of interactive or customized version of the show’s opening-credits Primus song that never came (though, laudably, any time you load up your save file, the instantly recognizable back-from-commercial-break guitar riff plays).