Prior to its release I was a bit skeptical of “South Park: The Stick of Truth,” the new role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Digital Studios, released last week for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.
Sure, some of the online trailers were funny, but how frequently do developers successfully pull off video games based on film or TV properties? All too often, these games are shallow, half-cocked attempts to shamelessly cash in on fans who will buy (or who developers think will buy) anything.
My skepticism was misplaced. This is a funny, fun game, and it succeeds not only because its plot captures what has made “South Park” often great over the years, but also because the gameplay is a loving, carefully constructed tribute to the role-playing games of the last 2½ decades or so.
The premise is simple. You play that source of endless speculation and wonder among elementary school kids everywhere: the new kid who has just moved to town. You quickly get pulled into a game among Cartman, Kenny, and the show’s other kids involving a power struggle over the stick of truth, which (naturally) grants the user ultimate power.
Of course, “South Park” being “South Park,” this escalates beyond a simple children’s game. Before long the plot has been twisted into knotty loops by a crashed UFO, government agents, and a mysterious and sinister new Taco Bell that everyone is talking about. Things are extremely offensive throughout. We’re talking endless poop jokes, a giant Nazi fetus, copious amounts of blood spurting out of countless open wounds, a graphic sex scene, and a character creation system in which your choices are fighter, mage, thief, or Jew. If you find “South Park” offensive — and I certainly don’t blame you if you do — this game will not change your mind. It’s not surprising that various elements were censored in the EU versions.
As with the show, though, underneath all the offensiveness is a lot of cutting humor. There are hits and misses (that’s true of the show too, especially in recent years), but the former outweigh the latter. And those who have been watching “South Park” for a decade or more will be treated to many satisfying and funny appearances among the show’s sprawling cast, from the goth kids hanging out smoking behind South Park Elementary (who won’t help you out unless you don attire that projects enough ennui) to Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo (and his alcoholic, pill-popping wife).
But I anticipated the plot would be funny and true to the series; “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone were, after all, very involved in the game’s production. What surprised me was how well “South Park: The Stick of Truth” works as a game, too, and the fact that it expertly captures what makes role-playing games — especially those of the Super Nintendo generation — so captivating.
Obsidian imbued “South Park: The Stick of Truth” with many elements and tropes from these games: a steady stream of new and better equipment, endless conversations with townspeople to find new quests, and a rapidly moving, often (endearingly) barely comprehensible plot. Combat has some tactical depth, but not so much that fighting becomes a wonky endeavour. Special attacks are explosive, often anime-influenced spectacles, such as — and here we go back to the offensiveness thing — calling upon Jesus to attack your enemies with a rapid-fire rifle, after which he dons sunglasses and leaps back to the heavens.
It all reminded me of “Final Fantasy II” and “Final Fantasy III,” games that were formative for me and a lot of others in the “South Park” generation. The developers are clearly aware of this lineage and worked hard to capture the appeal of these games and their ilk. Never is this clearer than in a wonderful late-game sequence involving the faraway, mysterious land of “Canada,” during which the developers effectively say, “Yes, we grew up playing these games, and we loved them too.”
The developers also expertly employ meta-commentary on the game itself. In one level, you find a series of audio logs (a staple of many sci-fi role-playing games) in which a character remarks mostly on why he has been wasting so much time recording audio logs rather than escaping. A late-game sword called the Sword of Endings is tagged with the description “A harbinger of things to come.” It’s good, dry humor throughout.
No one should come to “South Park: The Stick of Truth” looking for a game of endless depth and replayability. Though the developers did squeeze an impressive amount of content and customizability into the game, this is not one of those modern, open-world role-playing games that can suck up 50 or 100 hours of time. And I should point out that it was released in a buggy state. I encountered a couple of weird and annoying visual bugs, and if what I’ve read online is any indication, others experienced hiccups as well.
But overall it’s an extremely enjoyable, well executed tribute to a time when role-playing games were shorter, quirkier, and more linear — albeit one that includes a lot more farting and Nazi zombies than any “Final Fantasy” game could have gotten away with.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.