I don’t know, guys–I feel weird. I’ve been writing a long time, and playing video games a long time, and at no point in my life did I ever expect to review a game where I could criticize the tutorial sessions of a magical fart. Those bubbles I feel building in my brain could be an aneurysm, spurred onward by this completely unexpected new video game. Or I could be reaching a new point in our collective consciousness–I could be evolving, you guys. Seriously.
Or, most likely, my squishy brain is just expanding to envelope this new and brilliant addition to the South Park canon in a warm, palsy-inducing hug. So I’ll just start from the beginning.
To suggest that South Park is a cultural phenomenon is an understatement.
Whether you appreciate the feces-fisted satire that is Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated accomplishment is another question entirely. But their impact on American television and pop culture is unable to be touched. I can remember a time when a talking piece of poop during a Christmas special was enough to make one think, “Well, there’s no way they’re going to top that.” Years later, Mr. Hankey seems charming–even PG-rated–compared to the horrifying onslaught of disgusting gags and thinly-veiled metaphors that Parker and Stone have thrown our way. They’ve been called immature children obsessed with the sounds of their own farts. They’ve also been called brilliant masters of satire.
Not so much in the video game world, however. In the gaming world, South Park has been limited to uncreative and predictable franchise cash ins. Until now, that is.
Released this week, South Park: The Stick Of Truth has been an undertaking years in the making. Written and voiced by the creators themselves, TSOT was intended to be nothing short of a great adventure. Parker and Stone approached developers Obsidian Entertainment (famous for their development of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas) and took an extremely active role in its creation, and ultimately that fact shines through like a magical diamond that can cuss at you in seventeen different languages.
South Park: The Stick Of Truth puts you in the tiny shoes of the new kid in town, alternately known as “Douchebag” or simply “the new kid”. The character creation is short and to the point, which is fine, given the fact that the world is filled to the brim with different collectable hair styles, beards, makeup, face paint, clothing and accessories. You suit up, select your accoutrements, and…
…Holy shit, you guys–I’m playing an episode of South Park. It’s genius, really: even years later, South Park retains a very simplistic style of design, so adapting it to a video game format offers up some unexpectedly fantastic results. The cutscenes and the actual gameplay blend into each other effortlessly, truly making you feel as if you’re a part of that world. And like all great episodes of South Park, the whole thing starts with the boys getting lost in their own little world until the terror of an implausibly idiotic real world barges in.
You set out to make friends, and are immediately thrust headlong into the LARPing antics of Cartman’s Kingdom of Kupa Keep (or KKK, for short) and his war with Kyle’s Drow Elves. As the various nooks and crannies of a bizarre plotline make themselves known, you find yourself battling everything from aliens, to zombies, to the U.S. military, to some creatures that you won’t believe until you see them yourself. Your exploits leave permanent damage on the town around you, and it’s terribly funny to come back to quiet warzones and see just how much havoc your game of pretend has wreaked.
And your game of pretend plays beautifully. In very smart move, Obsidian has chosen not to reinvent the wheel and has instead offered up a traditional, turn-based combat system with some timing-based strategy for attacking and blocking, similar to what you’ve seen in classics like Super Mario RPG or the more recent Penny Arcade: Precipice of Darkness games. You’re given four class choices (Fighter, Mage, Thief, or Jew) and each has different special abilities, though they don’t go into the class restrictions on armor and weapons that most RPGs have. This style of combat can run the risk of being fairly repetitive, but TSOT keeps things fresh by constantly throwing new enemies at you. You have lots of opportunities to try different strategies, but the lax difficulty of the game is such that you’ll probably find a single one that you like and stick with it. The side quests can drag a little bit early, but they always have great payoffs.
The music and sound design is often the crowning achievement of any Parker/Stone venture, and The Stick Of Truth is no different. Strains of songs from various episodes of South Park can be heard through the radio, but original soundtrack pieces make their debut here as well. All sense of satire aside, Parker and Stone have always been great at capturing the feeling of being an imaginative little kid, and the music really makes a difference. Mysterious strains and swells of different melodies transform an otherwise innocuous world: a storage facility becomes an dangerous wasteland, and a gussied-up living room becomes a dark and exotic tavern. Satire and metaphor aside, the graphic nature of South Park‘s humor has always been a line drawn in the sand for many viewers, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But if you’re willing to really soak up the relationships between the four protagonists, you can’t help but appreciate how charming it can be.
And speaking of satire, The Stick Of Truth has it in spades. NPCs are constantly preoccupied with their smart phones, leading to the use of Facebook as a genius all-purpose character screen. Special abilities are unlocked with the addition of friend requests, and your inventory, map, and all other relevant data are accessed through the warming glow of social media. It’s clever as hell, and very well executed.
But the majority of the satire addresses video games on the whole. You’ll circumnavigate the surprisingly vast town of South Park (and beyond) and embark on some pretty clever quests along the way. You’ll rescue your friends from death and worse (“I know you want to get the most out of this game,” quips Butters Stotch, “But our friend is getting raped.”) You’ll friend Al Gore on Facebook and then do battle with him when his constant, needy messaging forces you to unfriend him. You’ll find yourself collecting increasingly incredulous audio diaries, retrieving a brass key to get to a silver key to get to a gold key, and learning the Dovahkiin-style art of fart magic.
Yes, fart magic. The feature that caused my aneurysm/evolutionary awakening. One of the only gripes I had for this game was the late-game tutorials (usually addressing fart magic) didn’t feel well laid out. Initially I’m told to detonate a sneaky fart by pushing the right thumbstick up–later I’m told that I need to use the A button. Even later than that, I’m writing out my suicide note and throwing myself off the Talmadge bridge because I’ve become a human being who bitches in public that it wasn’t easy to learn and execute colon-based magic.
Fart magic can be frustrating.
There. I said it.
The game is fairly short (Between 15 and 20 hours), but there isn’t a second of padding here. You’ll spend the entire game just in love with how smart and charming the whole experience is. The clever use of literal days to divide the game instead of chapters or acts. The 16-bit JPRG that is Canada. The various powers and abilities of your cohorts–the whole thing is engaging and fun from wistful start to foul and disgusting finish.
I felt that a cap on levels at 15 was a tad low, and it would have been enjoyable to have a little more customization to your companions, but when you hold these gripes against the rest of South Park: The Stick Of Truth, they are petty complaints indeed. It is a testament to how wonderful any franchise can be as a video game, when lovingly crafted by people who know what they’re doing.
I think that level of personal love and dedication to craft is really the key issue when it comes to game adaptations. No game has made me laugh quite as a hard as last year’s Deadpool. Brilliantly written and acted out, I was unable to stop playing it, despite the fact that once you removed the jokes and sight-gags, Deadpool was an immensely bland beat-em-up. Despite all of that, the humor and character of Deadpool himself were so well-executed that it ended up being one of my favorite games of 2013. South Park: The Stick of Truth is was Deadpool could have been. It manages to get just about everything right. And with a franchise as brilliant as South Park already is, it’s all I can hope for that we’ll see more games like in the future. And maybe other adaptations will follow suit.
South Park: The Stick of Truth was released on March 4th, 2014 for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, and PS4.
COMING SOON: A look at the new horror retrospective The Zombie Film and a review of the deliciously political Democracy 3.