A mediocre jRPG grafted onto a below average episode of South Park
South Park: The Stick of Truth is a mediocre jRPG grafted onto a below average episode of South Park. It is above average as licensed products go, but that is a pretty low bar to hurdle. The game benefits from being associated with South Park, and it is a perfect example of how something can be worth more than the sum of its parts. Long time fans of the show should be satisfied for at least a while from this experience, which, for better or for worse, doesn’t last very long. At the end of the day though, South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t have much value beyond that. It suffers from a lot of surprisingly unimaginative writing and game design, and it will probably leave you wondering why it took so long to make.
Where you land on your opinion of this game will almost certainly depend upon how much you like the show. It will also depend upon what you like about the show. If you like the show for its witty satire and ballsy social commentary, then you will be sorely disappointed, for there is almost none of it here. This game barely shows a shred of creativity. Most of the gags in the show’s seventeen years make a perfunctory appearance -- Scuzzlebutt shows up as a giant trophy, Al Gore shows up hunting ManBearPig, Chinese proprietor of City Wok is still at odds with the “Mongorians”, and so on and so forth. Almost every object of interest in the South Park universe, from the Okama game sphere to Phil Collins’s Oscar, shows up as a junk object that you can pull from a chest. Beyond these ever-present shout-outs though, there is next to nothing new. Even the episodes of Terrance and Philip that you overhear on the TV aren’t new. The crossover of video games and kids playing a fantasy game is a carryover from the three-part Game of Thrones parody. Between that trilogy, the Lord of the Rings parody episode, the World of Warcraft episode, the Minecraft episode, and the anime “Fun with Weapons” episode, the series has beaten this theme to death. The joke is old. Eric Cartmann wearing a wizard hat and speaking in fantasy lingo isn’t fresh anymore, but it is the basis for the entire game.
If you love South Park for its sight gags and numerous references to bodily functions, then you will find plenty of material to like here. Farts are heavily integrated into the game’s mechanics, and there is a quicktime minigame for pooping when you use a toilet. When you search Cartmann’s house, you find his mom’s sex toys. Occasionally, when you walk into a stranger’s house unannounced, you catch them in a very embarrassing position. When it comes to the cheap laughs, South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t disappoint.
But if you think that people saying “fuck” or “shit” eight times a minute is what really makes South Park tick, then you are in luck, because that is what comprises most of the humor in the game. South Park: The Stick of Truth absolutely piles on the profanity. Gratuitous amounts of “fuck” and “shit” are spewed out endlessly, regardless of context, with no restraint. Whatever happened to cleverness? Subtlety? The game’s writing is juvenile. It crosses over from being offensive and it becomes just boring. After years of waiting, there are fewer good laughs in this game than there are in most half hour episodes. You may disagree, and by golly, if you find “fuck” and “shit” to be funny then I’m happy for you -- it’s not my place to tell you otherwise. You know where I stand though. Your mileage may vary.
The greatest success of South Park: The Stick of Truth is that it brings to life the town of South Park while allowing you to interact with its many residents. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from visiting locations that you have seen on TV a hundred times, like South Park elementary or the bus stop. Adding folks like Al Gore and Uncle Jimbo to your Facebook friends makes for an amusing experience. So, while South Park falls flat in a lot of key areas, it still succeeds at a basic level, because it is still a South Park game. It is the first opportunity that you have had to experience this world in a game that doesn’t completely suck. Simply finding a way to arrange the town on the game’s world map is an achievement. If you are a South Park fan, then you might get a thrill out of the first few hours and the sense of freedom that the game gives you in exploring the town.
Combat is a simple, turn-based affair. It functions just fine, but once again, that is a pretty low bar to hurdle. You can attack with a basic melee attack, a magical attack, or farts (which are essentially another form of magic). Like a jRPG, you and one other character travelling with you take turns beating on enemies (usually by using one or two attacks over and over again) while defending yourselves during the enemies’ turns. In a manner similar to games like Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, every attack or defense is accompanied by a quick button press or some other short quick time event. Well timed button presses maximize damage or minimize enemy damage. Flubbed attacks do the opposite. I can’t say a lot about these mechanics, other than that I have never been a huge of them because adding quick time events to jRPG combat doesn’t make it more fun. South Park: The Stick of Truth did not change my opinion about this matter.
The game also includes a tiny bit of puzzle-based gameplay and “Metroid-vania” type exploration where part of the map is closed off to you until you gain a certain quest item or learn a certain ability. There is some very good exploration in the game and like most good exploration-heavy games, it rewards you for going the extra mile to get a hard to reach item. Unfortunately, the economy in the game is such that a lot of those rewards never make much of a difference, since you are usually loaded with cash and don’t have much worth buying at the stores besides consumables. Tweaking this game to make money more rare would have made its treasure hunting a lot more satisfying.
While thinking about this game, I am constantly coming back to the thought that everything in it works okay, and that I can’t bring myself to give it a bunch of credit just for that. If the goal of the game was to be better than terrible, then it succeeds with flying colors. It doesn't succeed at being much better than all of the other games on the shelves though. In the end, South Park: The Stick of Truth will probably appeal to people who like South Park, but don’t necessarily watch every episode. I really wanted this game to be funny, and I was mostly disappointed. If you are a huge fan of the show like myself and you have seen most of them multiple times, then you may find yourself let down at how little effort seems to have gone into developing fresh and original material for the game. That’s not to say that there isn’t any at all, but it is disappointingly rare. The turn-based combat, while functional, is too simple and repetitive to completely carry a game that doesn’t have great dialog and story.