South Park: The Stick of Truth
South Park can be funny, but it has its faults. The jokes are unrepentantly juvenile and often predictable. The “lesson” of each episode is obviously drawn upon whatever political beliefs Parker and Stone want to display that particular week. Strawmen abound.
But it can also be gut-bustingly hilarious. One thing I always respected about the show is that it blatantly uses racial, religious, and sexist humor without regard to taste. If something’s funny, it’s going into the show no matter what the focus groups or the PTA thinks. (Exceptions: Scientology and Islam, two religions that will literally kill you if you mock them too heavily.) If you get offended by something as ridiculous and childish as a Virgin Mary statue bleeding menstrual stigmata, you’re even dumber than the level of humor you’re getting worked up over. Parker and Stone are trolls; they thrive on attention and other people’s ire, and they will break almost any cultural roadblock if they think they can get a laugh out of it.
So when they announced an RPG based on the long-running animated fart joke sitcom, my hopes were middling. Humor in video games is challenging to pull off correctly, and considering the pointless terribleness of past South Park games (which mostly consisted of tedious minigames), I expected something like the 2005 Bard’s Tale. Or that one South Park episode done in the World of Warcraft engine. A warmed-over “parody” that used obvious jokes on a worn-threadbare formula in lieu of a good game. What I got pleasantly surprised me.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is an expertly done RPG through and through. Its creators have clearly played many similar games in their lives and drawn upon their ideas. Playing a mute child waking up and getting items from his parents before going on an adventure is reminiscent of Earthbound (OK, fine, every SNES JRPG did this), rummaging through every cranny in every room for loot brought up shades of Fallout, and the grid-based battle areas reminded me of Radiant Historia. The Stick of Truth in inspired by the best of other RPGs from multiple eras and platforms and it combined them in a pleasing manner.
Gameplay consists of turn-based RPG combat and exploration, but with many twists. You select your actions from a menu in order to execute actions—a method that is well over 30 years old at this point—but each action has its own required timing in order to perform it properly. Failure results in reduced damage or no effect on enemies. Clearly inspired by the likes of Super Mario RPG (though it’s slightly more strict here), this has a fascinating effect on the gameplay. You do not merely click through options to automatically do damage to opponents; you have to use skill and possess adequate reflexes in order to beat even the weakest foes. In other simplistic turn-based RPGs the majority of the challenge comes from preparation for battle (after which you simply follow a routine and almost certainly win). Adding the time-based aspect to battles instills a new element that means you can win battles with skill that normally would only be beatable with grinding.
So why do I like pressing buttons to complete actions here but not in QTEs in other games? Because QTEs pointlessly dumb down a game’s options whereas the context-sensitive actions in The Stick of Truth add complexity to what would be an otherwise unremarkable menu-based combat system. I wasn’t expecting this game to offer the likes of Super Mario RPG as an inspiration. Some other RPGs have experimented with the timing-based addition to combat (notably Final Fantasy VIII’s limit breaks) but the idea seems to have been dropped from the genre. It’s good to see it back, because that’s one moldy corpse of a genre that needs revitalizing, and badly.
Equipment is simple and intuitive. Get weapons or armor, add attachments (including… uh… “strap-ons” to your weapons) for bonuses, and go to town. One thing I like is that anything you equip displays on your character in combat and in the field, another example of this game’s attention to detail and love of the genre and medium. Skills are similarly easy to understand; put points into them after a level-up to improve them. You can acquire perks (just what they sound like) by getting more Facebook friends. I mean that literally; you use Facebook in the game and get the other characters to befriend you for in-game benefits. Parody of RPG conventions, fourth-wall-breaking in-joke, or good game mechanic? Who cares? It works.
When not beating up other kids wearing plastic elf ears, you run around town collecting junk, solving quests, and listening to a sure-fire brilliant soundtrack (one thing Parker and Stone do undeniably well is create an amazingly catchy tune—no matter the genre—though the game’s score is by Jamie Dunlap according to IMDB). Standard RPG stuff, but South Park: The Stick of Truth ridicules all of it. Your available classes are Fighter, Thief, Mage, and Jew. It runs you through tutorials at the start, mocking you for either failing or attempting to bypass them. All the characters are either total dicks or downtrodden pushovers, and will comment on any situation you find yourself in, like the Sam & Max games. You can interact with most every object you see—usually by shooting it with a projectile—and acquire new items and lines of dialogue if you do so wisely, which (along with the aforementioned friend-seeking element) reminded me of 2005’s Radiata Stories. There are a few bits where you have to use hard-to-control farts (making fun of Skyrim’s dragon shouts, of course) to bypass obstacles, but these do not ruin the overall positive exploration experience.
The Stick of Truth makes fun of RPG cliches, sure, but it doesn’t do so in a lazy or irritating fashion. For example, there’s a quest where you go to a tavern’s cellar to kill the rats that infest it. This is an incredibly common early quest in western RPGs, and a lesser writer trying to mock the trope would have had a character say something like “These rats are everywhere; I don’t know why they keep coming back! But I have a bad back so I can’t kill them myself.” Instead, South Park subtly (a phrase you don’t hear often in connection to South Park) shows us that killing a bunch of rats is actually quite an ordeal for a couple of 9-year-old-kids, not to mention demonstrating that the guy at the bar (as well as everyone else in the town) is a lazy, degenerate moron who thinks nothing of ordering children around to do tasks better suited for adults—a theme appearing frequently in the show itself.
When I was nine, almost everyone at school would swear like a wounded pirate in a laughable attempt at appearing mature (when we weren’t quoting The Simpsons), so that’s one element of the writing that is true to life. The characters in the game—and, to an extent, Parker and Stone themselves—are guilty of this. South Park without loads of eyeroll-worthy scat humor would be like VGCW without Table-san getting stripped. If you think alien probing and magical farts are the pinnacle of comedy, boy, have I got a game for you!
But the humor’s not all bad. South Park is unabashedly anti-PC, and it’s been around for so long that even the densest guardians of decency know there’s no point in getting offended by it. The game will mock any racial or political group it feels like for a cheap giggle. Cartman will make insulting quips if your character is a black Thief, or a Jew of any sort. Your character is mute and can be any name, so the rest of the cast calls you Douchebag for simplicity. Butters (an uncharacteristically innocent child) has parents that treat him like an animal. Cartman is the “Grand Wizard” of his kingdom, which also carries a suspicious acronym. Sociopathy, violence, and crudity are all played for laughs. And there definitely are laughs.
Is there a specific line between fantasy and reality within the game? If the kids in the story are LARPing and most of the attacks and spells they use on one another are the equivalent of that guy who throws nerf balls while yelling “lightning bolt”, then how can they also be used to beat up adults running a meth lab or wild animals or clearly hostile aliens, none of which would know about the fantasy game in order to play along with it? I’m definitely overthinking this, though; the plot should always come secondary to both gameplay and humor; and it does so here, to the game’s credit. Remember Mystery Science Theater 3000’s theme song’s motto.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is a pleasant surprise. In a genre overflowing with Tolkien ripoffs and fantasy cliches, it not only takes the piss out of them but delivers a worthwhile experience on its own. The Stick of Truth is worth playing whether or not you like its source material. It’s an excellent RPG with all the elements of success. It’s a shame that it often uses anal rape and gratuitous swearing as substitutes for actual jokes, but the core of the game is a solid one.