Thursday, 29 January 2015

South Park: The Stick of Truth

A new family moves to South Park, Colorado, a town noted for its odd inhabitants, idyllic scenery and occasional tendency to become involved in the fate of the country/world/universe. The family's son becomes embroiled in a complex live-action roleplaying game being fought for control of the "Stick of Truth", but this soon escalates with alien spaceships crashing into the mall, government agents showing up and gnomes invading homes to steal underpants. Also, Al Gore arrives in search of a mythical creature. Basically, it's just another day in South Park.

South Park is no stranger to video game adaptations. The earliest appeared shortly after the show's debut in 1997 and were soulless cash-ins revolving around racing or first-person action games in a horrible 3D version of the game's distinctive art style. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unimpressed, approached Obsidian Entertainment with the idea of making a new game that employed the show's signature 2D art style and was also faithful to its satirical, biting (and occasionally very sick) humour. Obsidian rose to the occasion, putting together an RPG design which would involve Parker and Stone as the main writers and voice artists.

The result is a game that is so faithful to the source material that, unless someone spots you controlling it or you get into a battle, it can easily be mistaken for an episode of the actual TV show. For a studio whose often amazing artistic vision is too often compromised by budget or time, Obsidian finally managed to hit it out of the park on their first attempt, rather than after a lengthy patching cycle. If you are a South Park fan, there is simply no further need for further discussion: get ahold of this pronto. If you find South Park crass or offensive, however, then there's nothing here that will change your mind so steer well clear.

For those still on the fence, The Stick of Truth is a heavily narrative-based game set in and around South Park. You control "The New Kid" (later dubbed Sir Douchebag by the reliably foul-mouthed Cartman), a new arrival in town soon recruited by Cartman into joining a roleplaying game. You can navigate around the town and surrounding countryside, all faithfully animated in the same style as the TV show, and undertake missions for other characters whilst getting involved in combat with animals or with the elves, the rival faction in the game. This being South Park, things soon escalate and then you're fighting aliens, giant rats and gnomes armed with magic that can miniaturise you for no particular reason. Combat takes place in a turn-based, Japanese RPG style environment, with you being able to use both magic (based around flatulence) and special attacks associated with your character class (Fighter, Mage or Jew). It's straightforward but the interaction between different weapons, armour, magic, items and the ability to switch between ranged and melee attacks delivers a satisfying number of options to you. In short, the gameplay is superb.

In terms of length, you can polish off the main storyline in 10-12 hours with ease. What is slightly disappointing is that there are relatively few side-quests. The main activity outside of following the story is based around collectibles, going around the town looking for Chinpokomon toys (I got very excited when I finally found Shoe) or little kids playing hide and seek. This is mildly diverting and can extend the playing time out by a few hours, but overall this is not a very long game. It's still a lot of fun, but you may want to pick it up in a sale rather than pay full price.

In story terms, it's basically South Park's Greatest Hits, with Parker and Stone revisiting almost every concept they've come up with in the past two decades. So Mr. Hanky and his martial problems form a subplot, Al Gore shows up to continue his search for ManBearPig and the player can meet Terrance and Phillip in a quest that takes them to Canada (rendered as a primitive NES-style top-down RPG). This could risk being derivative, but Parker and Stone instead seem to relish re-using previous ideas and fleshing them out beyond the confines of a 20-minute TV episode. It's a pretty funny game, but Parker and Stone also don't hold back on using jokes that they wouldn't be able to get into even on the TV show. An anal probing sequence on the alien mothership is particularly gross, as is a later section set inside another character's colon, and a sequence inside an abortion clinic complete with foetal zombies goes through the roof of offensiveness to some other plane of WTFery. Some of the more offensive sequences can be skipped (or are cut out entirely in international versions of the game) but others can't.

The Stick of Truth is, on the one hand, a superb game. It's a pitch-perfect translation of a TV show into a game (maybe the best one ever done), with some excellent gameplay and mechanics. The characters and story are appropriate to the source material and it's genuinely hilarious in places. On the other hand, it's rather short for its genre and the game is mind-bogglingly offensive at some parts. For those who like seeing the boundaries of good humour and taste being stretched to their limits, this won't be a problem. For others, it will be. In that sense, this is a game more for established fans than newcomers.

The Stick of Truth (****) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).

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