South Park: The Stick of Truth [Review]

South Park: The Stick of Truth captures the over-the-top humor of the show, mixing it with an excellent and involved RPG combat system.

I figured that South Park: The Stick of Truth would be funny. Being a longtime fan of the show and just hearing that title told me that it would be. What I didn’t expect was for there to be a solid RPG hidden under the array of jokes and series nods. This is not some cheap tie-in to cash in on the series’ fame, but rather a great game that does an even better job of touching on everything that makes the South Park property great. If you are looking for a good, story-driven RPG to be playing right now and enjoy ridiculous humor, you really can’t go wrong with South Park: The Stick of Truth.

If you are looking for dozens of random encounters while combing through complex dungeons, you may want to move along, though. Stick of Truth focuses heavily on exploration, doing so to the point where there aren’t all that many fights during many sections of the game. For some, this could make the game a little boring as there typically aren’t more than a handful of fights anywhere you go. The game is more interested in taking players to different locations, many of which are nods to episodes or locations from the show, and letting them look around while getting in a few scraps. That’s not a problem to me, and I’ll tell you why. Ever find yourself in a dungeon, looking for a specific item or wandering down a hallway, and then end up in fight after frustrating fight when you already know what you want to do? How about getting a random battle almost every step when you’re just trying to see if there’s a treasure down some obscure hallway? I’ll take fewer fights in more interesting locations any day.

I really did love looking around the dungeons and fields of South Park, too. These aren’t just fantasy or sci-fi RPG dungeons slapped into a South Park game, but are fully-realized locations from the show. You can go into simple locations like Cartman or Butters’ houses, but there are also full dungeons for the elementary school, The House of Peace, and the alien spaceship from the first aired episode. The show’s entire seventeen seasons have been combed through for locations for you to explore and fight through, giving series fans a lot of amazing locations to explore. Even better, if you’re a newcomer to the show, you really have no idea where you’ll end up next, as the game fires you into all kinds of different places to play through. The variety of dungeons and locations is just staggering, and you will rarely ever find yourself in a similar location more than once.

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With all of these modern locations, it seems odd to be playing a fantasy-themed RPG. Well, one of the most entertaining parts of the game is that the fantasy elements come from the fact that this is all just the children of South Park playing a game. They’re pretending to be looking for a holy relic called the Stick of Truth, and as such you get cardboard castles, bad monster costumes, and childhood weapons at your disposal. If you get a broadsword, you’ll notice that it’s just two sticks that have been tied together. You’ll see that there are rubber cups at the tips of your arrows. All of your armor looks like it was found in your parents’ closet. Even your main fortress, Kupa Keep, is just made of cardboard and guarded by Cartman’s cat. They’re all taking the fantasy elements fairly seriously, and listening to them talk about Paladins and Drow Elves while wearing this stuff and fighting in these locations make it hard not to always laugh at the game.

The home-made feel of the game’s fantasy elements extends into combat as well. Instead of just smashing each other with wooden sticks, there is some absurd magic in the game as well. If you cue up the Dragon’s Breath spell, you’ll find yourself firing off a lit firecracker into a kid’s face. Other spells will have you hitting kids with baseball bats, throwing sand in their eyes, or playing Roshambo with them (ending with a vicious kick to the crotch). Again, these are kids pretending to be wizards, warriors, thieves, and Jews (Yes, being a Jew is a character class. Yes, that is the class I chose.), and they’re just doing their best with whatever they can make.

There are some spells with more dramatic effects, though, such as Dragonshout. This being a South Park game and one about children playing a game, you knew there would be some fart jokes in it. Well, Dragonshout is just a guided fart, one that causes a huge amount of damage to enemies and has extra effects when done in the environment. Other spells, like Butters’ hammer magic, will call lightning down from the sky for no reason I can discern. You can also cast spells that will turn Butters into Professor Chaos and do other spectacular spells in the game. It’s not exactly Final Fantasy here, but don’t expect every spell to look like a fourth-grader designed it.

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Also, for being fights between a couple of kids, the combat is pretty good. There aren’t many games out there that take cues from Super Mario RPG‘s combat system, and I’ve always felt that was a shame. For the unaware, in Super Mario RPG you could hit the attack button at the right moment during combat to either increase the damage you dealt or reduce what you took. You just had to hit it right before an attack landed on ether you or an enemy, and it made combat a whole lot more involved than in most RPGS. Stick of Truth has a similar system, getting players to hit the button at several specific moments during an attack to deal more damage, or to push it while being hit to avoid damage. It makes combat consistently fresh and gives it a little bit of action game-like urgency, keeping me from just selecting attacks while I slowly nod off.

The timing is a bit more challenging than it was in Super Mario RPG, so this is even more complex than that title. Timing can vary quite a bit depending on enemies and their attacks, and some spells or effects will target more than one thing at once so you have to pay close attention. The game makes a little circle appear under the enemy when you need to be hitting the button, though, so it does try to help you pull these effects off. It also forces a tutorial on the player in the beginning to help them learn how the ability works, but don’t expect them to do it again once more complex attacks start showing up. You also won’t just be hitting the button, either, as you might have to spin or hold the control sticks in specific ways to do some moves, so you’ll never find yourself just picking options in a menu. You’re involved in every step of your combat, so it’s rarely boring.

You’ll be using your fancier attacks often since your characters are mostly restored at the end of every battle. You get back all of your special points (which do different attacks than magic points), but for some reason you don’t get all of your health back. It will refill over time, but it seems strange that they wouldn’t just refill it outright. You rarely get in more than a fight or two in a row so it’s not usually a problem, but I really am puzzled as to why the game would only give you back most of your health after each fight? Why not none or all of it? Not only this, but the game doesn’t refill your magic points at all, which surprised me when I suddenly found out I needed to use items to get those back. It’s not a big issue as items are plentiful and weren’t often necessary, and the magic abilities are kind of overpowered anyway, but it just seems weird that each meter has different rules on how it refills after combat.

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Since you’re mostly restored after each fight, the enemies can hit pretty hard in combat. I was only a few hours in when I was getting slammed for over half of my health bar by a single enemy in multi-enemy fights. This sounds way too hard, but you’re able to use an item or healing ability for free on each of your characters’ turns. Since there’s so much healing going on, you’ll find that the enemies can often dole out some brutal hits, but after a while you notice that you’re still not really in much trouble. This made me a little careless as I played it after a while, and I’d tend to leave myself a little too weak while walking into a boss fight because of it. It always felt like I would have some time to heal no matter how badly hurt I was since I got free healing turns, and I would end up letting most of my party get stomped by accident. It’s an odd system that took some getting used to, but it let the devs create some high-damage, high tension fights because of it, again making the game’s combat more interesting.

That being said, it still felt a little too easy during the first few hours. I could lazily attack enemies and throw around a few special powers every fight and walk away without much damage. It took until I hit the end of the first day before I started getting hit hard enough that I was worried. The system does seem a little too skewed toward the player’s benefit at the beginning, but the game does throw you into some fights where you’re in real danger before long. It’s at those points where the odd battle and healing system shines, and while it still feels a little unbalanced, I still say it makes the fights chaotic and exciting. It injects a little bit of craziness into the normally rigid structure of turn-based RPG combat, and I love it.

You could just throw challenge out the window and use one of your summons to win most fights, though. As you do side quests around town (fetch quests and the occasional optional dungeon), you can gain the help of one of the folks from around South Park. This might let you use Mr. Slave to devour someone with his butthole, or have the owner of the City Wok do his war dance, or even have Jesus himself show up to blast the enemies with a machine gun. They’re handy, but can only be used once per act, so you’ll want to save them for when you’re in crap shape.

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There are lots of other reasons to explore as well, such as collecting Chinpokomon (South Park’s version of Pokemon) or picking up random items in the environment. Most of the stuff you find is just junk you can sell, but considering what you’re going to be picking up and how funny some of their descriptions are, you’re going to want to go around looting drawers and closets. It all draws from the series in funny ways, giving you things like Faith +1 CDs, Terrence and Phillip dolls, and the various adult novelties in Mrs. Cartman’s room. I have never laughed so hard at random items in a game in my life as I have at this game.

The final touch for South Park fans would have to be the look of this game, as it completely captures the feel of the show. This is a dead ringer for an episode of the series, mimicking the exact look and sound of it. If you so much as reload a save, you’ll get the little jingle that plays at the start of an episode. The developers at Obsidian Entertainment outdid themselves here, even designing a character creation system that uses hairstyles and looks from the show so that your character fits right in. Even for someone who doesn’t want to play games, you could easily watch someone else play this game and get as much out of it as you would from seeing a regular episode. It’s that great of a package for fans of the series.

For those who don’t like South Park‘s sense of humor, you’re definitely going to want to steer clear of it. In case it needs to be said, there is some rough humor in this game, and it doesn’t take long for some really nasty things to start happening. If you’re the type who thinks you’re not easily offended but who hasn’t seen the show before, you’ll be put to the test. I still didn’t find that it was as bad as some of the episodes I’ve seen, but it’s still pretty terrible in some places. I’m an awful person who laughed at most of it, but there are some jokes about anal probes, Jewish people, and the typical South Park fare. I don’t think there’s much of anyone who could go into a South Park game not knowing that, but if you didn’t, you’ve been warned.

For the rest of us awful people, South Park: The Stick of Truth was an insane romp filled with tons of bizarre jokes. I was expecting it to ride out on toilet humor, but there’s an excellent RPG battle system here, even if the game doesn’t use it especially often. This is a good game for those who’ve never experienced the show, but for long-time fans, this is a love letter to seventeen seasons of ridiculousness.

Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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