Tuesday, 5 July 2016

South Park: The Stick of Truth - Review

Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PS3, 360 (version played), PC, PS4, Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

South Park and video games haven't had a particularly memorable past. With several adaptations dating back to South Park on the PlayStation and N64, it's almost always been the case that the popularity of the show has been relied upon to paper over the cracks of shoddy gameplay. South Park: The Stick of Truth attempts to rectify this by throwing in a developer with a decent pedigree. Namely, Obsidian Entertainment, responsible for Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II amongst other things.

Essentially set up as another episode of the show, The Stick of Truth casts you as the new kid; a mysterious new addition to South Park's community who quickly finds himself teaming up with Cartman and friends who're playing an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons. It's a simple set-up and one that works well by making sure that the game's surreal and scatological jokes are built around something that almost all video game players are familiar with: role-playing conventions.

But the game's writing was never in question. Provided you're a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's brand of humour, then there's no question that you'd find this game enjoyable. In effect, it's simply another episode of the show, albeit one that's also interactive. Both writers have also done a good job ensuring the jokes won't be lost on non-fans, although, naturally, a few of the references will only be understood by the show's followers.

What is impressive however, is how Obsidian have managed to craft a role-playing system that's simple but also rather least for a while. Keeping in mind that The Stick of Truth's appeal is wider than your typical RPG, Obsidian have kept the combat system basic but with enough depth that more adept players will be satisfied with the tactics on offer.

Early on you're asked to select your class (Warrior, Thief, Mage or...Jew), which provides you with a different selection of equipment as well as a unique set of skills. Combat is turn based, but most attacks have short quick-time events, or button prompts, making the process feel slightly more fast paced and action-oriented than similar titles.

You also have always have a buddy at your disposal, which include Cartman, Kyle and several other members of the cast. All of these characters also come with unique abilities such as Cartman's "magic spell", which sees him hurl a bunch of random swear words at the enemy or Stan's ability to sic his dog on the enemy by shining a laser-pen over the target.

Even with access to only two party members at a time; your character and one buddy, combat does manage to remain relatively engaging. An abundance of status-effects, including being grossed-out and set on fire adds another layer of complexity. And the ability to equip various stickers to your clothing, granting them additional bonuses, along with a selection of unlockable perks, ensures those craving more customization will get some of their fix. Perhaps the best comparison would be Double Fine's Costume Quest, another relatively simple role-playing experience that generated humour out of kids dressing up in fantasy costumes.

Despite the adult nature of the game's humour though, there's also something oddly charming about a bunch of kids running around the neighbourhood; so wrapped up in their role-playing that it colours how they're viewing the world. Exploring the world of South Park is something of a treat, the fidelity to the show, including the gorgeous animation, is meticulous, and again, it's long-time fans that will really lap up all the details that are on offer.

The town itself, whilst not a gigantic world map, is certainly big enough, and there's plenty of side quests on offer for those wanting something extra to do. These include literally finding Jesus, who's hiding out at the local church, as well as hunting down Al Gore's infamous ManBearPig. Rather than bloat the game with an excessive number of repetitive side quests, Obsidian have managed to whittle it down to a handful of decent ones, backed up with more of the show's writing.

Where The Stick of Truth starts to buckle is in its length. At around 10-15 hours long there's simply not enough depth in the combat system to keep you entertained. What's fun for an hour or two begins to get boring once you're hitting the seven hour mark. Even before you've reached the final area, it's likely you'll have maxed-out your character, and combat begins to become nothing more than a few lazy button presses as you swipe away another wave of enemies. Added to this is the fact that later sections start to recycle enemies more, meaning that your strategy doesn't need to change whatsoever.

Likewise, the show's humour does begin to grate after a while. This isn't so much of an issue with the TV show, where a half hour runtime allows for just enough laughs and gross-out gags. With the game's length however a lot of the jokes begin to sag and feel forced; eventually, one poop joke looks like every other poop joke. It also seems that Matt and Trey simply don't know enough about games to mock them all that well, and so instead resort to the more general South Park shtick, rather than actually parodying video games.

Still, despite its shortfalls, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a solid adaptation of the show. The RPG mechanics don't quite manage to be enough to survive the entire game's length but are at  least very accessible to newcomers to the genre. In fact, Obsidian's work here might encourage some players to explore a genre that they wouldn't have previously been interested in.

This is very much an interactive South Park episode as opposed to a genuinely funny look at role-playing games. It's a subtle distinction, but one that sums up the experience of The Stick of Truth the best.


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