I’ve had a fluctuating interest in South Park over the years. When it first premiered in 1997, I was 12 years old and excited by the thought of seeing something that I wasn’t supposed to see; a vulgar, raunchy show with crude humor that would put Beavis and Butt-Head to shame. As I grew, so did the series. Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t just interested in giving the censors and concerned parents something to complain about – they wanted to lampoon the insanity of our social and political systems, mocking every side and demographic that did something idiotic. I’d even go so far to say that the show was one of the driving factors that made me a libertarian. But around 2007, my appreciation started to wane. The plots seemed to be getting lazier, and the times when the show pushed a message held by the writers were almost as preachy as those in Family Guy. So for a few years I hardly watched, only tuning in to catch a rerun when a friend recommended it as a good one. I’ve caught up on most of the backlog, and while I don’t think the show has the same spark it did when I was in high school and college, there are still great moments. As Madhog thy Master said when discussing his 10 favorite animated series of 2013, “… right now it [the show] feels like a couple of hipsters saying that they’re better than everyone else…. Nonetheless, when the show is at its best, it’s still at its best.” It’s clear that after 17 years, though, Matt and Trey want to venture into other projects rather than be tied to the show that launched them into the spotlight. They put their musical talents to great use in 2011 when they penned The Book of Mormon, and the following year it was announced that they were writing a script for a South Park video game, having approached Obsidian Entertainment to develop it. The Stick of Truth was initially planned for a 2013 release, but it suffered several delays brought on by various factors including the bankruptcy of initial publisher THQ. Ubisoft purchased the rights and released the game in March 2014 for the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, delivering some of the best I’ve seen from South Parkin the past five years.

A new kid has moved to South Park, his family looking forward to starting over and forging a better future. Urged by his father to go out and make some friends, the kid wanders around the town, eventually coming across another boy, Butters, getting beaten up by a child dressed as an elf. After driving the attacker away, the stranger is invited to come along with Butters and join the rest of the play group. The kids of South Park are running a massive fantasy game with two warring factions: the human Kingdom of Kupa Keep (or KKK) ruled by Grand Wizard Eric Cartman, and the drow elves under the leadership of King Kyle Broflovski. Both armies are fighting for control over the Stick of Truth, a “mystical” artifact that gives whomever holds it complete control of the universe. The humans currently hold the stick, but it’s taken from them during a raid by the elves. Determined to get it back, Cartman recruits the newcomer (who he refers to as “Douchebag” ) onto his team, rallying a force to reclaim the item from the other children. After getting to know the many odd individuals that live in his new hometown and partaking in many mock battles, the kid and his fellow warriors recover the stick, ensuring continued prosperity for Kupa Keep. Having spent a fun, if strange time with his neighbors, the new kid returns home, his parents happy that he had a good time. It seems as though they family will have no trouble adjusting to life in Colorado… until night falls. Then the kid learns that South Park is far from the quiet little mountain town his parents thought it would be; it may just be the most insane place on Earth.

The Stick of Truth does a successful job in presenting itself as an interactive South Park episode, or more technically a trilogy like Imaginationland or Black Friday (the story takes place over three days.) It captures the feel of the best episodes by relying on one of the most successful plot formulas – the boys are doing something seemingly innocent and simple for fun, they end up taking it to extremes which leads to violence and destruction of property, outside forces which pose a threat to the town arrive to wreak more havoc, and it’s up to the kids to fight back since the adults are all but useless, resulting in a convoluted, excessively ludicrous conclusion. I have to say that Matt and Trey pulled out all the stops when it came to making the script as over-the-top as possible. The various enemies you fight range from grey aliens, to government agents involved in a massive conspiracy, to a legion of Nazi zombies. Naturally, everyone except the kids are oblivious to the dangers around them, failing to recognize when someone has been infected by the zombie virus, and in some cases not even realizing that a person has been killed, even when they’re shot in front of multiple witnesses. Bizarre events are a common occurrence in the titular town, but seeing the premise in a video game makes it feel reminiscent of Earthbound, only much more obscene and violent.

The game is also packed with references to past episodes that further highlight the daily madness of life in South Park, such as Mongolians invading the City Wok Chinese restaurant, Al Gore annoying people by warning them about the dangers of ManBearPig, and nightly raids by Underpants Gnomes. Junk items found around the overworld that can be sold at shops include DVDs of Terrance and Phillip in: Not Without My Anus, Hardly Boys mystery novels and Alabama Man dolls. Exploring Stan’s room reveals that Tom Cruise is still hiding in his closet. There’s an abundance of references to past events and characters from the show’s 17 year run, but they aren’t just shoved in your face without context just for the sake of making a reference like a Seltzerberg movie; they all have a purpose, and that purpose is to make you laugh as well as remember the best moments of the series. Regretfully there were a few moments promoted in trailers which were cut from the end game that I really wanted to see, mainly the Crab People, vamp kids and hippies used as enemy classes, and a giant Clyde rampaging through the city. Given the troubled development cycle, though, I can understand why some of these aspects had to be cut to meet the release date, even if it is a letdown. I appreciate that Trey and Matt didn’t use any part of the game for soapboxing or pushing one of their opinions into the faces of the players. They wanted The Stick of Truth to be about fun, not promoting agendas or mocking people’s beliefs.

As a South Park game, you can expect an abundance of crass, juvenile, absurd and morbid humor that crosses the line multiple times. Nothing is held back when it comes to comedy – pedophilia, rape, and scatology are just a few of the subjects tapped for jokes. Going into minor spoilers here, some of the standout moments include:

– fighting Nazi zombie fetuses in an abortion clinic,

– being miniaturized by Underpants Gnomes and chasing them into your parents’ bedroom while they’re having sex, at one point having to perform a quick-time event to avoid getting hit by your father’s swinging scrotum,

-shrinking down and entering Mr. Slave’s anus to discover that among the various items he’s shoved up there include a cell phone and a live bat,

– the girls asking you to help them find out which of them is a “two-faced bitch” that’s been spreading nasty lies and rumors while they do the same, even if the girl they’re badmouthing is with them,

– the entire segment taking place in Canada, where among other things you’re told that Newfoundland has the best sodomy in the entire country, and almost all the wildlife carries the prefix “dire”, to the point where getting bitten by a snake will give you dire AIDS (which is like regular AIDS, but dire),

– discovering the secret ingredient that keeps people coming back to Tweek Brothers’ Coffee in spite of how bad it tastes,

– Jesus wielding a machine gun to wipe out enemies in combat with a special attack called “Crossfire”,

– three mini-games that caused the most controversy before release; a Simon-like memory game aboard an alien ship where pressing the wrong button causes Randy Marsh to get a vigorous anal probing, and two segments where you have to perform an abortion while Christmas music plays in the background, though in neither case is it done on a woman (don’t ask). These scenes had to be censored in the PAL territories as the ratings boards of those nations considered them to be depicting sexual violence against children and adults, so they were removed and replaced with still images with a text description of what would be happening. Matt Stone commented that he saw these policies as a double-standard, but was happy that they could at least insert jokes about the censored segments.

In addition to these sections, there is a massive amount of humorous dialogue and set pieces. The kids make some very amusing remarks when in character during their fantasy role-playing, such as Scott Malkinson saying that his “power” of diabetes is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a curse, Token, the only black kid in town, commenting on how he was hesitant about joining the KKK until Cartman convinced him to do so, Cartman helping the new kid master his powers of flatulent magic only to remind him repeatedly that such a power should never be abused by farting on someone’s balls (this is a plot point, if you can believe it), and the lyrics to several of the songs composed by Jimmy in his role as a bard. You can also find some very bizarre events as you wander around the town, including opening a random door to see a man in a gimp mask having sex with a horse. And I cannot believe I just wrote that last sentence. I don’t want to give away anything else because the impact of these jokes is lessened if you don’t experience them for yourself.

Of course, South Park’s love of offensive material has inevitably drawn the ire of some critics, mainly those who dislike the show for their own reasons. Cameron Kunzelman of Paste Magazine said that the game “reinforces narratives of exclusion, of justifying verbal harassment, and of trivializing the real and traumatic events of people who aren’t silly animated characters and can therefore be hurt by those verbal jokes and visual depictions.” I can understand where he’s coming from based on his own perception of the series, but I don’t see any of those transgressions in the game. Yes, there are jokes about gays, religious people, Jews, Canadians, the disabled, gingers, etc., and if you belong to one of those groups it’s easy to see why you would find it demeaning or insulting. But South Park has used this material for more than a decade, and it’s never been done out of malice. The purpose of these jokes is to mock the bigots who exclude others based on arbitrary reasons, as well as to irritate the overly sensitive and self-righteous who want to regulate language and humor. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I felt the game went too far. There’s a section near the end which involves an undead Chef whose voice is provided by past recordings made by the late Isaac Hayes. It was rather uncomfortable, suggesting that Trey and Matt still had some resentment towards Hayes leaving the show because he disapproved of their mocking Scientology.

When I first heard about the game I was a bit concerned that many of the jokes poking fun at gaming clichés and conventions would be the same trite, overdone observations that have been rehashed over and over again in mediocre webcomics. Thankfully I was proven wrong. While the writers do address several tropes of the genre, they approach them in a fresh manner. During the scene when you’re trying to escape an alien ship, you come across several audio logs left by a prior abductee where he wonders why he and other victims stopped to record audio logs rather than making a greater effort to escape, pointing out that much of what they said is filler. While trying to break Craig out of detention, Mr. Mackey remarks that they won’t make much progress until they collect the keys in the right order and then defeat the boss (a hall monitor), then asks with a straight face if the new kid and his current ally still think this is a game. In the battle tutorial at the start of the game, Clyde comments that turn-based combat is stupid, to which Cartman responds that this is how it was done in the Middle Ages so they need to do it to be authentic, even if it is a dumb way to fight. When a government agent learns about the Nazi zombie outbreak, he complains that they’re too overused. At several points you’re presented with a decision which seems like it will greatly impact the rest of the game, only to instantly find out that your choice meant nothing. In one of these instances the kids tell you it’s best to go with the option they present since doing the opposite will just be a waste of time. Cutscenes where Jimmy delivers dialogue will require you to hit the skip button in order to get him to stop stuttering and finish his sentence to progress. Later near the end of the game as one of the major enemies prepares to go into an overly-complicated monologue about his motivations, the exasperated boys ask if they can skip it to which he replies they can’t, and true to his word there’s no way to skip past that scene. There are also a few obvious references to other titles, including the new kid being called Dragonborn or Wind Waker when he unleashes a powerful fart, an armor set that resembles Link’s clothing, and Stan’s victory pose after battle mimicking Cloud’s in Final Fantasy VII. Not all of the meta-humor works though – a segment before the final boss fight where a kid running a stall introduces himself as the game’s version of the salesman you always encounter to stock up on supplies before the end falls flat because it blatantly spells out the joke.

Further adding to the sense that you’re actually in an interactive episode of South Park is the spot-on characterization. Trey, Matt, Mona Marshall, April Stewart, and the rest of the series’ regular voice actors bring their A-game in carrying over the cast’s personality traits and eccentricities from the show. Cartman is the ill-tempered, selfish, manipulative asshole he’s always been, having massive freak-outs when the game he and the others are playing isn’t going his way. Kyle stands out as the most level-headed and rational of the children, being the only one wise enough to put together a plan that will stop the evil that eventually comes to their town, yet still young and inexperienced enough to get distracted or lose his train of thought even in times of crisis. Butters retains his good-natured naiveté while occasionally letting his darker thoughts come to the surface. Kenny, for some odd reason, remains in character as Princess Kenny throughout the entire game, behaving in a feminine manner and even managing to deceive some enemies into thinking he’s a princess. Another strange portrayal I noticed was with Randy Marsh; he actually shows a greater level of competence than he has in the show, being one of the few adults to figure out that a dangerous government operation is happening, though he does leap to a few dumb conclusions before ultimately discovering the truth.

Practically every popular secondary character like Mr. Garrison, the Goth kids and Officer Barbrady appears as an NPC with a few lines reflecting their own unique brands of insanity. I was a bit upset that several of the secondary characters I liked, mainly Token, Tweek and Wendy, didn’t have a greater role, but with such a massive cast it’s practically impossible to give everyone an equal amount of time in the spotlight. Each of your companions has scene-specific dialogue depending on what’s happening, which encourages switching between them just to hear what they’ll say. I did notice an inconsistency in how NPCs and partners react to the player character; some will make a deadpan remark when you break an item, hit someone or fart on them, while others don’t show any reaction. I’m not sure if this was a programming issue due to time constraints or just something that was overlooked. The new kid doesn’t really have a personality since he never speaks and never shows any significant reaction to what happens, a trait that’s frequently pointed out during dialogue scenes. While I’ve said in the past I’m getting tired of silent protagonists, I think it actually works in this game. Consider this; if you went to South Park and saw what occurs there on a daily basis, wouldn’t you be rendered silent by the madness?

The Stick of Truth is a fairly simple RPG that can be completed in about 6-11 hours depending on how much time you want to invest. Much of the game is spent exploring the world, finding enemies to battle, collecting new weapons and armor, and taking on side-quests. Side missions fall into the basic categories seen in RPGS: killing a certain amount of enemies, finding a set number of a specific item, and fetch quests. And while a few are unoriginal stock tasks like killing rats in a bar basement, most of them are given a fitting South Park twist to keep them from feeling stale. One retrieval quest has you pick up a vibrator to deliver to Mr. Slave. Jimbo provides you with a hunting guide to track down and kill various bizarre wildlife for experience including a penis mouse, mutant bacteria, a giant Canadian spider, and a cow. A kill quest offered by the mayor has you beating up homeless people to drive them out so the town won’t look unsympathetic to the downtrodden. Two overarching quests involve collecting all the Chinpokomon toys scattered around town as you can find and befriending as many people as you can on Facebook. Making friends is the most crucial since the more you add to your list, the more perks you unlock to boost your stats and do better in combat.

Much like Metroid and the 2D Castlevania games, some collectibles and friends can’t be reached until you acquire new powers later in the game such as stronger farts, the ability to shrink, and teleportation. Towards the second half of the game, though, the central mission begins to feel a bit lazy. The boys have to recruit three factions to help fight the evil that’s invaded South Park: the Pirates (kindergarteners), the Federation (Star Trek fans) and the girls, but your only job is to get the girls on your side. This leads to three sub-plots where, among other things, you have to dress in drag to infiltrate an abortion clinic and venture to Canada where you become involved in murderous government plots. While the segments are fun in themselves, having to keep returning to the girls only to get new orders became repetitive pretty quickly. If you had to personally get the other two groups to join your team and partake additional missions for them, it would have added more variety to maintain a better flow, plus it would have helped lengthen the game. The Xbox version does have a few bugs which, while not game-breaking, can still be annoying. The worst was when I tried to close out of the menu after swapping armor and weapons sets but the menu screen stayed up for three minutes even though I’d returned to the game, blocking my view of everything that was going on until it went away.

Combat is where the game shows its greatest deficiencies. It has a turn-based battle system that’s pretty unrefined, almost like those seen in the early RPGs of the 1980s. You can attack an enemy multiple times, but if they die before you finish delivering all of them, you just keep hitting their body instead of moving on to another target. Additionally, enemies can adopt defensive stances like shields that deflect specific types of attacks, but the player has no options to defend or pass on a turn. So if you’re fighting a foe that uses a move which will damage you if you attempt a melee attack, but that’s the only move available for you or your partner, then you have to do it anyway and take the hit. This might seem like a cheap tactic to make combat unfairly difficult, but it doesn’t really hinder you since the difficulty curve is practically non-existent. Even on the hardest setting, once you pass Level 5 there’s hardly any challenge. Your attacks deal massive amounts of damage, especially those that inflict status ailments like bleeding or burning which deplete health every turn. As you level up, your partners gain incredibly powerful moves that can damage every enemy on the screen: Kyle calls upon a squadron of archers to launch a volley of arrows, Kenny summons a unicorn that mows down anything it runs into, and Stan uses a swinging sword attack that can hit foes in the front and back rows. The special summons you come across like Jesus and Mr. Hankey instantly wipe out everyone when they’re called upon, but since the fights are so easy the only real reason to summon them is just to get through a fight quickly. It definitely seems like this aspect was given the least amount of attention during development.

There are some redeeming aspects to the combat. I enjoyed how you were allowed to use an item or special move and a standard attack during the same turn rather than being restricted to just one. The battle system also uses timed attacks where extra damage can be dealt if you complete a quick-time even or hit a button when prompted, similar to the Super Mario RPGs and the Shadow Hearts series. I’ve always enjoyed this mechanic since it requires greater player input than simply scrolling through a menu and pressing a button to select an attack. You need to focus, to have quick reflexes so you don’t miss the opportunity to deliver the perfect strike. Even if you fail the QTEs for some of the more powerful moves you still inflict some damage to enemies as well as getting a humorous scene to show the disastrous results, like Kyle’s elves running from the rain of arrows or Kenny getting killed by his own attacks (the goriest and funniest is when he’s gored on a unicorn’s horn). Of the four different classes you can pick from, being a Jew allows you to use attacks where you can circumcise your enemy and utilize the powerful martial arts techniques of “Jew Jitsu” And, while this sounds immature, I thought the Gross-Out status ailment which drains health every turn and prevents the use of healing items was well thought out, especially in the ways it can be inflicted (vomiting, farting, or throwing feces). If you survey the environments carefully you can find a way to incapacitate enemies without the need to enter a fight. Using your farts to ignite fires, dropping live wires into puddles, and launching a ranged weapon at a weak structural point to make it collapse onto someone’s head are all viable options if they’re present. Finally, while all six of your partners have a special technique they can use in battle, three of them can be used in the overworld to get past obstacles or gain new items: Butters can heal the injured, Stan calls on his dog Sparky to urinate on electrical outlets to short them out, and Kenny charms kids by flashing them (and yes, they really believe that they’re seeing a girl’s breasts), which can be used to lure them into the line of fire.

The animation perfectly recreates the show’s paper cutout aesthetic, right down to the nonexistent leg movements which make it look like every character moves by hopping around. Fire and electric spark effects are done with advanced computer animation, most likely to make them easier to identify for use in an environmental kill, but they’re jarringly out of place. There are a few shifts in art style when the need arises, mainly the introductory scene resembling the animation from Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, a moe-inspired anime for Princess Kenny, and Canada’s design resembling the world map of a 16-bit RPG. The background music which plays throughout most of the game is a well done instrumental piece reminiscent of the theme to Game of Thrones, with occasional chanting by Cartman. While inside buildings you hear many of the songs that have been featured in the series, such as Tacos y Burritos and Let’s Fighting Love, as well as a chiptune version of Blame Canada to fit in with the country’s retro design. While they’re fun to hear at first for a nostalgia trip, they get old the more you hear them. It’s a shame that Trey and Matt didn’t write original songs for the game.

The Stick of Truth is not a deep, epic RPG with challenging combat or complex plots. But it is one of the funniest games you will ever play. If you aren’t a fan of the show then you probably wouldn’t get much enjoyment out of it. Those who have followed the series or appreciate subversive humor should have a good time and find the comedy enough to make up for the short amount of time it takes to beat and deficiencies in gameplay, though I would recommend waiting until the price drops to $40. Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the entire development team did a great job creating a licensed game that’s faithful to the source material and entertaining to play. If they ever return to the realm of interactive media, I have a feeling they’ll learn from their mistakes and make something even better.

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