The Dark History of Licensed Games
Licensed games have a dark past. It all started with ET on the Atari 2600, which is often cited as a major cause of the video game crash of 1983. Since that time, only a handful of licensed games have done anything to change popular perception.
For every Spider-Man and Batman title that does their comic book counterparts justice, there are games like Iron Man that take two steps back. Developers like Telltale involve original writers and artists in an effort to make their games as close to the source material as possible. Then there are games like Goldeneye on the N64 and Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay that are better than the property they’re based on.
But, in the world of terrible licensed games, titles based on television shows seem to hit new lows. While The Sopranos, LOST, and even South Park are critical and commercial successes, their interactive debuts are often less than stellar.
South Park’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker seem to be well aware of the mixed history of South Park games. Perhaps that’s why they partnered with industry titan Obsidian Entertainment to cram the past 17 years of South Park history into a single game. Does it work? For the most part, yes.
Stick of Truth’s celebration of immaturity, combined with classic RPG elements, makes for a silly story and engaging game.
Aesthetically, Stick Of Truth is the closest any game has come to perfect visual adaptation of an established property. This is largely thanks to the show’s crude, handmade look, but it’s still an accomplishment. Stiff walking, plain-faced children, and the show’s famously flat perspective are perfectly represented in Stick of Truth.
While the camera in Stick of Truth is wider than a traditional episode, this is to the player’s benefit. Colors pop off the screen, allowing interactive items and pathways to be easily recognized. Even South Park super fans will have trouble telling the difference between screenshots of SoT and an upcoming season.
During battles, characters react to their conditions in amusing animations. Stunned children nod sleepily and injured dogs lower their heads, dreading the next attack. My personal favorite is the way enemies panic as they stare up helplessly at their flaming head. Even without any of the stats or health bars, you’d still be able to understand the momentum of the battle.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the way the game accounts for your character’s personalized look. All of your attire, weapons, and even your face can be customized. You’ll see those choices immediately, not only in gameplay but also a multitude of cutscenes. It cannot be overstated; Stick of Truth looks identical to the television show and really, what more could a fan ask for?
The music of the game is mostly borrowed from the television show, but considering the quality, that’s not a bad thing. A soft piano creates an inviting mood for exploration, while booming drums and anxiety-inducing strings prepare you for battle. Classic songs like “Sexual Harassment Panda” and “I’ve Got Something In My Front Pocket For You” can be heard as muzak in a number of stores. One of the few original tracks is a parody of Skyrim’s moody chants, this time accompanied by Cartman’s whiny voice. The tracks used here are always appropriate within the context of the situation and never feel repetitive.
Cementing the game’s presentation is the voice work of the entire South Park cast. Cartman sounds just as sociopathic as always, while Kenny’s muffles still represent his mood perfectly. There’s something magical about classic characters explaining game mechanics before dropping a wildly offensive line. Matt and Trey have learned a lot about comedic delivery over the years, and it’s obvious they treated every Stick of Truth mission just as seriously as an episode of their show.
You play as the “New Kid” (though most refer to him as “Douchebag) and you’ll be asked to create your character at the game’s outset, changing everything from hair style and color to facial features and outfits.
The story begins with Douchebag moving to South Park, where he immediately begins participating in a local Live Action Role Playing game.
The “Humans,” lead by Cartman, are at war with Kyle and his gang of Elves over the Stick Of Truth, which has the power to control all of space of time…but it doesn’t really.
Some of the game’s funniest moments are when the children attempt to translate real world events into their game. For example, at one point a boy declares a prophecy he has seen in the magic well, before admitting he also read all about it on Twitter. Before long, their exaggerated campaign not only results in widespread destruction, but eventually ropes in the military, extraterrestrials, and former Vice President Al Gore.
It’s relieving to play a game that doesn’t feel the need to invent their own version of brands and celebrities. UPS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Facebook, iPads, and Justin Bieber are all mentioned or seen within the first hour of play.
Of course, the game is as gross and offensive as we’ve come to expect from South Park. Those squeamish about abortion, fecal matter, semen, and pedophiles need not apply. You can also expect nudity, rape jokes, and blatant prejudice and racial stereotypes. You’ve been warned.
Dialogue is peppered with vulgarity and deeply troubling misuse of terminology. But, just as in the show, the joke directed at the ignorant who misunderstand the world around them. None of the characters stop to think objectively throughout the 14 hours of the campaign.
In classic South Park fashion, Cartman and Kyle’s “war” is treated with the same serious tone as far more important events. While I didn’t find myself laughing out loud more than a handful of times, many jokes brought a smile to my face.
Much of the fun comes from seeing which role each character will play in the “game.” From Jimmy’s Bard to Butter’s hammer-hurling warrior, you’ll be surprised how some characters move outside their personalities to humorous effect. Your favorite character might not have more than five minutes of screen time, but what’s there is memorable.
The main story, side missions, and smaller moments are all written with a consistent level of quality. Most importantly, Stick Of Truth succeeds in doing what so many other games cant; saving the best material for last.
While the game slumps a little halfway through, it’s a real achievement to string together so many unpredictable environments and story developments.
I was initially concerned the story would cater to longtime South Park fans at the expense of newcomers, but the narrative does a great job of referencing the show’s history while remaining accessible for the newcomers
Thankfully, for all it’s narrative irreverence, SoT comes ready to play as a real-deal RPG. From the get go you’ll have the option to pick from four classes; the fast Thief, the strong Fighter, the magic-heavy Mage, or Jew. Regardless of which class you pick, you’ll still experience the exact same great, foul-mouthed story.
The combat system is turned-based like many classic RPGs, but also includes an essential timing mechanic, which makes combat active rather than passive. While delivering or blocking an attack, you’ll need to react quickly by pressing a certain button at the precise time. Perfectly timed button presses will significantly increase the power of your attack or reduce the damage you take from enemy attacks.
Quick attacks are used to break down enemy shields while the single strong attacks can help shatter enemy defenses. Special attacks cover a wide range of mechanics from rotating or flicking the left stick, to stopping a spinning prize wheel or playing a rhythm mini game.
Magic attacks are delivered with farts because of course they are. This is South Park. Using precise movement of both analog sticks, farts are the most challenging and costly to perform but offer the most damage. It does a wonderful job of balancing all of the metrics and strategy with kinetic, fast-paced input. Fans of classics like Chrono Trigger or Mario and Luigi games will find a lot to like in Stick Of Truth’s battle system.
Weapons and items offer unique benefits, such as elemental damage and bonus turns. You’ll also be able to modify any weapon or item with stickers, which you can loot from dead enemies and purchase from shop owners.
If there is a downside to all of the options available for battle it’s the organization interface. Healing items and single-use items are presented in one long list that takes far too long to navigate. Not only that, but switching from party selections to the map, which is done with the left and right triggers, feels so stiff that I often exited back to the game and used the hotkey (up on the D-pad) instead.
South Park puts its own spin on traditional status effects. Being “grossed out” takes the place of curse, bleeding replaces poison, while stun is just as it sounds. Even a Final-Fantasy-style summons system has been incorporated, though instead of Knights of the Round, you’ll call on Mr. Slave to, ahem, “sit” on your enemies. Everything but your mana (for farts) is automatically replenished after every encounter and heavy item use prevents the game from ever really being challenging. But honestly, that’s part of the charm. Stick Of Truth successfully traces the gameplay elements of current and past RPGs while adding South Park’s personality.
Leveling up gives players one point to spend on any ability to increase things like damage, speed, and effectiveness. Thankfully, you’ll never be locked out of story moments due to level or forced to grind to pass particularly difficult sections, as enemies match your level (think Skyrim). This decision means there’s always a consistent amount of pressure to pass certain game sections, and it forces smart use of game mechanics and items.
You’ll face a number of different enemies throughout the game, including other children, government agents, a variety of nazis, and a number of bosses.
Outside of combat, you’ll be able to explore, interact, and smash up the entire town of South Park. Everything in the town is accessible from the outset, including backyards, Stark’s Pond, and Tweek’s coffee, and other landmark features. Exploring each house and room offers insight to those unfamiliar with the show, but longtime fans will find plenty of inside jokes in each closet.
Destroying trash cans and parking meters releases items or money, speaking to random South Park citizens increases your Facebook friends list, allowing you to unlock more specialty perks, and using a toilet starts a button-mashing mini-game that results in a turd that can be used in battle. There are a myriad of things to do when not on quests.
Whatever projectile you’ve equipped for battle is also useful as you’re exploring the town. Hidden Chimpokomon can only be collected by a well-aimed arrow and switches to new areas can be triggered with a blast of your ray gun.
If you hit an enemy with an arrow before the battle begins, they’ll start the match stunned. In addition, your farts can also be used to ignite open flames, taking out enemies in the process.
Delving into specifics would ruin some of the surprise, but let’s just say you’ll have access a number of abilities that are frequently used to solve basic environmental puzzles.
Stick of Truth makes exploration a joy, and if you’re like me you’ll have to check every bathroom just to make sure it’s exactly the same as the last.
At times, Stick of Truth can be a slow, buggy package. Areas are appropriately small but often come with a few seconds of load time, sometimes in rapid succession. Jumping into battles takes a few seconds, and framerates dip and audio hangs when entering new areas or using the fast travel system.
A few times, I noticed an audio and video delay, as well as a few instances of audio cues being skipped altogether. At one point, roughly half of the text on the screen became squashed and unreadable.
After reseting the system, the problems disappeared and never returned. None of the technical problems are a deal breaker, but they interrupt and distract from an otherwise enjoyable experience. Hopefully these issues will be patched in the near future.
It’s hard to believe, but South Park Stick of Truth is not only one heck of an RPG, it’s also the best modern game based on a television show. By borrowing heavily from long-established franchises, Obsidian Entertainment have created a strong gameplay foundation that shines through regardless of the property attached. Thankfully though, that property is South Park.
Stick of Truth stands as one of the funniest games of this generation, and is a perfect example of what a talented group of designers can achieve when working closely with the creators of an established property.
While it might not be a game changer, what’s here is easy to recommend to anyone with $60 and a good sense of humor.