Going down to ‘South Park’ for an epic quest

by Max Saucedo

It began, with a quest: a brave undertaking by the young boys of South Park to find and take back the Stick of Truth. It would end with-oops I can’t spoil the plot. I will say that Obsidian Entertainment, together with South Park Digital Studios, have succeeded in crafting the best “South Park” game to date. It also helps to have one of the best publishers, Ubisoft, known for the high-quality AAA releases like the “Splinter Cell” and “Assassin’s Creed” series. For those of you who are ancient crones like myself, I remember seeing the initial trailer for “South Park: TSOT” all the way back in June 2012, when the first trailer premiered at E3. This was before THQ, the game’s original publisher, went under. Thankfully, Ubisoft picked it up and the game was saved.

The trailer was just a taste of what the game would look like. After my hands-on review of the game, it’s clear to me the trailer wasn’t lying. The design style of “The Stick of Truth” is a faithfully re-created version of the classic paper cutout style that the TV series has become synonymous with. Without it, it’s difficult to imagine a “South Park” game that truly embodies why the show is such a cultural phenomenon. During the cut scenes, it’s very easy to forget you’re playing a game and not simply watching another episode. The fantasy-medieval style really lends itself well to the series’ nonsensical nature.

What struck me the most was how far-reaching the lore of the series has become in terms of content. Having 17 seasons worth of episodes allows the creators to have great shout-out moments to “South Park’s” eccentric and often offensive past.  To be clear, one does not have to be a die-hard fan in order to enjoy the video game. But the subtle Easter eggs (Tom Cruise is still in Stan’s closet, and the new Terrence and Philip film “Asses of Fire 2” is playing at the cinema) all lend themselves to the expanded universe.

The sheer breadth of “Stick of Truth” allows many secondary characters to shine through. Al Gore (still obsessed with ManBearPig, super cereal!), anal probes and even Scuzzlebutt (stuffed inside Jimbo’s Guns) can all be found. The game also pokes fun at new tropes in gaming today, but to say Nazi zombies are a new thing is an argument as dead and decaying as…well a Nazi zombie. Where the game is able to make its own mark is in the gameplay. Today in the West especially, RPG’s remain a divisive genre. In the day and age of “Call of Duty: Ghosts” or the “God of War” series, where instant gratification is king, many game developers find themselves shying away from the RPG style, seeing it as antiquated or even absurd.

Here’s my opinion: RPG style suits “The Stick of Truth” perfectly. As a player who has never set foot in the RPG world, save for a few encounters with some old “Final Fantasy” games. I initially held some trepidation as to how well I would be able to follow the mechanics. My fears proved correct early on, as I found myself confused and lost by the sheer vastness of the gameplay depth. After having a panic attack, which involved several worried calls to my editor, I found a resident who was kind enough to walk me through the opening levels. In what seems to be a genre tradition, RPGs seem to enjoy torturing the player for the first few levels.

The learning curve is steep at first, and seems daunting. As I struggled early on, I couldn’t help but hear Eric Cartman’s voice insult me mercilessly (“God, it’s like Butters all over again.”). The putdown and learning curve all contribute to the tone and style of the game, however. Having Cartman in your ear for the first half of the game drives you to become better than him so that eventually he’ll shut his mouth.

Unlike many RPGs, “Stick of Truth” is able to find that sweet spot of being an entertaining game while making you an active participant in what could be perceived as a simplistic turn-based game design. By staying true to the tone of the show, the grind-heavy segments become less of a deal breaker as it might in a regular turn-based RPG. Combat remains challenging yet exciting, as the game’s often offensive nature and cartoony animation really shine during these segments.

“South Park: The Stick of Truth” is an excellent springboard for future “South Park” games. This first salvo of animated, medieval, farting, bloody violence and fun makes me even more excited for upcoming console adventures.

Also read: Indie video games provide great adventures for little money

Photo courtesy of Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/MCT