Licensed video game adaptations are rarely the stuff of legend. Films are easily the worst offenders, as you could probably list the number of decent attempts on one hand – although television properties have played host to a selection of stinkers as well. As such, we were cautious when we first caught wind [Not that kind – Ed] of South Park: The Stick of Truth. However, with production overseen by the creators of the classic cartoon, was our hesitation misplaced?
Kicking things off with an intense video, Wizard King Cartman narrates affairs, speaking of a great war between humans and elves over the fabled Stick of Truth – a mythical object which grants the wielder complete control over the universe. In passing, he mentions the foretold arrival of a new kid that could bring an end to the conflict, and that’s where you come in.
The character creation screen allows you to easily create your dream South Park citizen. Beginning with skin colour – one of which is ‘New Jersey Spray Tan’ – and spanning a slew of hair, clothing, makeup, and eyewear options, you’re able to really customise your protagonist to your own curious tastes. From there, you’re free to explore your brand new bedroom, with virtually anything ripe for the plundering – ranging from pocket change to, er, marital aids.
With your parents encouraging you to step outside into the snowy suburbia, you’re given your first glimpse of the care and attention that’s gone into crafting the game’s faithfully realised world. Every location from the show is present and accounted for, including the school, town hall, businesses, and, of course, each of the major characters’ houses.
Even more impressively, you’re free to enter the majority of these properties right off the bat, and it wasn’t long before we’d pillaged half of the town of its loot-able items – and farted at everyone that we came across. Yes, we can confirm that there is a fart button.
Adopting the same side-on camera view as the show, the world and its subsequent locations are essentially comprised of multiple rooms, with each made up of numerous planes, allowing you to freely move back and forth, as well as left and right to different portions of the map. Unfortunately, while this accurate interpretation of the programme mostly works in the game’s favour, it can make the title a little clunky to navigate at times, leaving us completely stumped as to how to proceed on a couple of occasions.
While the moment-to-moment action closely resembles an episode of the cartoon, though, the menus are much more akin to a social network. On the left panel is an up-to-date picture of your character in their current outfit, and below are various stats, from health, magic, and more, to wealth, relationship status, and level. The main attraction, however, is your friends list, which you can build by talking to people while you’re out and about and completing quests. As you add more associates to your network, you’ll unlock perks which will aid you in battle.
These pals will then post statuses about anything from quest hints and fraudulent iPad competitions to Al Gore’s tireless search for the fabled ManBearPig. The best part is that, more often than not, other characters will reply to these updates, and seeing them interact is usually incredibly entertaining. It’s a shame that you’re unable to respond to any of the posts, but given that your character is kept a blank slate by design, it’s probably to ensure that you remain a silent observer.
As part of the introductory sequence, you’ll be taken to the base of operations for the KKK – a human army led by Cartman. It’s in this area that you’ll meet with the Wizard King and Princess Kenny (the fairest maiden in the kingdom), and choose your class. Out of the available Fighter, Mage, Thief, and, er, Jew options, we went for the Thief due to our ruthless, backstabbing nature. Each type has different skills and abilities, and is gifted with various pieces of unique attire throughout the campaign.
Shortly after selecting your preferred class, you’ll also be whipped away to a combat tutorial, which clues you in on the tried and tested turn-based formula. Your options are assigned to a wheel, and include Magic, Abilities, Attack, Ranged Attack, and Items. Unsurprisingly, your magic is flatulence-based, with new moves introduced at key points throughout the game, although we were disappointed to discover that even when we hit the level cap, our Thief never had enough mana to cast even our weakest spell.
Interestingly, Magic and Ranged Attacks provide the most use outside of battle. For example, certain objects can be interacted with in order to open up new areas, where you’ll find hidden items such as the 30 or so Chinpokemon scattered throughout the world. All foes are visible outside of battle, too, and should you hit them, you’ll begin the fight and be given the opportunity to attack first. Act slack, however, and the tables will be turned.
Your Abilities are class specific and are unlocked and upgraded as you progress through the ranks. Costing PP, our favoured ability was ‘backstab’, a move which allowed us to bypass our enemy’s defences and stab them in the back. Meanwhile, the Attack option does much what you’d expect it to, allowing you to strike your opponent with your currently selected weapon. You can either land a couple of hits in quick succession, or one more powerful blow. The same principle applies to Ranged Attacks, except you can reach opponents stood at the back of a group. Finally, item usage counts as a sub-turn, allowing you to perform an attack after you’ve glugged a potion.
Despite the turn-based format, the game prompts you to push buttons based on what’s happening on screen. Every time that you see a glint of light on your weapon and hear a clinking sound, you must tap X for a standard attack or square for a heavy, or risk messing up and doing minimal damage. However, foes won’t stand idly by, and you’ll need to respond at the correct moment in order to repel attacks. While it’s not possible to fully block the blow, you can substantially reduce the damage taken, and, if you’re good at button mashing, even perform a counter attack when prompted.
Adding an extra layer of tactical awareness to affairs, enemies carrying a shield, sporting armour, or adopting certain stances will need to be dealt with in specific ways, leading to a varied and rewarding combat experience. Certain attacks and weapons augment the opportunity to wreak negative status effects, varying from bleeding to elemental damage, which will occur at the end of every turn.
These debuffs can be introduced or heightened courtesy of weapon strap-ons and equipment patches, which can be applied to your current loadout. They range greatly in effectiveness, but increase in power based on the level requirement for use. Our level-capped weapon add-on saw us deal 100 points of fire damage in addition to burning the enemy with each standard strike. Meanwhile, our favoured equipment patches included armour buffs, health increases, and the ability to regenerate PP on every turn. The variety is truly huge, so mixing and matching your current loadout is essential if you want to maximise your effectiveness in battle.
There are a handful of characters that can join you in a fight, referred to as ‘buddies’. You control all of their actions and they possess very much the same attacks as you, excluding their abilities which are unique to each of them. For example, Jimmy’s primary ability sees him clamber to the top of a mountain and blow down a huge instrument, playing the infamous “brown note”. Correctly mashing the X button when prompted causes your foes to defecate in their pants, not only causing damage, but resulting in a recurring effect every turn.
Only one associate can be utilised in combat at any given time, but you can swap different companions in and out as many times as you like, at the cost of their move. If the help of your pals just isn’t cutting it, though, there are also a handful of summon abilities. The likes of Mr. Slave, Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo, and Jesus will help you out in battle if you complete a quest for them, and their attack is usually a one hit kill on foes – excluding bosses.
The narrative itself is excellent, as the madcap plot meanders between locations including a man’s lower intestine, the distinctly retro nation of Canada, and more. The writing’s brilliant throughout, too, with biting social commentary and plenty of parody, making it easier to dismiss some of the more tiresome industry tropes as the title frequently references just how daft some of the things that you’re expected to do really are.
However, it’s not flawless. The frame rate is a constant source of irritation, particularly in busier areas and when you’re selling items in quick succession. At several points during our playthrough, it got so bad that we had to stop moving altogether in order to give the game a chance to catch up, which is not the kind of thing that you’d expect from a title being developed so late in the PlayStation 3’s life cycle.
You may also be aware of the furore surrounding the game’s censorship in EMEA territories, and while this isn’t the fault of anyone involved with the production of the title, the way that the problem’s been handled makes it feel like you’re missing out on something.
Other issues are more or less niggles, but they persist nonetheless. For starters, there’s no local map – only that of the game world – so it’s sometimes easy to get lost or disorientated, and this isn’t helped by the occasionally unhelpful camera angle from which the game is presented. Meanwhile, some characters only have a couple of lines of dialogue that are repeated and quickly become tiresome, and the controls can get fiddly, with some inputs mapped to both analogue sticks and the directional buttons, often causing you to press the wrong thing.
Above all else, though, it feels a little too short. Don’t get us wrong, you’ve still got a good 13 or so hours of solid gameplay here, but the title is so well realised and meticulously put together that we could have quite happily spent another ten roaming the streets, doing people’s odd jobs, and living out the rest of our days in the mountainside town.
Proud to be one to buck the trend, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a truly brilliant television tie-in. Every scene is stuffed with references and Easter eggs, and the dialogue is so authentically written and acted that you really feel like you’re playing through an episode of the show. Performance issues and minor irritations do hold the experience back a touch, but this is still a must-play for fans of the franchise, and it sets a benchmark for future licensed titles to measure up to.