RPG Codex Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth
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RPG Codex Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 7 May 2014, 17:47:54Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; South Park: The Stick of Truth; Ubisoft
[Review by Zed and Crooked Bee; edited by Infinitron]
It's been around two months since the release of the Obsidian-developed and Ubisoft-published RPG South Park: The Stick of Truth. It reviewed well and, we assume, sold well, too. Now that the initial hype storm has passed, Zed and I sat down to discuss what the game did right and what it did wrong. Our impressions are mixed -- in a sort of positive way, but mixed. Read on to find out why.
Crooked Bee: So, another Ubisoft-published turn-based RPG, huh? First Might & Magic X, and now The Stick of Truth and Child of Light. This is starting to look like a tendency.
Zed: I’ve spent more far more time with Ubisoft’s games this year than with any Kickstarter-funded games. It’s bizarre. It’s like we were invited to the Nobel Prize dinner, expecting the dining experience of our lives, only to find out it’s crap. Instead we find this shitty-looking diner with a bad reputation down the street, which, it turns out, serves Michelin-star food. Then, as we sit in the shitty-looking diner eating our great food, we see Nobel prize winners leaving, going “I did twenty years of cancer research for this? The course was linear and the arrangements were amateurish!” And we’re like “Mm! This food is complex and really takes me back! It's just like momma used to make!”
So yeah – South Park. I love the show. I caught one of the earlier episodes of South Park on TV in the late 90s and I’ve followed the series pretty religiously since then, not missing a single episode, and watching many of them several times.
Crooked Bee: In contrast to you, I haven’t watched a single full episode of the TV show, only a few snippets here and there, so I’m just going to approach the game from the perspective of an RPG player who also happens to be a fan of some of Obsidian’s previous games. Before we begin with the game proper, though, I have to ask: how would you introduce South Park to someone like me? What attracted you to the show?
Zed: Definitely the crude (and somehow smart) humor. South Park has been a constant pop-culture and political sounding board, delivering catchphrases, celebrity humiliation and over-the-top satire on a regular basis for many years – all from the minds of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, a couple of very funny guys.
The namesake of the show is a small mountain town in Colorado, with “friendly faces everywhere” and “ample parking day or night.” Here lie the Hells Pass Hospital, City Wok, Tweek Bros. Coffeehouse, Park County Police Department, Stark’s Pond, and many other locations, including the regular show-opener, the Bus Stop. One location, perhaps the most important one in the TV show, is South Park Elementary. This is where the protagonists Stan Marsh, Kyle Broflovski, Kenny McCormick and Eric Cartman attend school, come in contact with the surrounding (often adult and political) world, and plan many of their antics and adventures. Many of the earlier episodes relied on shock value and crazy plotlines, while the later ones often focused on characters and satire, but over time South Park has evolved to the point where today an episode can be about pretty much anything.
Crooked Bee: Which brings us to the game at hand?
Zed: Yep. In somewhat recent episodes, one of the recurring activities has been live action fantasy roleplaying, portrayed as a mash-up of The Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones, and fantasy tropes in general. These LARPing segments serve as the basis for this CRPG developed by Obsidian. There are of course non-fantasy elements in the game as well – often the material for jokes, and what drives the actual plot forward. A clash of themes like this would be an intruding element in most other games, but for South Park, it’s a natural ingredient for creating a crazy over-the-top story.
Crooked Bee: I have to say that, despite not having watched the show, I certainly heard of its reputation, and so went into the game fully expecting it to be crazy and eclectic. I also kind of expected it to be if not bad, then half-assed, as licensed video game cash-ins tend to be. However, with its potpourri of cynicism, fart jokes, sex, and violence, its light-hearted reliance on all things outlandish, and its ever-present political and social satire, The Stick of Truth not only didn’t disappoint, but went on to exceed my expectations. It was low-brow, it was gross, sometimes very gross, but it was never bad. Any and all complaints I may have, have to do with the game’s structure and mechanics, not content. I guess it helped that the game was fully written by Matt and Trey themselves. I know The Stick of Truth reviewed very well, and in that regard it was well-deserved. It really does feel like an interactive episode of a TV show, which I believe was the creators’ main goal.
Zed: South Park is first and foremost a comedy show, and as I see it, this is first and foremost a comedy game. Humor is obviously a very personal and subjective matter, but I think it’s important that we at least try to touch on the subject here.
Crooked Bee: Sure, go ahead – I’m no expert on the South Park humor, so I’m curious to listen to your take on how well the game does it compared to the show.
Zed: To start with, most of the TV show references in the game are part of what I’d call “sidelined fan service,” rather than serving any purpose for the game’s actual plot. You can hear music from the show, the movie, and even from Trey and Matt’s Team America: World Police as you visit in-door locations or fight certain battles. The in-universe show Terrance and Philip and advertisements from it can be heard (but not seen) from TVs as you pass through people’s living rooms. Checking the boys’ wardrobes and exploring garages displays a non-interactive collage of items and curiosities from the show. Many of the game’s collectibles and gray-colored “vendor trash” items – which is a topic that merits a separate discussion and that I’m sure we will return to in this review – are also taken directly from the show. There’s a reference to what feels like almost every episode here. Examples include copies of the Faith+1 album (a personal favorite of mine), or NAMBLA calendars featuring Cartman. The game is littered with cameo characters, acting as quest-givers and enemy encounters. Even one-off characters play minor roles in the game.
Crooked Bee: So a lot of the humor is basically a rehash, a bunch of references to old episodes?
Zed: Yes, it’s a rehash, and a deliberate one. Actually, one of my biggest criticisms of the game is that many of these cameos and jokes are served out of context and therefore lose their edge. For example, what is the reason for Team America’s Montage song to be playing in the Bank? Not to mention that all of the in-game songs are taken directly from the official soundtracks, including their spoken lines and sound effects. It’s a little... disenchanting. I’d also like to add that, since Trey has written so much music for previous projects, including a Broadway musical, I was very surprised to only hear a handful of new songs in the game, none of them accredited to Trey. I did really like one of those new songs, though – namely the “epic” town exploration tune in which Cartman chants something about Jews.
Crooked Bee: Okay, fair enough. I understand how things like that may be dissatisfactory for someone who watched all the TV episodes, knows all the songs, and expects something more “fresh.” However, in the game’s defense, I want to say that I found a lot of the humor hilarious, and rarely dull. If you don’t mind the rehash – who knows, perhaps you’re one of those at whom this kind of fan service is targeted in the first place and every reference to a familiar episode brings a wide smile to your face – or if, like me, you haven’t watched many (or any) of the TV episodes, then there’s still a good chance you won’t be disappointed. This does, of course, come with the disclaimer that you should be able to enjoy this kind of humor and not be repulsed by it. As far as my own criticism goes, I thought some of the jokes are a bit overdue today. For instance, I believe we’ve long passed the heyday of joking about goths and emos – and for that matter, does anyone still care about Al Gore? Which doesn’t make the Al Gore cameo itself less funny, of course, just perhaps less poignant. Some of the fart jokes are overdone, too.
Zed: I don’t think fart jokes can be overdone.
Crooked Bee: Which is why you’re a South Park fan and not I! Anyway, I liked it that the game never pretends to be “deep” or takes itself too seriously – not even when it delivers social commentary. The crazier it gets, the more it shines; this goes not only for its plot, but also for loot, customization, combat animations, jokes – everything. In this, I’d like to see it as proudly bearing the torch of 1980’s CRPGs with their in-jokes, pop culture references, and occasional non-sequitur (here taken to the extreme). The Stick of Truth as a true, if highly ironic successor to Wizardry IV’s “Don’t leave home without them!” – which also fits the game’s “nerdy” theme. The sheer breadth of references is good, too; there is even a dig at System Shock 2’s audio logs, or an entire pixelated top-down Ultima-style map that I thought was pure genius.
Zed: So, we both enjoyed the jokes and themes of the game. Let’s start talking about the story. The Stick of Truth starts with you and your nameless family moving into South Park. Your mother and father take after your chosen appearance. If you’re white, they’re white; if you’re black, they’re black. Your race seems to have little impact on the game other than a few quips from the very openly racist Cartman, who acts as your mentor in the early stages of the game (the “tutorial”).
Crooked Bee: While, like many other things in The Stick of Truth, this has no real bearing on the gameplay or story, one thing I liked about your parents’ (as well as other NPCs’) attitude is the way they acknowledge you as the typical silent JRPG protagonist who seemingly never reacts to whatever’s being said to him. This even re-appears as a finishing touch at the very end of the game, though I don’t want to disclose in what way. I thought it was a nice detail, and very much in tune with the game’s overall tone. And by the way, you can choose your race, but you can’t choose your gender, which I imagine must have ruffled some BioWare and Bethesda fans’ feathers.
Zed: It did ruffle some feathers! I remember reading an editorial about it, probably at Kotaku or Polygon, where the female writer felt sad because she couldn’t bring herself into the game. But I don’t see it making much of a difference anyway, because – as you said – the main character is a mute, and he doesn’t have much of a gender-based personality. You can dress him up as a girl, too, if you want.
Anyway, back to the story. The game begins with you going outside to meet new friends, at the behest of you parents. You almost immediately bump into Butters, the Paladin. He takes you to Cartman, the Grand Wizard. Cartman is the leader of the Humans in South Park’s epic fantasy race war between men and elves. He dubs you “Douchebag,” and guides you on your quest to aid the humans by recovering the Stick of Truth – a magical artifact which grants its wielder the Ultimate Power To Do Anything. After some time, however, something super crazy and super wacky happens and from that point on it’s “let’s get high and write a story”-time. You also get a choice of siding with either Cartman or the rival group at one point – and this is actually the only relatively major plot choice you get to make.
Crooked Bee: When you say “plot choice,” that brings me to the first disappointment I have with the game – its total and absolute linearity. That bit where you can side with or against Cartman? It doesn’t change anything except for a couple of short scenes, and then you get back on the linear track again. No other choices or side quests influence the plot, the dialogue, the ending, or the enemies you face either. No plot branching, no factions to speak of, no choices and consequences; coupled with the fact that all classes play more or less the same, that also means no replayability. This is disappointing coming from Obsidian. Of course – and I want to say this before someone jumps at me – I do acknowledge that The Stick of Truth has entirely different priorities compared to Fallout: New Vegas or Alpha Protocol. However, I think the RPG model that The Stick of Truth’s structure is supposed to emulate is fundamentally flawed, and the way it emulates it is decidedly underwhelming, even for a “casual” game.
Zed: If you’re an achievement hunter, I imagine you’d need to play the game a couple of times. Or maybe not. I just know the game has a whole lot of achievements. So, what was that about the RPG model and structure?
Crooked Bee: To get this out of the way, The Stick of Truth is definitely structured like a JRPG. And unfortunately, like the most simplistic JRPG you can possibly think of. The model was the Paper Mario series, and that shows in the turn-based meets QTE combat, of course, but also in other areas, including side quests and exploration. Before I proceed to rant on, though – what do you think of exploration in The Stick of Truth?
Zed: For all its linearity in story and progression, I think they did a good job with exploration. I liked the fact that there are no invisible barriers around South Park. Instead, The Lost Forest surrounding the town acts as an endless maze, much like the Lost Woods of Zelda. I never really explored this area, other than entering one time and being eaten by wolves. Supposedly there's some great treasure in there, but that didn't really convince me to re-visit.
Timmy, the handicapped boy in a wheelchair (who often proclaims that Timmy is indeed his name), will offer you rides between connection points scattered through the town. Some of these connection points are very conveniently placed, but a lot of key locations still require some footwork on your part. I’m perfectly fine with that.
Crooked Bee: I agree, I liked the footwork, too. The exploration and plot progression are heavily gated, but there are small nooks and crannies you can only reach once you've acquired certain special abilities – a common thing in JRPGs, which adds to the exploration. The game mostly holds your hand like crazy, but sometimes it doesn’t. And whenever it doesn’t, it feels great; too bad these moments are so rare. Side quests in general, not to mention hidden ones, are too few and too repetitive and unsubstantial. I think it’s a shame that The Stick of Truth emulates not only Paper Mario’s combat, but also its side quests – which are among the most simplistic in the entire JRPG genre. The way side quests are tied into the main narrative is oversimplified, too. No matter whether you choose to collect all in-game Facebook friends or not, this will have zero impact on the story or gameplay, despite the superficial similarity to Suikoden’s 108 “Stars of Destiny”. There are no side quest chains with recurring characters or continuous storylines either. The best thing about good JRPG side quests is that they often consist of little episodes that build on each other, forming smaller “side stories” that run alongside the main quest and sometimes impose onto it. Trails in the Sky or Radiant Historia are good examples here. That also serves to compensate for the linearity of the JRPG’s main plot. Unfortunately, The Stick of Truth has neither those kinds of JRPG side narratives nor the choices and consequences characteristic of Western RPGs. As a result, caught somewhere in the middle, it inherits none of either genre’s strengths.
Zed: You might be right about the simplicity, but one thing I enjoyed about The Stick of Truth is the way it tries to do a lot of smaller things within its limited framework of gameplay. For instance, during the out-of-combat exploration phase, your character can use many combat abilities for the purpose of circumventing traps and solving puzzles. These puzzles and trials are often very simple. Breaking wind on a fire to blow up a barricade or shooting a hinge to loosen a ladder are two very common examples of this. There are also other interactions, like using your party members’ special abilities (such as Butters’ magical consolation), but in general these small puzzle elements quickly fall into a very simple pattern. Sometimes you can use the environment to overcome an obstacle such as a locked door – for example by crawling through a vent, Deus Ex-style. There are also mini-games and QTE events outside of combat. Most of these are just very simple one-off QTE events, with on-screen instructions for dummies.
Crooked Bee: Yes, the ability to use the environment to take out enemies at a distance is a good way of letting the player avoid combat. Thank you for bringing up this point – it might just be the kind of clever design decision that serves to offset my complaints a bit. Though really, I want to criticize The Stick of Truth not so much for what it is, but for what it could have been, and this is intentional on my part. I lament not only the fact that South Park Studios and Obsidian chose the Paper Mario model for the game – it’s not like other, better models would’ve been that complex even for a casual title – but also that they decided to follow it to a tee instead of being creative and improving on it as one would expect from a WRPG developer like Obsidian. In fact, it may be argued that The Stick of Truth’s secrets and side quests fall short even when compared to Paper Mario’s more varied ones. The game’s content is playful and subversive, so why isn’t its structure? For me, it creates a kind of dissonance.
This is especially disappointing since it’s Obsidian we’re talking about – the studio perfectly capable of putting a new spin on whatever subgenre they work with. Why shouldn’t this be the case for a “casual JRPG,” too? I want them to build on the best part of their legacy, not on something like Dungeon Siege III, however “solid” that game may have been. The Stick of Truth is very well-done and, well, “solid”, there’s no mistaking that, and perfectly enjoyable thanks to Matt and Trey’s content. However, design-wise, it’s painfully scared of going even a single step outside the Paper Mario comfort zone. And unfortunately, this kind of bad simplicity also carries over to the game’s character development and combat.
Zed: Yes – combat. Let’s talk about combat. So, you can choose between three difficulty levels: Casual, Normal, and Hardcore. I chose the latter, because I’m super hardcore like that. I've heard that these difficulty options don’t really make any difference and that all of them make for an easy playthrough. That’s probably true – to me, Hardcore didn’t really feel very Hardcore at all. So while I’m not really sure about the differences between the difficulty levels, I would recommend that you go for Hardcore, because the game is for the most part ridiculously easy. There are a few fights that could potentially be a bit challenging, but they can easily be bypassed with “summons.” What difficulty level did you play on?
Crooked Bee: I also went for the Hardcore mode, and my experience is essentially the same. The Stick of Truth could probably use some kind of True Hardcore modification like the one Josh Sawyer made for New Vegas, though I doubt anyone’s going to bother making one for this game, if that’s even possible. This is a bit of a pity; the fundamentals for a challenging, if simple, combat system – varied equipment, status effects, and special abilities – are there. On top of that, the combat is sort of turn-based. Here on the Codex, that means a lot!
Zed: True, the game’s combat is played out in a turn-based fashion, but don’t let that raise your hopes for any advanced tactical gameplay or moments of serious chin-stroking or hair-twirling. You can only have one follower active in combat at a time (switching followers during combat costs a turn), so most encounters play out as two-against-many. There are two ways to trigger the encounters. One way is to hit your opponents first with your melee weapon (outside combat), granting you the first turn. Another way is by getting hit yourself, which relegates you to the second turn. In larger encounters, this initiation of combat is usually what decides whether the fight will be a little tricky or not, which means there’s an ample amount of save-scumming potential for save-scumming enthusiasts. When combat ends, all two of your characters are restored and fully replenished.
Crooked Bee: I think it’s that latter part that contributes a lot to making the game so easy. If your health didn’t fully replenish after each fight, there could be the additional factor of resource management, but as things stand you don’t need to think about it one bit. To make matters worse (or better for the casual player), consumables are extremely plentiful and you even get a dedicated turn to use them in combat, which removes the last illusion of challenge. Amusingly, I guess you could say that the only challenge in The Stick of Truth’s turn-based combat comes from the QTEs…
Zed: Indeed. When it comes to combat mechanics, I would describe The Stick of Truth as a turn-based Choose Your Own Quick Time Event Game (CYOQTEG – for short). Almost every skill has a QTE attached to it. It’s often there just to increase the damage and potency of the skill, but in certain cases also to get it to fire in the first place. Your character’s attacks can be melee or ranged, using items equipped in weapon slots or special abilities unique to your class. Enemies are positioned in rows, front or back, and are unreachable with melee if they stand in the back. There is also magic in the game, which consists of a variety of farting techniques.
Crooked Bee: Is it at this point that I complain about the farting tutorials? Some of those were tricky for me to get right (I’m generally bad at QTEs), but funnily enough it’s only the tutorials that were challenging – afterwards, all farting spells were really easy to use. I should also mention that different types of farts are occasionally used for environment interaction, but unfortunately these instances are few and far in-between, and feel very artificial. You can’t really improvise – you can only fart where and how the designers wanted you to fart. It’s such a waste.
Back on topic, I actually thought some of the more involved QTEs were interesting and varied enough. They’re also a tad harder to execute right.
Zed: Yeah – if you beat the tutorial, you won’t have any problems throughout the rest of the game. The more advanced QTEs involve chaining mouse-clicks and timing them to your character’s attack animation, whereas normal attacks only require a single well-timed click. The same goes for blocking, which involves timing right-clicks when your character is about to take damage. In the tutorial, when doing it for the first time, this is by far the most challenging bit in the game. If you succeed in blocking, you still won’t completely nullify the attack, so healing abilities and items remain useful. Like you said, healing items exist in abundance and can be used once per turn, once per character. This also includes the game’s revival potion (a taco). It really makes the combat trivial.
Then there are the various damage types and status effects. Enemies can burn or bleed, suffering damage over time. These effects can stack, causing more damage on each turn, and can also affect other abilities through upgrades and perks. There’s also a sort of poison/nature damage type called “grossing someone out.” You can inflict it by using specific skills or by throwing excrement at your opponent…
Crooked Bee: … excrement which, I should add, you also get in a QTE.
Zed: Additionally, weapons can also have special effects, like armor penetration or health drain. These effects may exist on the weapons inherently, or be added by modifying them. The same goes for armor, although it usually has bonuses that are more defensive in nature.
Crooked Bee: Stacking status effects is fun, and so is customizing your weapons with all kinds of upgrades. Both are also overpowered. Customize your weapon so it inflicts a Bleed effect or several, combine that with some kind of special ability that does the same, and the enemy will start taking huge amounts of damage each turn. The animations for the status effects are cute – actually, animations are on the whole one of the best parts of the game! I could easily recommend playing The Stick of Truth for its writing and presentation alone. You also get some powerful (and pretty crazy) summons which unlock as you advance the story, and those are funny and well-animated, too.
Zed: Summons are useful whenever you find yourself having problems with an encounter. However, these abilities can only be used in regular encounters and only once per day (the game spans four days if I remember correctly). Think of them as Final Fantasy summons, except they pretty much win you the encounter regardless of what happens. There isn’t even a QTE involved! I used summons about three times throughout my playthrough, but only because I wanted to see them and not because I needed to. Who wouldn’t want to see Mr. Slave swallow a kid with his ass? “Oh, Jesus Christ.”
Crooked Bee: I liked the enemy variety, too, from elves and aliens to penis rats and Nazi zombies, and the fact that a lot of enemies have unique special attacks. The only location where I believe the enemies become too repetitive is the sewer “dungeon,” which has you fight the same rats and hobos over and over again. That gets boring fast, as does pulling the same switches and shooting the same cranks without any challenge involved whatsoever. That is one particularly poorly designed location, though – I wish they would’ve been more creative with dungeon design there; the rest of the game is on average much better.
Zed: It’s also worth mentioning that, as you leave and then return to South Park’s “town area,” you will notice that enemies spawn randomly in certain locations. Most if not all of these “town area” encounters are avoidable by simply running away before combat can be initiated, so it’s not a hassle. It does leave room for experience grinding if you’re into that, but you will reach maximum level by just plowing through the story anyway.
Crooked Bee: Ah yes, the level cap, my old enemy, we meet again. Having a level cap in a game like this means you have no incentive for fighting anymore once you’ve hit it. I’d understand it if the game actually had a proper RPG system that would have you make hard choices and sacrifices, but in an extremely casual game like this, leveling up is basically all about unlocking new entertaining abilities. It goes against the entire point of the game to limit that with a level cap and prevent you from getting new toys to play around with. Had it been Josh Sawyer’s game, the level cap would’ve been introduced for the sake of balance and, as usual, in order to abolish fun. On a more serious note, as esteemed community member Bubbles suggested to me on the forums, it must’ve been done so that future DLC could raise the level cap. This kind of practice sucks. Another thing that sucks is level scaling. Yes, The Stick of Truth scales to your level. This doesn’t matter much in a casual linear game like this, though, and guarantees that you can skip as much combat or other content as you want without penalty. Finally, as befits an Obsidian game, the combat is fundamentally broken. With the right combination of upgrades and abilities, you can gain what almost amounts to full immunity. And you know the combat is too easy when you have to artificially prolong it just to witness the boss’ hilarious special attacks.
Zed: I may not be as passionate about the level cap as you are, but I would also prefer not hitting the experience ceiling before even entering the endgame. Also, had this been Josh Sawyer's game, there would be, like, ten layers of damage-specific armor on top of the health bar. That might solve your troubles with seeing the boss animations, too. Sawyer really has all the answers.
Crooked Bee: He sure does, as everybody on the Codex knows!
Overall, even though I had some negative things to say about it, I did enjoy how combat feels. Trying out various weapons, abilities and consumables turned out to be more fun than I expected. Sometimes I even initiated “filler” battles instead of skipping them simply because I wanted to kick some more ass and have the pleasure of stunning the enemies with Jew-Jitsu or circum-scything them. I also found it interesting that enemies aren’t immediately removed from the battlefield once they’ve been KO’d, and you need to hit them again to make them (literally) go away. Again, though, I feel they could’ve done more with this feature. This oscillation between “interesting” and “could’ve been better” is what permeates the entire game for me. Take item progression, for example – why is it so restrictive? Why do Goth Gloves, for example, only become available for sale after you’ve started the quest to befriend the goths? This doesn’t make any sense, nor is it necessary. A lot of the items themselves are, however, good.
Zed: I agree – item collection is a significant part of The Stick of Truth’s gameplay. Not only gear and achievements, but also actual fictional collectibles like the chinpokomon (which really do not serve any purpose at all besides being funny - “We love Chinpokomon too! It's super toy number one!”). Most of these collectables are tucked away behind simple puzzles and are very easy to get. For example, obtaining the chinpokomon usually involves simply shooting them down from a hard-to-reach spot. I'm sure there are lots of Steam achievements for this stuff, if you’re into that.
Crooked Bee: So yeah, in any case, I think customization and loot, including collectables, are one of the game’s highlights alongside the writing and animations. Thanks to games like Skyrim, a lot of people these days seem to believe that an essential aspect of an RPG is customizing your character’s looks and the things your character wears – and the more detailed this customization, the better an RPG it is. The Stick of Truth absolutely delivers on these expectations, and blows you away with the sheer amount of stuff you can carry around in your pockets or equip. No matter if useful or useless, finding loot is just plain fun; on top of that, none of the equipment is class-restricted so you can mix and match them to create all sorts of over-the-top looks. The game lets you play dress-up, experiment with equipment effects, or simply laugh at the humorous item descriptions to your heart’s content. A lot of these descriptions are, I assume, references to TV episodes, but as a rule they are amusing enough even for someone like me who didn’t watch the show. Loot-wise, this may just be one of the best RPGs I’ve played.
Zed: You think so?
Crooked Bee: I do. Diablo, step aside! Too bad that, like you said, collectables have barely any gameplay relevance, and equipment doesn’t matter much either due to how unbalanced it is (so that some weapons and status effects are clearly preferable) and how easily you can win in combat. I also wish the dress-up were more important; if I remember correctly, it only becomes relevant in one or two quests, which is a pity.
Zed: I’m actually a little sad Obsidian didn’t do more with the social media angle. One of the things to collect are “friends,” and the friends mechanic is integrated into the game’s menus, working like a fictional social networking website where any character you befriend has the ability to write into your message feed – very much like Facebook or Twitter. You can befriend most characters just by talking to them, while others will only add you to friends if you complete a quest for them.
Crooked Bee: It certainly feels like a Ubisoft game through and through – lots of collectibles, lots of “social features.” I wonder what it was like in this regard when it was still in THQ’s hands. This aspect also harkens back to JRPGs, of course. Collectables have been a JRPG staple for a while already, and you can find similar social mechanics in games like Xenoblade Chronicles, where you also add the NPC to your “friends” when you talk to him or her for the first time, and earn achievements for reaching a certain number of friends. It’s telling that the “affinity system” was way more complex in Xenoblade, though…
Zed: The main thing that left me disappointed is the way you get a lot of messages from your friends early on, but as the game progresses, it feels like this feature is abandoned. As your friend count increases, the number of messages you get goes in the opposite direction. The only gameplay-relevant thing it does is grant you perks at certain break-points, but that’s it. By the way, I haven’t played Xenoblade, but I bet you can’t befriend anthropomorphized poop in it!
Crooked Bee: That’s true, Xenoblade’s got nothing on South Park’s anthropomorphic poop! And I certainly agree on the wasted potential of the social mechanics. Well, sure, increasing your friend count does give you perks, which is better than nothing. Too bad the perks themselves are so uninspired. There are maybe two or three more interesting ones, like the perk that reduces the duration of debuffs (yes, this is one of the more interesting ones, which already says a lot), but the rest are just “higher melee damage”, “more PP”, “revive character with full HP”, etc. It’s like they took the most standard bonuses possible and gave them humorous names. This is just lazy. Unlike perks, special abilities can be more varied, as can the humor behind them. I played the Jew class, so all my perks, special abilities, and equipment revolved around dealing higher damage the less HP I had left. In other words, the more beaten up and “persecuted” I was, the stronger I became – a playful reference to the troubled history of the Jewish people and their survival against all odds. The same goes for your companions’ abilities. Those are entertaining, and you can get your buddies to utilize them during exploration to help you overcome an environmental obstacle or two. Unfortunately – another missed opportunity! – all of these interactions are scripted and can only be used at certain rare spots put there by the designers; you can’t use them creatively.
Of course, the question is: if the exploration, interaction, combat, and character development are so simplistic, why make this an RPG at all instead of, say, an adventure game? The most obvious answer is that, being a game that satirizes a bunch of nerdy things like LARPing, it must be a nerdy thing itself. And maybe it’s just me, but I also believe the game wouldn’t have been half as fun if it were just an adventure game. Kicking ass and looting stuff feel extremely... addictive for some reason. A point and click adventure’s world is essentially static, and so is its protagonist; in an RPG, on the other hand, you grow your protagonist like you would a Pokemon, and that makes you feel more involved somehow and things less static. Developing your character also opens up new options, which again feels more involving than doing the same by simply clicking on or combining stuff. In general, the game feels very organic and natural; it does a good job at “simulating” the world of South Park as you explore it. It doesn’t feel artificial in the least.
Zed: I think it has a lot to do with the art direction and how the game looks. No wonder there aren’t exactly a lot of game options to fiddle around with before you hop into The Stick of Truth. There are barely any graphics or video options with the exception of video resolution and fullscreen mode.
Crooked Bee: The art direction is very good. That’s all I’ve got to say about it. It really makes the game memorable.
Zed: It took me 12 hours to beat the Stick of Truth on hardcore difficulty. I completed almost every quest I came across and my character reached the maximum level of 15. After beating the game as a Fighter, I tried replaying as a Mage for half an hour, before realizing the game stayed essentially the same – same QTE-centric gameplay, same jokes. As you mentioned earlier, throughout the story there’s only one real instance of a choice, with only a short-lived consequence. But while it doesn’t have a lot of reactivity nor much replay value, The Stick of Truth is a funny game. Not as funny as the TV show, but it feels like a genuine South Park experience. I would have liked to see more satire and witty humor, and the game doesn’t really introduce any new characters either. The absurdity and in-jokes seem a bit overdone compared to most other South Park creations.
Crooked Bee: Well, like I said, I personally enjoyed the overdone absurdity. The mechanics though, not so much. Quests, combat, exploration, it’s all very easy to get into – mostly thanks to the writing – but ultimately also very repetitive. That's why it’s a good thing the game is only 12 hours long; but also a bad thing, because I believe the full price is too high for that. (Thank you, Ubisoft, for a review copy.)
Zed: Yeah, while being a subjectively funny game, it’s not very good in terms of mechanics and systems. The social media stuff seems half-forgotten in the later segments of the game and there are rarely any reasons for you to re-visit locations. It’s like a long South Park episode coupled with the gameplay and interactivity of a Newgrounds flash game.
Crooked Bee: Wow, that’s harsh! (Says someone who did nothing but complain about the mechanics for the entire review.) But sure, if we are to judge it as an RPG – this is the RPG Codex, after all! – and not just an interactive South Park episode, it’s definitely lacking, a mixed bag made up of addictive and monotonous in equal measure. Some aspects (writing, atmosphere, loot, animations) are brilliant; the RPG core, however, the combat, quest structure, and character development, are very simplistic. The lack of any kind of non-linearity or improvements to the tired Paper Mario formula is a big downer, too. The flip side of this being an interactive TV show episode, I guess…
Zed: It is what it is, and as that good ol’ Codex saying goes, it’s “good for what it is.” I highly recommend this game to fans of South Park (especially fans of the more juvenile stuff) and fart enthusiasts (like Germans). I can’t really recommend it to grimdark serious-face CRPG players looking for something deep and rewarding. They will find none of that here.
Crooked Bee: Yeah, it’s an ultra-casual RPG lite, albeit a very solid one at that. Despite my nitpicking, however, this is also the best, and most skilfully written, comedic RPG I’ve played. If you can disregard that this is supposed to be an Obsidian game, you’re bound to enjoy it. It is a shame, however, that I can’t help but associate the excellent content with Matt and Trey, and the underwhelming gameplay and design with Obsidian. It may, of course, have been South Park Studios or the evil publisher Ubisoft who demanded that Obsidian should make the actual RPG side as unimaginative as possible, but given Obsidian’s best titles, I refuse to accept any blame for wanting the game to have been something more. Mr. Chris Avellone once mentioned he’d like to design a High School RPG some day; if this were it, I would be highly disappointed.
Zed: It’s a bit funny how Obsidian are often profiled as the CRPG developer, when they haven’t exactly got a lot of releases under their belt to show for it. Imagine us in a year or two, reviewing Armored Warfare and going “Tanks?! Real-time?! Where are mah choices?! We expected more from you – Chris Avellone!”