The Stick of Truth is a well-written and offensive South Park movie in playable form, and under the guise of an entertaining RPG it marks the first time ever the confronting cartoon gained a gaming installment whose quality matches that of the original material
Translating, to a videogame format, intellectual properties that have historically found tremendous success in other types of media has been an undertaking that the gaming industry has tackled over and over again through the years. Unfortunately, be it for fans of those franchises or for players themselves, such endeavors have often backfired, resulting in lackluster products that either failed to capture the essence of the work they were replicating or were unable to squeeze a pleasant gameplay experience out of the original material. South Park, the polemic television show, has not been an exception to the rule, for through different generations and consoles its fantastic characters and universe have been used as the building blocks to a myriad of efforts that, flawed to distinct degrees, have delivered in frustration what the hundreds of episodes of the cartoon have yielded in controversy. However, as proof that a sequence of disastrous attempts at the transition into the gaming world is by no means a sign the jump cannot be performed, the negative trend was finally bucked by South Park: The Stick of Truth.
Originally released in 2014, The Stick of Truth finds, for many reasons, sweet victory where others had encountered sour defeat. Obviously, there is the fact that while many of the South Park games that preceded it came off as works that were quickly put together in order to extract cash out of a devoted fanbase, The Stick of Truth is a carefully planned and finely produced package that went through a lengthy development cycle; one that, given the quality of its output, was guided by good decisions. Yet, even more important than that, there is how the title seems to take a long hard look at the franchise, identify what makes it so spectacular as an adult animated sitcom, and choose to take the madness of its universally offensive content to a realm that heavily plays to its strength: namely, that of role-playing games.
As a cartoon, South Park thrives: in how its smart and acid dialogues do not discriminate in accusing all layers and sides of society, touching upon sensitive topics that are off-limits to most entertainment forms; in how the plot of its episodes is made up of disjointed threads, of equally ridiculous nature, that are tied in the most absurd ways; and in how, in the end, it all starts with a bunch of innocent kids trying to make it and have fun in a world that is neck-deep in violence, corruption, hatred, bigotry, lust for power, and indifference. And by embracing a genre where plot, writing, cutscenes, and conversations are as integral to the overall experience as actually pressing the buttons and interfering with what is on the screen, The Stick of Truth materializes as the perfect virtual representation of the television series. It is, effectively, an interactive South Park movie, and the two components that form its essence are excellent: the story that unravels during its twelve-hour quest is worthy of the show, featuring a quality that fits right alongside the seasons that marked its peak; and the gameplay that accompanies it, though by no means perfect, is unquestionably fun.
As a nice nod to the thematic clichés of RPGs, The Stick of Truth sees Cartman, Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and the other kids of the snowy town role-playing as two warring factions: humans, led by Cartman, and elves, led by Kyle. The object coveted by the different groups is the titular Stick of Truth: a run-of-the-mill twig that, according to the children’s imagination, gives its holder the power to control the very fabric of the universe and do whatever they please in the game they are engaged in. Players control the new kid, who is given the honorary title of Sir. Douchebag by Cartman, and as the elves sneak away with the almighty piece of wood, the shockingly popular and silent protagonist is sent by the humans to rise their banners and call up their allies for the upcoming war. Unexpectedly, at least to anyone who has ever watched the show, it is not long before the initially naive task bumps into the conspiracies and filthiness of adult life as well as the disturbingly fantastic happenings that tend to take place in South Park.
The game advances, therefore, through battles against aliens, aborted fetuses, vicious gingers, thieving gnomes, despicable monsters, government agents, a whole lot of Nazi zombies, and more. And The Stick of Truth, without one drop of embarrassment, constructs an overarching plot under which the coming together of all these pieces makes sense. It is absolutely hilarious, and classifying the adventure as one of the funniest games of all time would not be hyperbolic. Moreover, it is especially delightful how The Stick of Truth looks and sounds precisely like the cartoon, whether players are walking through the streets of South Park towards their next destination, squaring off against enemies, or watching one of the many cutscenes that punctuate the story. And to further elevate the amusement one is bound to get out of it all, the game underlines its great visual presentation with a soundtrack that, with grand choirs included, often tries to go to the epic heights audiences are likely to expect out of a high-fantasy movie starring wizards, orcs, paladins, warriors, archers, bards, and princesses; roles that the kids, with some success, try to take on with the resources they have.
Outside battle, The Stick of Truth is relatively straightforward, as players get to walk around the town, interact with its many inhabitants, and follow the way to the markers displayed on the map, which show the location where the active quests can be pursued. Pleasantly, although certainly far from being big, the town is mostly fully available from the get go, which gives Sir. Douchebag plenty of freedom to go wherever he wants. And that structure pays off handsomely, because the town has quite a few minor encounters with remarkable characters that lead to sidequests. Truthfully, save for the one that is given by Jimbo and Ned and has the protagonist killing a few unique monsters around the map, none of those goals are truly memorable on their own, as they often deteriorate into killing a certain number of foes, tracking down items, and going into a few buildings. They are, nevertheless, entertaining, because they invariably reveal scenes, dialogues, and situations that are funny and worthy of being seen by all.
Additionally, doing these sidequests, and also scouring the town and the houses for containers that can be opened, reward gamers who go after them with assets and upgrades that feed the character customization one would expect from an RPG game. In that front, much like it happens in the case of its battle system, The Stick of Truth never reaches the complexity and variety of the genre’s giants; however, it is clear that matching those titles was never its intention, as it aims – instead – for accessible, satisfying, and fun simplicity. And in that case, it hits its target very nicely. When the game begins, players are prompted by Cartman to choose one among four distinct classes: Fighter, Mage, Thief, and Jew. Each one of those, naturally, not only determines the general stats of the protagonist but also the five special attacks he will progressively gain access to as he earns experience points and levels up. From that moment onwards, then, gamers are stuck to the selected class but free to execute minor alterations in the character and guide his evolution through the quest, and that is mainly achieved in four ways.
Firstly, there is making friends on Facebook, because as Sir. Douchebag helps characters, either in the main story or in sidequests, they will befriend him on the social network, and also occasionally make posts that are all kinds of hilarious; for every specific threshold of friends that is reached, it is possible to activate one among twenty available perks, which buff the hero in numerous ways. Secondly, with every level that is gained, players can choose to upgrade one of the character’s special skills, which will be improved not only in terms of brute power, but also in the side effects they produce. Thirdly, there is the abundance of gloves, hats, armors, and weapons offered by The Stick of Truth, which provide not only plenty of amusing visual gags – encompassing everything from traditional medieval figures to fairies, cheese, surgeons, and more – but also a variety of upgrades in defense, health regeneration, resistance against certain types of attacks, among others. Finally, most pieces of equipment feature slots into which patches can be applied, allowing players to effectively customize what they take into battle.
This achievement of preserving accessibility while still giving gamers plenty to play around with could easily be compared to what was done by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems in the first two Paper Mario games, and from that franchise The Stick of Truth also borrows an idea that adds a sprinkle of puzzle solving to its exploration. As it turns out, Sir. Douchebag is never alone; he is always being accompanied by an ally, which can – at any time – be selected from a list of available peers. And the game takes advantage of that by constructing a lot of scenarios where, in order to advance, the two heroes on the field must find a way to clear the obstacles at hand, an action that usually leads to funny occurrences. The new kid has a bunch of abilities of his own, such as using a long-range weapon to hit distant targets, executing different types of farts, applying gnome powder to become smaller, and activating an anal probe that allows him to teleport; his partners, meanwhile, have one exclusive skill, like Butters’ power to make downed friends get up via his kindness and words of encouragement or Princess Kenny’s surprisingly attractive breasts.
Besides adding variety to the generally monotonic walking that most RPGs present, what is interesting about this feature is that sometimes, if the scenarios and abilities are matched just right, it is possible to take down some foes without having to battle them. Unfortunately, despite all the good such twist does to gameplay, it is also responsible for the biggest problems of The Stick of Truth. First of all, the puzzles that involve using the ability of a partner are just way too obvious, since it is always pretty clear who needs to be summoned; in addition, they are just not frequent enough, as most characters are only summoned once or twice, whereas Cartman and and Kyle are not called upon at all and do not have any such skill. Secondly, the controls to perform these moves feel overcomplicated and far from being intuitive, because it takes at least three button presses for players to select the skill or fart they want to use and unleash it upon the world. On a similar note, the same complication arises when browsing through the game’s overworld menu, which although fairly organized in the way it displays all information that is necessary, is a bit tough to navigate.
In battle, there is little to nitpick about The Stick of Truth other than the fact that it feels the game could have been slightly more challenging, since even its boss encounters do not push players strategically and can be cleared without too much stress by someone who is decently experienced in RPGs. Each of the two playable characters that go onto the battlefield can, during the same turn, use an item and select an attack, which can be a standard blow from their melee weapon, a shot from their long-ranged weapon, a special move that consumes some PP, or – in the case of the protagonist – a fart that requires mana. To make its combats highly interactive as well as demanding of players’ focus and attention, The Stick of Truth puts a considerable emphasis on action and timing.
The former comes into play because the execution of all moves requires that gamers press one or more buttons, with the prompt explaining what needs to be done always being shown when a move is selected. Besides, melee and ranged weapons attack in different manners depending on which key is pressed, with the Y button releasing a strong blow that reduces foes’ armor, the A button activating a series of minor hits that are an excellent choice to break shields, and the X button executing a special combination of weapon and fart. Meanwhile, timing is of vital importance due to how pressing buttons at the exact moment both significantly augments the effectiveness of the attacks and reduces the damage caused by the blows from bad guys, and those changes are far from being negligible. In fact, more often than not they will determine the outcome of battles, as attacks that are not performed just right sometimes have their hit points reduced all the way to the neighborhood of zero.
Through a lot of good ideas, sharp writing, and a few minor shortcomings, The Stick of Truth succeeds, then, in translating to the gaming universe the greatness and politically incorrect ways of the South Park franchise. It is a game that never loses sight of the elements that make the property on which it is inspired shine, and charmingly – not even for a second – does it forget that, ultimately, these are imaginative kids using what is at their disposal to role-play as the standard high-fantasy characters they have grown to admire. It is, therefore, an adventure that mixes equal doses of the innocent and the disturbing to form a hilariously absurd plot and set the basis for gameplay that is simple and enjoyable. The Stick of Truth is a very well-written and certainly offensive South Park movie in playable form, and under the guise of an accessible and entertaining RPG it marks the first time ever the confronting television show gained a gaming installment whose quality matches that of the original material.