Game: South Park: Stick of Truth
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Describe This Game in Three Words: A Filthy Earthbound!
Plot: A new kid rolls into South Park and finds himself caught up in an epic LARP headed by Cartman, the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep. His job is to protect the Stick of Truth, an ancient relic that their enemies, the Drow Elves, seek to steal. Along the way literally every inappropriate thing possible happens.
Up, Up: It feels weird to compare a game where within 15 minutes of playing it I walked in on a character vigorously masturbating and acquired Cartman's mother's personalized crack pipe to Ni no Kuni, but that doesn't make the comparison any less apt. Just as Ni no Kuni made you feel like you were actually inside a Studio Ghibli film, Stick of Truth drops you into a South Park episode as closely as that is humanly possible.
It's amazing the detail that has been added to the world, and the fact that all the regular South Park cast is involved really ties together the huge mythology of the show into one big, explorable setting. And it's funny. Really, really funny. As funny as any episode of the show, and more so in places because the game can hide the jokes to be discovered rather than stated. Amid all the overt dick and poopie bits you find weird little bits of hilarity like the item description of the tap shoes ("Untouched since the incident").
More than that is the fact that the game both takes itself very seriously and not at all seriously, which is extremely clever. That you're playing an RPG about playing an RPG, while being both totally engrossed in the fantasy as well as the ridiculous reality is a rare and potent approach. It only works because in South Park silly games can turn into nuclear annihilation with ease, and that makes it the perfect place to set something like Stick of Truth. There honestly hasn't been anything quite like it since Earthbound.
Down, Down: But is it fun to play? Yes... and no. Stick of Truth has a really baffling combat system that actually harkens back to the old Super Mario RPG style but lacks that game's polish. Combat is turn-based, but the format is strange. You're allowed to both use a healing item and attack in a turn, for instance, or you can just attack. Cartman even references how random this rule is when it's introduced, and it honestly feels like a tacked-on idea to keep players from dying without taking a look at the overall build.
Then there's the fact that almost all your attack and defense is timing based like it was with Super Mario RPG. It's not enough to select an action, you have to accurately match a small burst of light that indicates when you should block, hit, etc. When Nintendo and Square did it back in the '90s it added a new layer to the play that eased the transition of Mario as an action character to an RPG one. Unfortunately Stick of Truth just doesn't have the same sense of well-honed timing. It's just a little... off.
Stick of Truth had a famously rough development cycle, and that's led to yet another example of what I call a theta release. There's still a fair amount of glitches in the title. It froze twice on me while trying to teach me to counter-attack, and I actually had to reinstall the game once. What works works great, but I can't help but feel that the whole thing needed a little more time in the oven.
Review continues on the next page.
Left, Right, Left, Right: Yet another knock on the combat system is the way it makes you play finger games to pull off attacks. When your Level 1 Jew (Please tell me you saw that coming) wants to unleash his Sling of David you have to rotate the left thumbstick quickly to build it up. That's not even counting the nightmare that is trying to use your fart magic (See previous parenthetical thought). I'm not sure where game designers got the idea RPGs were supposed to use the same skills as action adventure titles, but it's an odd one.
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B, A: It bothers me greatly that the New Kid (Often referred to as Douchebag no matter what you name him) cannot be a girl. It seems like it would have been really simple to record two versions of the script, one with male pronouns and one without. New Kid himself follows the silent-protagonist trope, so there's even less hassle. And yes, there are a million reasons why a female character would not be recruited into Cartman's army blah blah blah. There are hundreds of ways to customize your character, and yet allowing a female option apparently never occurred to them.
Maybe they were worried having a female lead would make the abortion mini-game less funny.
Start?: I'm not exaggerating when I say that no licensed video game has done its source material justice the way that Stick of Truth has. It truly blurs the lines between the show and gameplay, and that is a massive achievement everyone should applaud. At times it is eye-rolling, and what works for a 30-minute cartoon does not necessarily work for an epic RPG all the time, but it wouldn't be South Park if it didn't take a dump all over the rules. Have fun.