Let’s get super cereal, shall we? South Park: The Stick of Truth is the closest there is to an interactive South Park film. It nails the animated television show’s look, its humor, and its obsession with the human anus. If you come to The Stick of Truth for the South Park-ness of it all–for Cartman’s aggressive profanity, for Butters’ good intentions, for Randy Marsh’s masturbation addiction–then you’ll enjoy 10 or so hours of hysterical, offensive, gross buffoonery. Does the phrase “anal beads” make you giggle? Have you daydreamed of tossing poop at the people you hate? Then you know where you can shove The Stick of Truth: right into your console’s disc drive.
That limited play time is a consideration, however. Of course, even if you love South Park, 10 or 11 hours of listening to Cartman call you a douchebag could prove tiring. Nevertheless, given developer Obsidian Entertainment’s pedigree, you would rightfully expect a certain amount of systemic depth, or perhaps an epic-length quest loaded with narrative choices. As role-playing games go, however, The Stick of Truth is notably light on, well, everything. It’s light on challenge: on medium difficulty, combat is a cakewalk, entertaining to watch but rarely engaging your mental faculties. (If you were hoping to turn your brain off and laugh at abortion jokes, you might see this as a mark in the game’s favor.) It’s also light on depth: if it weren’t for the profanity, cartoon genitalia, and the sight of a grown man engaged in gentle coitus with a farm animal, you might have retitled The Stick of Truth as Baby’s First RPG. As for choice, the game asks you to make very few narrative decisions, and the one that most obviously masquerades as a game-changing opportunity is quickly thrown away and rendered moot.
A deep role-playing experience this is not.
It is fun, however, in an “I just farted on a Nazi zombie fetus” kind of way. The overarching plot tying events together is paper-thin, putting you in the role of the new kid in town and inviting you to make friends with the potty-mouthed residents of South Park, Colorado. And Jesus. You can think of yourself as the Gordon Freeman of your social group: you’re a silent protagonist upon whom the fate of the fabled Stick of Truth rests, and you become well regarded for the incredible rate at which you add buddies to Facebook. There’s a mystery plot involving Taco Bell, an alien invasion, and yadda yadda yadda, but that’s all beside the point: The Stick of Truth’s story is a joke-delivery mechanism, leading you through many of the game’s running gags by way of Kyle and company’s high-fantasy hijinks.
Does the phrase “anal beads” make you giggle? Have you daydreamed of tossing poop at the people you hate?
The broad gross-out humor that makes the animated show popular is front and center, but it would be a mistake to assume that all the raunch is devoid of intelligence. When Cartman asks for your name, a button prompt greets you, inviting you to enter a name. The choice is immediately subverted, however, and Cartman refers to you simply as “douchebag,” though he ultimately bestows grander titles upon you. Titles like “Sir Douchebag” and “Commander Douchebag.” Elsewhere, audiologs you discover poke fun at the absurdity of…audiologs. Don’t worry: the level with the audiologs also features Randy’s butt with alarming frequency, so you needn’t worry that South Park has gone highbrow, but like the show, The Stick of Truth hides some occasional truths within its turd talk. Still, by the time you reach the disturbing abortion minigame, you’ll either already be engrossed by the inappropriateness of it all, or you’ll have turned off the game in disgust in favor of something more cultured, like Jackass, or The Jerry Springer Show.
…and then I went up on the ship, and Scott Baio gave me pinkeye.
And so you hobble about the town as a customizable cardboard cutout–meaning that you fit right in among the rabble-rousing youngsters. Most of your exploration comes after you’ve chosen one of four character classes: fighter, mage, thief, or…Jew. Your choice determines your special abilities in the game’s turn-based battles; in my case, I could fling stones at enemies using the sling of David, and use circum-scythe to inflict bleeding damage to my foes’, er, groinal regions. (There’s no mention of whether the skill accounts for the victim’s adjusted penis size when you attack.) Don’t get too hung up on your choice of class, however. While you are assigned default gear and occasionally earn new class-specific gear at specified story points, you can wear any armor and wield any weapon you find or purchase.
You can further customize your weapons with strap-ons (say, a Jew-pacabra claw for your alien ray gun that reduces your enemy’s armor upon a perfect attack) and armor with patches (say, a brown badge of courage for your crown of thorns that enhances your health). Again, however, you needn’t give this system much thought: just equip the highest-level gear you can, add whatever strap-ons and patches most appeal to you, and all is fine. The cash pours in quickly, and there are so many recovery items like health potions (Snacky Cakes and such) and mana potions (Hot Pockets and the like) scattered around that you run out of room for these items faster than you can use them. In fact, The Stick of Truth is so easy that you will likely forget you’ve even collected some of these objects. You can throw water balloons at your enemies to remove their buffs, and you can quaff some Tweek Bros Coffee to gain another turn, but the chances of needing them are practically nil. There’s no reason, then, not to spend freely on wigs, glasses, and other accoutrements. After all, nothing says “professional Jew” like a blond Lolita wig, 3D glasses, and muttonchops.
Better red than dead.
The most valuable combat items aren’t the most effective, but rather the most entertaining to unleash. I used every toilet I came across in The Stick of Truth, because doing so yielded feces I could fling in combat to gross out the hobos and hall monitors I was fighting. I could have used those turns for more effective attacks, perhaps, but watching bullies barf every turn was too fun of a possibility to pass up. Your choice of which buddy to invite into battle with you is similarly balanced in favor of fun over effectiveness. Only one other character can be in your party at any one time (Butters, Cartman, and Jimmy are among the choices), and while your buddies all have different skills, there’s no real advantage in choosing one over another. In fact, apart from the moments the game forces a particular party member upon you, you could easily stick with a single buddy from beginning to end.
I dreamed I was standing out in a field, and there was this huge satellite dish stickin’ out of my butt.
The mechanics of those battles are utterly simplistic: the two teams take turns beating each other up until the bad guys are defeated. There are some peripheral considerations like power points (aka PP, aka peepee) and mana, but there’s not a lot to them. There are two major reasons to stay fully conscious during combat. Firstly, battles capture the essence of the show and the essence of each character. It’s almost impossible not to adore the ever-sweet Butters when he heals you by patting you on the back and giving you a little pep talk. And I dare you to suppress your guffaws when Jimmy takes the stage, stuttering out a madrigal that rhymes “hollow” with “swallow” before dropping the mic. Secondly, almost every attack requires some kind of interaction–sometimes in the form of a well-timed button tap, sometimes in the form of a twirl of the thumbstick, and sometimes in the form of a Dance Dance Revolution-type minigame. (PC players: plug in an Xbox 360 controller. Doing so will save you the frustration of discovering the many keyboard-unfriendly ways in which this is a console game through and through.) Battles might be easy, but at least they keep your fingers occupied, if not your brain.
A deep role-playing experience this is not.
Some skills allow you to avoid combat entirely, though these opportunities are heavily scripted, so don’t go thinking you’ll suddenly have a wealth of new choices when you unlock new fart attacks. I admit to cracking a smile every time I burnt an enemy to a crisp by farting onto a nearby open flame, but few such scenarios exhibited mechanical cleverness, so I never felt particularly smart for taking advantage of the possibility. Indeed, if you were to remove the license, The Stick of Truth’s shallowness would be achingly apparent, with a journey to the great nation of Canada standing out as the game’s shrewdest scenario.
But The Stick of Truth cannot be separated from its license, and it’s in its vulgar attitude that it finds redemption. On your Facebook wall, which functions as your in-game menu system, Priest Maxi writes: “I’m glad you found Christ, my son. Be ever vigilant, for He may be found in the unlikeliest of places in the time of need. I found Him in my chimney once.” South Park: The Stick of Truth is not the second coming of role-playing games, so if you come seeking Jesus, you’ll be disappointed by the veritable second-rate televangelist you find in His place. But it’s as funny as the merry tune of Stratford, and more enjoyable than Butters’ favorite game, Hello Kitty: Island Adventure.