Wednesday, March 12, 2014

South Park: The Stick of Truth

In August, 2012, I wrote a review of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, declaring it one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. In that review, I mentioned South Park: The Stick of Truth, the subject of this review, as though it was going to be released in 2013. Though the game was certainly announced before I watched the movie that time, and I saw a preview for it at San Diego Comic-Con 2012, it wasn’t actually until last week that the game came out. This is due to multiple factors, the main ones being that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone kept rewriting the script and that THQ, the original publishers of the title, unfortunately went bankrupt, forcing them to sell off all of their assets and original IPs; in the end, Ubisoft gained the rights to The Stick of Truth. So numerous were these delays that South Park itself lampooned them during Season 17’s Black Friday Trilogy (“Black Friday”, “A Song of Ass and Fire” and “****ies and Dragons”). Some good did come out of these delays though, as it gave my brother and I more time to catch up with the entire run of South Park as well as see The Book of Mormon at the Pantages (long story short, go see The Book of Mormon). In true South Park fashion, we even finished catching up with the show the night before the game came out; there are still only three episodes out of 247 that we haven’t seen because Muhammad (“Super Best Friends”, “200” and “201”), so we’ll probably need to invest in the season sets to try and rectify that (though we did settle with text summaries). Since the game finally came out, I actually had a lot of free time, so after we rewatched the Black Friday Trilogy, I sat down and played through the whole game in the span of two days [Note: This review was delayed due to the reviews of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection]. Would I consider all of that effort to catch up worth it in the end? Yes.

The original box art from when THQ was to publish the game.
It also would have had Kinect functionality so you could berate Cartman.

The New Kid (You) has just moved into South Park and is tasked by his parents, especially his dad, to go out and make friends. Soon after he leaves the house, he is greeted by Butters Stotch, who leads him to Eric Cartman’s house to join the Kingdom of Kupa Keep. When the New Kid successfully joins Cartman’s group, he ends up being roped into a city-wide Live-Action Roleplay (LARP) campaign revolving around an object known as The Stick of Truth. The Stick has great power, as whoever holds the stick controls the universe. Things go south when a rival faction, the Drow Elves of Larnion, successfully steals the stick. Cartman orders the New Kid to go and retrieve the Stick and, during his quest to become cool, what begins as a simple game escalates to a level that no one could ever have anticipated.

The Kingdom of Kupa Keep.

Through the course of the game, the plot plays out exactly how an episode of the show would. Over the course of three days, the New Kid experiences one strange event after another, culminating in one of the biggest, funniest and most ridiculous plot twists I have ever experienced in a video game. I really enjoyed the escalating antics of the story, as it really helped the immersion and the feeling that this really is an episode of South Park. Every single person in the game is completely in-character, with nothing about them out of place. The story is tightly written and I really can’t find any flaws with it.

One of the highlights of the script is its comedy. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become two of my favorite comedians, though I’ll admit that not every episode of South Park can be a winner, and The Stick of Truth does not disappoint. Just about every single line, in some way, is funny. Almost everything the characters say is funny, the NPC reactions are funny, even one-off lines, sound clips or descriptions of items can be funny. Simply put, it is one of the most humorous video games I have ever played and I seriously could not stop laughing at times, especially when I had someone else in the room to laugh with. This is in part due to all of the references made to the show, all of which I understood due to my one-and-a-half years of binge viewing the series in my free time. However, if I had to find one flaw it would be that there isn’t enough dialogue during fights or within the world, such as during a specific mini-game. Eventually you begin to hear the same things being said repetitively, which dulls the sensation a bit until it gradually just ceases to have any humor value. In most cases the dialogue is varied enough that recycling through them can still lead to some great gems, but I think some work was needed in other areas.

Because of all the LARPing in the game, it’s only natural that The Stick of Truth would be a full-blown RPG. It has everything, from quests and collectibles to shops and item management. It all begins when you first enter character customization. The customization isn’t as deep as one would find in other games, mostly due to the art style of South Park, but there is still enough to make the New Kid resemble you if you’d like. When you join the Kingdom of Kupa Keep, you also pick a class, with a choice between Fighter, Mage, Thief and Jew (a “high risk high reward” class where the damage increases the lower your HP is); I chose Fighter because I like to focus on attack power in an RPG. Upon selecting your class, you are given a set of armor and weapons matching your class, but throughout the game you’re allowed to customize your character further by swapping out your weaker equipment for more powerful sets. Some pieces of equipment can even have items like stickers attached to them to grant additional effects, such as higher damage or siphoning an amount of health from a Bleeding enemy. The initial customization may be impressive, but the depth added over time during actual gameplay definitely is.

Combat in The Stick of Truth is turn-based, using mechanics which, from my experience, are similar to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Apart from a Health meter, the player, and their buddy (a selected South Park character), also has PP and Mana meters. PP is used to pull of special attacks, with different attacks costing a different amount of PP to activate. These attacks range from a rain of arrows to a buffing/debuffing blow horn or even Butters in his Professor Chaos persona inflicting a random effect determined by a spinning wheel. The Mana meter is used for casting magic, which in this context is how you manipulate your farts (believe it or not, farts are very important to the game). When used right, magic can be very useful and powerful, but unlike Health and PP it doesn’t regenerate after battle, so consuming mana potions (gassy food) is the only way to replenish what you’ve lost. All attacks, like in Barkley, require the completion of a short mini-game or timed button presses to determine how successful the attack is and how much damage it inflicts on a target. Summons, including Mr. Slave and Jesus, are also available once per in-game day, except against bosses, by completing a sidequest; afterwards you just need to talk to the character to regain their summon item. This system works well and the controller-friendly approach to it helps it be as smooth as possible.

What combat generally looks like.

While I do like the gameplay systems in general, I do have a few complaints. Sometimes while I’m fighting, the frame rate will dip for a second or the game will lag, causing me to miss important attack or block timing; sometimes the command wouldn’t register at all. I’ve also had the background music for fighting completely disappear, necessitating a reboot or a reload of my progress. In addition, the game in general is a bit easy overall thanks to the dynamic difficulty, where the game’s enemies level up with you. The most challenge it ever got was from a specific boss fight, and even then it was an optional one reached through a sidequest. That is not to say the final bosses weren’t challenging, but they weren’t on the same level as the optional boss. There’s also the collectible aspect, which is actually perfectly fine save for the fact that some are missable, such as six of the Chinpokomon. I missed two of them, so if I wanted to have them all, I’d need to restart the game from scratch. Some might also complain about the short length of the game, about 12-15 hours depending on how much you do, but personally I feel that the game doesn’t overstay its welcome and if you wanted to replay the game as another class, or to get every collectible object, it won’t take terribly long to do so.

Also, this area from the THQ version no longer happens.

The most notable thing about Stick of Truth however is how involved creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were during the process. Disappointed by the quality of the South Park games on the market, the duo were actually more hands-on with the game Oblivion was trying to make by providing assets from the show’s entire run as well as offering advice on how to help the game stay true to the spirit of South Park. Oblivion even went so far as to modify the engine so that production of the game could be similar to an episode of the show, including the ability to change the look of a single object across the entire game with minimal effort. Fittingly, an engine normally used for 3D games, the Dungeon Siege III engine, was used to perfectly capture the 2D cutout look of the show. Parker and Stone also provided completely original voicework and wrote the script for the game, allegedly starting out at 850 pages before being trimmed down for production; there’s even a lot of original songs and music from the show used as background music, including the distinct banjo chords that open most episodes. As a result, the game feels exactly like an episode of the show, at times even feeling like you’re watching South Park before the time comes to remember that it’s a game. This is The Stick of Truth’s greatest feat, which I think will be very hard for future video game adaptations of TV shows to accomplish.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is not only one of the funniest games I have played this year, but also an early gem for this year. The turn-based combat, though simple, is fun and I felt totally immersed by the world presented. There are a few flaws here and there, including the sometimes inconsistent frame rate, but these are forgivable in light of how perfectly the source material is translated to video game form. Due to all of the references and callbacks the game makes to the show, I can only really recommend this to already existing fans of the show, as the uninitiated may be confused by these same references that can be important to the story. It may be possible to enjoy the game solely based on the mechanics, but it is most definitely made to cater to those who are already familiar with the show. In either case, I’d recommend watching the Black Friday Trilogy right before giving it a go; it’ll transition well into the plot and will get you into the right mindset to play.

No comments:

Post a Comment