Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: Obsidian Entertainment Format: 360, PC, PS3 Release: March 7
Who’d have guessed that 2014 would be the year of the videogame comedy? Mere weeks after Jazzpunk’s impression of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, South Park: The Stick Of Truth almost faultlessly mimics Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated series, retaining its brand of scattergun satire and scatological humour. Never knowingly understated, The Stick Of Truth is boisterous, provocative, puerile and fearless in its desire to shock and offend. More importantly, it’s often funny, thanks to the commitment of Parker and Stone, who have been more heavily involved than would ordinarily be expected of a tie-in. Delays to the release prompted the pair to admit, “Getting the game up to the crappy standards of the show has been a real challenge.” Happily, the result lives down to that claim, and then some.
If anything, The Stick Of Truth sees the duo attempting to push the boundaries even further than usual. There’s an extended sequence in an abortion clinic that’s every bit as horrifying as you might imagine. You’ll fight Nazi zombies that shriek “Sieg heil!” before vomiting because you’ve thrown an air biscuit right in their faces. There’s an extended sex scene that is at once hysterical and squirmingly uncomfortable. Every kind of bodily fluid features heavily, while a climactic sequence sets a new low as the most repulsive videogame environment we’ve ever encountered. We’ve also learned a core tenet of the gentlemen’s code: it is, apparently, imperative that one should never fart on a man’s balls. All notions of subtlety are abandoned, in other words, and the result is a laughs-per-minute ratio that compares favourably to just about any other comedy, interactive or otherwise.
At its heart, however, this is a sweet-natured story of a new kid attempting to fit in. Your early days in this sleepy mountain town are anything but quiet, and your mute protagonist quickly joins in with a live-action roleplaying game organised by Cartman, who is on typically profane form here. It’s humans vs drow elves, and you start on the former side, although a later plot event demands you decide between the two. But while your infrequent choices help colour the story, your path is written from the outset. This is a broadly linear game, which may come as a surprise to those expecting Obsidian to bring to bear its expertise with branching narratives.
Though Obsidian has form with branching narratives, The Stick Of Truth is a broadly linear game which will be familiar to players of the Paper Mario games.
Indeed, there’s little evidence of the studio’s hallmarks at all, and the most obvious influence is the Paper Mario series. The Stick Of Truth’s turn-based battle system is similarly predicated on timed button presses for more efficient attacks and blocks, while enemies can be bypassed or attacked before they’ve spotted you, conveying a negative status effect or granting you the first hit. You’re also joined by allies with a range of abilities that can be used in and out of battle. Occasionally, you’ll encounter rudimentary environmental puzzles, and while their solutions will rarely prompt much head scratching, they commonly trigger a slapstick payoff, or even let you kill opponents from afar. You might shoot a sparking cable to electrify a puddle of liquid, for instance, or collapse some loose scenery to thin out enemy numbers before you approach.
There’s variety to combat, too, derived from your partners’ distinctive powers and a broad array of weapons, which spans from traditional swords and staves to lurid purple sex toys. Meanwhile, each item of gear you equip conveys buffs, and that’s before you apply the patches that provide further stat bonuses. And you can buy dyes to colour costumes, which double as disguises in certain areas.
Not that any of this requires a great deal of thought. While it’s entertaining to set up combo attacks – offer a ‘Canadian handshake’ to an immolated enemy and the subsequent reaction of methane and fire is equal parts devastating and amusing – your abilities often feel overpowered, not least when you call upon the special powers of your partner characters. The ability to quaff potions before any offensive action saps much of the tension from encounters, and given the abundance of health-restoring items, you’ll sail through boss battles. Even those with limited experience of RPGs would be advised to start on Hardcore difficulty to make the most of the range of tactical possibilities, though it’s still a pleasure to experiment without the fear of failure, not least because almost every move comes with its own punchline.
Obsidian has perhaps acknowledged broad appeal of the South Park licence in easing up on the game’s difficulty – most players will sail through The Stick Of Truth.
There are a few rough edges as well. Though the social-network-themed menus are a neat touch, they’re sluggish. Loading times are excessive, and each successfully completed objective prompts a barrage of messages that cause the engine to stutter.
For all that, The Stick Of Truth is surprisingly game-literate. There’s a suite of in-jokes, ranging from the collectable toys that ape Pokémon to more overt nods to Skyrim and even 8bit RPGs. Elsewhere, conventions are sent up gloriously. Repeating soundbites are excused by NPCs insisting they’re being forced to stick to the script, while an inspired gag about audio logs only gets funnier the more you find. The jabs can be predictable, but they’re delivered with an affectionate wink, and it’s evident that Parker and Stone know and love videogames. So, yes, their irreverent take on the medium may have a few technical shortcomings, but you’ll usually be grinning far too much to care.