South Park: The Stick of Truth is the funniest game I've ever played [ed. obviously Pierce has never played Quackshot]. That shouldn't shock regular viewers of the TV show, who know exactly what to expect from anything written by the cartoon's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. What might come as a surprise is The Stick of Truth also has an interesting layer of depth which marks it out as an attractive RPG in its own right. If you love the TV show, you'll adore this. If you don't love the TV show, there's a good chance you'll still have fun here. If you don't like South Park at all, then it's probably recommended that you steer clear of this. And if that's your inclination, we advise you stop reading this review now because there's going to be a lot of references to farts and boobs.
The premise for The Stick of Truth is as delightful as it is simple. You're the new kid in town and before long you end up meeting Cartman, Kenny and friends as they role-play in the streets of South Park as warriors and wizards, funny hats and robes included. However their playtime somehow gets mixed into a cover-up operation by the government, and in the end you'll have gone on some wild adventures and met plenty of the world's characters, all of which have featured in South Park at some stage.
So at heart it's an RPG, which means there are quests, lots of them! And as you'd expect, there are main storyline quests and other side quests that bring more of the famous faces that have made South Park such a wonderful world for the last 17 years. Fancy helping Al Gore in hunting down ManBearPig? How about giving the owner of City Wok a hand with his Mongolian problem? Or you could play a bit of hide-and-seek with Jesus Christ in the church. These are optional extras but highly recommended, not only for the laughs but because they help to level up your character.
For a game that would have sold well even it there wasn't much effort put in, The Stick of Truth pleasantly surprises when it comes to its RPG features. It won't be rivalling Skyrim anytime soon but there's plenty to keep you occupied. You get the option of choosing one of four character classes - Fighter, Thief, Mage and Jew (yes, Jew...) - with each one coming with its own set of special attacks. During the game you'll be coming across new weapons, armour, hats, etc., and you'll have to decide which items suit your play style best.
Battles are turn-based, but filled with timed-button presses and quick-time events. So pressing the block button at the perfect moment will mean you don't take as much damage, and to give out the strongest hit you'll have to follow the instructions to the letter. It takes a bit of getting used to at the start, when you'll likely be cursing yourself for not paying attention properly. But after a while I grew to love its effective simplicity. Helping out characters in the game can also lead to them returning the favour by being available to summon in battle. Summoning a character like Mr Hankey or Mr Slave means you'll instantly win, but you can only summon each character once a day - and not in boss battles either - so use it wisely.
During fights you'll be accompanied by a buddy, although it's unfortunate that you can only play with one buddy at a time. You can swap them out before or during combat, and they also come with their own set of abilities. They grow when you do, so after you've levelled up there's a chance they'll learn new abilities too, but your buddies are in no way customisable. It's a shame but they still offer some great moments, such as Princess Kenny's ability to distract enemies by flashing his (her?) boobs. Butters will eventually gain the power to morph into Professor Chaos too, which leads to some entertaining animation screens. It can feel a little choked here though. You'd expect to call upon your clan to help you with bigger fights, but that never happens. And it can be frustrating when you have more than three enemies to deal with, as it feels a little odd you can't call in more buddies to the battle. However, use your potions, weapons, special attacks and magic right, and you'll find that you can defeat pretty much any enemy in the game without too much trouble.
Speaking of magic, that's here too and can be very useful, although that comes in the form of fart attacks. Farts can be used to hinder enemies by stunning, distracting, pissing them off or grossing them out - which means that they throw up after they take their turn. You can also use your farting powers in the open-world, by using them on open flames to blow things up and open up blocked or hidden paths. There are four different variations of fart, and later on in the game you'll learn to control your farting skills to such an extent that you can direct a small green fart cloud to the other side of the room to cause a distraction. It all sounds very childish, but it's nothing less than fans of the show would expect.
Armour and weapons that you equip can also be improved if you apply patches, or strap-ons as they're called here. This could improve your weapon attack by a couple points, or reduce the amount of damage you take from a certain enemy type. The patch items can be found all around South Park, along with all kinds of other loot. Make sure you pay attention to the type of enemies you're fighting as some strap-ons work best on some enemies, but have no effect on others. For example, you can't gross out wild animals such as rats, because they're already gross! And as for junk, this is just stuff you pick up and sell. Most of the time you'll be picking up nostalgic junk that fans of the show will recognise with a chuckle, including 'The Poop that Took a Pee', a book written by Butters during one classic episode.
There's also a friends system which works a bit like Facebook, you get to add people if they agree to it. Adding friends unlocks other perks you can add to your character to strengthen them further, so theoretically the more popular you are the stronger you are. You also get to see your friends' status updates, which provide their own hidden gems. It was hard not to laugh after adding the Woodland Critters as friends and seeing their devil-worshiping updates. But best of all was the constant spamming of Al Gore. It was 'cereal' great.
An RPG is judged on how well you can grow throughout the game and through your character tree, and in terms of progression The Stick of Truth is enjoyably stress-free. It's very rare to die in battles as long as you come prepared with a handy stack of health and power point items, which are dotted all over the world. Your characters regain all health and lose all debuffs between fights, too, so you don't have to worry about going into a new battle too soon after the last one. And the map of South Park is very useful, showing you exactly where to head to complete tasks.
This game was crafted to be easy for fans of the show to explore. If you've ever wanted to know exactly where the school is in relation to Kenny's house on the other side of the tracks, you're in luck. There are numerous houses and buildings you can enter and explore, such as Cartman's home, where you can take a trip to his mum's bedroom and find a worrying number of dildos hidden away in draws. So much remains faithful to the history that South Park has created after all these years.
Which is why it's such a shame that censorship rears its ugly head on several occasions. The European version of The Stick of Truth has had a number of scenes cut due to their explicit content, which seems outrageous for a game that pushes the boundaries to such an extent. Scenes where I should have been watching some violent anal probing were replaced by sarcastic walls of text which descriptively listed what I was missing out on. It seems like a bizarre decision made by corporate suits who have probably never seen the TV show, and a watered down version just goes against what South Park is all about.
There are also a few technical issues that see the game slow down from time to time. Occasionally everything will freeze for just a second before you can move again, while there are plenty of loading screens to stare at as you go along. And there are bugs. Extremely frustrating bugs. For example, we experienced issues with the ranged weapon (which you can use in the world outside of battles to interact with objects) retracting, and we had problems completing some tutorials and had to restart the game. There were also some weird issues with paths in the world. All of these are extremely annoying, sometimes being so frustrating that it really does detract from the overall experience.
It's things like this that remind you you're playing a game instead of watching a long movie, and if you've been working on a game for so long, surely bugs like this should be sorted, or at least patched on day one. Some of the user interface is ugly to look at, too, and there's not been much thought put into the layout of the menu systems. It's fine once you get your head around it, but RPG games involve a lot of time looking at progression trees, and South Park's UI is so bad that it makes the game feel shoddy and clunky.
However, despite all that, it feels like the South Park movie sequel we've been waiting for all these years, epic in almost every way and a charming animation that translates extremely well to a video game. It's a good example of what you can do with a game without having to think about frame rates and lighting effects. The writing and humour is brilliant as expected, but luckily there's also an enjoyable, if simplistic, RPG hidden away. This is an absolute must-have for anyone who remotely enjoys South Park, but you might want to try an import an American copy if you want the full, uncensored experience.