Let’s Talk Games – South Park: The Stick of Truth

Warning: Spoilers

So today I felt like doing something a little different. Instead of talking about a book I recently read, I wanted to talk about a game I recently played. I used to be a pretty big gamer in high school, but halfway through college I began losing interest, and within the past couple of years I’ve been mostly sticking to retro games, so keep that in mind while reading this.

If anyone didn’t know, I’m a huge fan of South Park. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old when it first came out, and although for the first few years I had to watch it in secret whenever I could catch it, by the time I was in high school I was able to watch to my heart’s content. I’ve been following it closely ever since, and I think it’s one of those rare shows that generally keeps getting better with every season.

Last year’s trilogy of episodes, “Black Friday,” “A Song of Ass and Fire,” and “Titties and Dragons,” was my favorite trilogy and one of the few things that helped me through the retail holiday season. (And honestly, which retail employee wouldn’t like seeing the most obnoxious shopping day of the year satirized into an exaggerated war?) Something else this trilogy did, however, was set the stage for South Park‘s new video game, The Stick of Truth. Using the costumes, characters, etc. from the Black Friday trilogy, the kids continue playing in their make-believe world by waging a war over the Stick of Truth, an ordinary stick that lets the wielder do anything. Or make the rules. Or something. I kind of forget. Doesn’t matter. It’s just the thing that makes their game keep going.

I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed when I first saw the game being played. While the story seemed great and funny, like any other South Park episode, the game seemed to focus on a lot of menu navigating and collecting, something that’s turned me off from RPGs for a while now. It wasn’t until one of my favorite YouTubers, Lucahjin, started a Let’s Play of it two months ago that my interest was peaked again. Maybe it was because the people that I watched before made the game look kind of boring, but Lucahjin made it look fun. I told a coworker of mine I started watching someone play it (she’s also a huge South Park fan and has been trying to get me to play the game since it came out), and last month she finally forced me to borrow it. I finished it last weekend, and even though there was a lot of menu navigating and item collecting, it was still a lot of fun.

A lot of that fun comes from the story and world of South Park. The game is like a giant love letter to all its fans, both new and old. There are so many references to characters, episodes, and events that discovering how your favorite parts of the show would function within a video game becomes its own quest.

You’re the new kid in South Park (aren’t you lucky), complete with customizable hair, clothes, etc. (there’s a lot of customization in this game, which is a huge plus for me). Your dad kicks you out of the house and tells you to make some friends. You run into Butters (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love Butters?), who’s being attacked by another kid. You help him out and he invites you to play. He brings you to Kupa Keep, a fantastic kingdom led by the Grand Wizard (aka a cardboard fort in Cartman’s backyard). Cartman teaches you how to play, you do some quests to prove your worth, and you’re eventually an official member of Cartman’s army.

But wait! The Stick of Truth has been stolen by those no good, dirty elves! During a quest to recruit more people to reclaim it, you’re captured by the elves and brought to their kingdom (aka another cardboard fort in Kyle’s backyard). Kyle, the leader of the elves, explains that Cartman lied and still has the Stick of Truth, and that you’re playing for the wrong side. There’s a big battle at the school to reclaim the Stick of Truth, but you’re too late. Clyde, who Cartman previously banished from space and time, now has it and has created a third kingdom consisting of Nazi zombies and vamp kids. Cartman and Kyle form a truce and combine their armies to reclaim the stick before Nazi zombies take over South Park. It’s a ridiculous story that parodies RPGs, but it’s still very true to South Park writing and was great to experience.

In between story quests, you can explore the town and take on other minor quests for experience and items. Most of the game is spent doing these sidequests, and it’s where the majority of references come from. I liked that they did this; I don’t think it would have been possible to reference that many characters or episodes during the main quest alone. Some of my favorite characters were able to come into the game this way, including Mr. Kim, the Crab People, Mr. Slave, and of course, Al Gore. That’s not to say the main story doesn’t have its fair share of references and characters; Randy becomes a mentor of a sort after you rescue him from anal probing by Visitors, you become goth in an attempt to get the Goth Kids to play with you, and you explore the “kingdom to the north,” 8-bit Canada, to win the favor of the council of the girls so they’ll play your game. Like I mentioned, there are a lot of references in this game, and it handles them all fairly well without too many of them being obnoxiously thrown in for the sake of throwing them in.

If there isn’t a side quest, many other references come in the form of collecting. You’ll find so much junk to sell lying around town, and a lot of these items are small references in and of themselves (the Okama Gamesphere, The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs, Chinpokomon, and Wild Wacky Action Bike, just to name a few). You’ll also collect Facebook friends by completing quests or simply talking to people. Almost everyone from the show can be a friend, so if there isn’t a sidequest connected to a character, you can most likely still add them as a friend. Your weapons and equipment are also references; you can collect sets of equipment like the Stupid Spoiled Whore clothes, and the Batdadarang was my favorite ranged weapon. (I AM THE BATDAD! I AM THE ULTIMATE LITTLE LEAGUE TRASH-TALKING FATHER!)

Apart from the story, the battle system is what made the game stick out for me. It seems pretty run-of-the-mill at first; it’s you and one buddy at a time (you can eventually choose from Butters, Kenny, Stan, Jimmy, Cartman, and Kyle), and you and your opponents take turns beating each other up. All attacks are executed through timed button presses, as well as when you defend from enemy attacks, so there’s some degree of timing and skill that makes battles more than just selecting “attack” repeatedly. You and your buddy also have skills to make fights more interesting, and if you complete the necessary sidequests, you’re also able to summon other characters from the show to basically win the battle for you. You can also use magic, but uh… to be honest, I only used it once. More on that later.

But what really made it stick out for me was that there was a decent level of strategy I didn’t expect, especially from a game based off a TV show. Your health and PP are restored after every fight, so you’re free to play around with skills and status effects a little more freely without any long-term consequences. Each fight can be its own strategy, and as a result this is one of the only standard RPGs where it actually pays to use those status enhancing items that usually stay untouched in your inventory. While the game isn’t exactly hard, enemies can deal a lot of damage, especially if you’re not good at blocking. It can really pay off to use Weight Gain 4000 to boost your attack and defense or Tweek Bros. Coffee to speed up and give you an extra turn. Skills aren’t always overpowered either, and in some cases you may want to use them just to place a status effect on your opponent (Jimmy became one of my favorite buddies because of this; as the bard, he specializes in status changes). Each fight, while not hard, still felt like a decent challenge.

The game wasn’t particularly long, either, which will probably turn off most gamers but for me it’s fine. Another reason I lost interest in modern games (and RPGs in general) was I stopped wanting to invest so much time into a single game. I’ve got to be in a certain frame of mind if I’m going to start playing an RPG again, and thankfully I was when my friend lent me the game. I can’t exactly say how much time I spent on it; it took a few weeks to get through, but I was inconsistent with how much I played. Sometimes I played for an hour a night, I didn’t touch it for several days in a row, and there were a couple of occasions where I binged and played for hours without getting out of bed. RPG fans will probably be disappointed that it wasn’t longer, but considering it’s a South Park game, and that the story was entertaining the entire way through, I think the length is fine. It didn’t overstay its welcome, that’s for sure, and I’m sure RPG fans can at least agree there are some games out there that needed to end a little sooner.

Any other negatives? Well, the game lagged a lot for me. I played it on the PS3, so maybe it’s just for that system (I find a lot of PS3 games to lag, honestly), but it was still distracting. Anytime I ran around town and moved to a new area there were lagging issues, so I found myself walking at normal speed so it wouldn’t bother me. The transitions into battles had a bit of a lag, too.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of menu navigating. It wasn’t as nearly big a problem as I originally thought it would be, but it could have been a little smoother. You’ll be looking through and equipping a lot of different equipment, for example, and you’ll have to constantly unequip and reequip weapon strap-ons and equipment patches that give your stuff extra boosts. Something that would have let you transfer your strap-ons and patches without so many menus would have been nice, but I’ve played games that were far worse at this.

The biggest disappointment was that your max level is capped off at 15. I reached this level about two-thirds through the game, so it kind of made battles pointless towards the end. I don’t mind if there’s a level cap, but I think it should have been raised a little higher, maybe to 20.

Could I recommend this game to non-RPG fans? I think there might be something here they can enjoy, but I would recommend watching someone else play the game first to see if it’s something you’d be interested in. There are a lot tutorials you can read in the beginning of the game. But I won’t lie, they’re a little confusing. I think people that are unfamiliar with RPGs might be extremely lost. And I am familiar with them, and I was still lost. If I wasn’t watching Lucahjin play this game beforehand, I’m not sure I would have been able to figure some stuff out on my own. It’s not that it’s terribly difficult to understand how the game works, the game just throws a lot of stuff at you in the beginning and doesn’t offer much in terms of explanations. For example, there are status effects like bleeding and grossed out that are never really explained to you; you need to be in battle and choose the “examine” option to find out what each of these actually does. You’re taught how to do magic, but you’re never taught that your magic meter never fills up on its own like your health and PP, and that you need to use items to fill it anytime you want to use it.

Could I recommend this game to non-South Park fans? Probably not. As far as RPGs go, it’s decently complex but it’s not exactly as deep as, say, Final Fantasy. Gamers looking for an RPG but who don’t like South Park will probably find a lot to not like about the game. Like I said, I’m not much of a gamer anymore, so this game’s depth is just fine for me. But I could see how others may be turned off by it. And again, the game is a giant love letter to South Park fans, so a large part of the fun comes from appreciating all the little details about the series. I don’t mean to say that the game is a cash-grab for South Park fans, I still think it’s a fun game. I’m just saying it will probably be most appreciated by fans of the show and the game genre.

If you’re still not sure if the game’s right for you, but are still interested, go check out Lucahjin’s Let’s Play! She’s a really cool and funny person, and she did a great job at making me want to check out the game after my initial negative impressions.