Sunday, March 9, 2014

REVIEW - South Park : The Stick of Truth.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is a classically-structured RPG with the free-roaming and sharp writing of a western property and a battle system inspired by the turn-based-yet-active combat of Super Mario RPG, focusing on the epic playtime adventures of the foul-mouthed fourth graders of South Park Elementary.  Written and performed by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the game was developed by Obsidian Entertainment.

While Parker and Stone are brilliant writers, creators and satirists, Obsidian are known for their canny understanding of narrative and what makes the RPG experience so special, along with an unfortunate tendency to release unpolished (Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas), sometimes unfinished games (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II).

How's it stack up?

It's wonderful, and the best game I've played in a long time.  It's pure fun - consistently entertaining, viciously funny and gleefully earnest.  It feels like the most cohesive, complete and tuned game Obsidian have ever made, though it may simultaneously be the least-ambitious in terms of RPG styling and player choice.  In contrast to much of Obsidian's past work, there are no major problems or crashes, here - just some framerate stutters when you start running through a larger area after it's loaded.

For their part, Parker and Stone have delivered a script - from the story itself to the details of junk-loot names and attacks - and a game that celebrates the most memorable parts of South Park lore while never losing sight of what makes the stories of Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny so... accessible.

I'm going to wax romantic on South Park for a moment, if you'll forgive me the indulgence.

The human army operates out of the mighty Kupa Keep, where it is their sworn duty to protect the omnipotent Stick of Truth.

South Park's stories are told exclusively through the eyes of children, and it maintains a strange... emotional accuracy.  Children at play take their play intensely seriously - seething betrayals, vicious combat, thrilling victories and soaring plot lines - as they lay siege to enemy forts, wooden swords and tack hammers in hand, soup strainers, football pads and bike helmets serving as armor.

Parker and Stone understand this well, and it permits the player to be a child again as you kneel at the feet of your wizard-king to be knighted before his mighty canvas fortress, and then set off on your next epic quest by quickly slipping through the screen-door into the kitchen and trundling across the living room, past his Mom, before exiting a suburban house. Children do - and you will - choose something far more entertaining than the mundane by wilfully ignoring reality for the sake of adventure, pursuing the omnipotent, titular stick above all other quests, riiight up until your parents track you down, complain that it's past your bedtime and drag you home.

South Park has long been most-easily associated with the crudest of humor, populated as it is with twelve-assed monkeys, herpes-driven plotlines and sentient, murderous celebrity vaginas - and this is not a game for kids - but it's a game for the kid in you.

There are so few games about kids that manage to capture the imagination and passion of youth.  So often, we're given something dry and dark - Papo & Yo, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Contrast - depressing reflections of childhood, bent as they are through an adult's eye.  Here, refreshingly, childhood seems as brightly-colored, honest and full of potential as it did before puberty hit and everything went to hell.

A broken lamp and well-placed Dragonshout (see: fart) will make short work of this blockade.

Folks who loathe Parker & Stone's humor - if such persons exist - will find a lot to loathe here, as everything is an energetic riff on the style of comedy that's served the duo so well for so long.  When you rifle through cabinets for loot (cannily, any door, drawer or locker that can be accessed will have a gold handle to draw attention to it), you'll come across South Park staple foods like Snacky Cakes and Cheesy Poofs - valuable items to heal you in battle! - while Tweek Bros. coffee serves as a handy speed potion.  You'll find a few quarters to build up your bank and junk items to sell to vendors like Faith+1 CDs, wiry black tufts of pubes and vibrators - every item is a reference to the show that spawned the game.

The humor is omnipresent across the entire campaign, from the patches and strap-ons you find to upgrade your gear and weapons (a tuft of ginger pubes strapped to your weapon inflict foes with the Grossed Out debuff, causing damage as they puke their guts out and preventing them from using healing itmes, while the wire hanger, discovered at South Park's Unplanned Parenthood clinic, deals huge bleeding damage on a perfect strike) to the special abilities you unleash in combat.  My personal favorite, Roshambo, sees you kicking an opponent in the nuts so hard that they become stunned for two turns.  Once leveled up with some prudently-distributed skill points, all enemies who witness this most cruel attack suffer a penalty to defence and become inflicted with Grossed Out (while ladies are immune to the move's stun effect).

Underneath the biting, laugh-out-loud, insensitive and scatalogical humor is a proper RPG, you'll discover, replete with nicely tactical combat and a rich system of interlocking skills, power-ups, buffs and debuffs.

Butters' Hammer of Justice move inflicts the Pissed Off debuff, forcing enemies to attack the young paladin and preventing them from using any special abilities.

Enemy placement often dictates strategy, as foes in the back can only be struck by area-of-effect moves, ranged weapons or a Thief's sneaky backstab.  As you progress through the game, you unlock greater depth via both the expanding utility of your upgraded abilities and your Buddies - South Park's Cartman the Grand Wizard, Kyle the Elf King, Stan the Warrior, Princess Kenny, Butters the Paladin and Jimmy the (stuttering) Bard - who join you in combat and can be swapped out on the fly at the expense of your current combat Buddy's attack.

In a heavy fight, the excessively innocent, trusting and cute Butters can blow most of his PP (power points) to transform into his mighty alter-ego, Professor Chaos. True to his name, the evil Professor cannot be relied upon for a single-life-saving maneuver as a wheel of chance appears, spinning until you tap X and unleash one of a half-dozen powerful abilities.

Kyle can begin every turn with a powerful buff to your attacks before laying down the hurt with one of his Dad's golf clubs, kicking his little brother into a foe or summoning a rain of arrows from his Elven army (the button timing of which is really easy to screw up).  Jimmy offers the most powerful buffs and debuffs (mash X to overcome his stuttering) - culminating in the awesome power of the brown note - while Cartman specializes in swearing at or farting on people.

Rare is the boss that will actually challenge you on normal difficulty (a certain ex-presidential candidate was a very tough fight, I'll admit) - but the combat is never less than fun.  As every single attack, block and special move at your disposal must be mastered with correctly-timed button presses to reach their full potential, the player must be constantly present and engaged in the combat - and, were the Super Mario RPG-style timing mechanics removed, The Stick of Truth's combat would be far too easy, and too simple.

The easy-going challenge and involved mechanics ensure the game clips along at an entertaining pace, never feeling grindy, never descending into frustrating difficulty spikes.  It's easy, breezy, hilarious fun, the whole way through.

After finding Jesus (hint : at Church), you can summon him once a day in combat to spray some lead.

You have the run of the entirety of South Park from the beginning of the game, but in a cool Metroidvania-ish twist, you unlock a few new special abilities that grant you access to hidden areas as you progress.  It constantly mixes up environments, enemies and fresh ground for comedy as you throw down with everything from undead, anti-Semitic cows to Canadians.

I refuse to spoil much of the game's quests or main plot for you, but allow me to say it's constantly hilarious.  As a patriot, I particularly appreciated the wonderful sequence in Canada, where one meets the Earl of Winnipeg, fights Dire Wolves and Dire Bears (who are "like bears, only dire"), and can become afflicted with Dire AIDS.  Fortunately, in Canada, health care is cheap and readily available, and the local walk-in clinic can patch you right up to the point that "you still have AIDS, but it's no longer dire.  It's like Magic Johnson AIDS."

The Stick of Truth is fifteen hours of consistently-irreverent, shamelessly tasteless and constantly-giggle-inducing video game comedy - an asset far too rare beyond the confines of Double Fine.  In closing...

A perfect poop rewards you with a Nugget of Shit, useful for flinging at an enemy and inflicting Gross-Out.

This is the most-successful TV/cartoon/movie-to-game transition that's ever been.  Full stop.  Zero qualifiers, as it looks, animates and sounds exactly like the show.  South Park's fixed 2D aesthetic has served it amazingly well, here, and fans of the show will find a full TV season's worth of content in interactive form, indistinguishable - even in combat - from its namesake.

South Park: The Stick of Truth is the best sixty bucks I've spent on a video game in a long time, and the most purely entertaining title I've experienced since The Last of Us. It is constantly and consistently delightful, a fifteen-hour orgy of crude zingers, sharp satire, social commentary and fun, breezy gameplay. Your enjoyment of it will surely boil down to whether or not you enjoy South Park to begin with, but if you do, it's a no-brainer.

Buy this game.

I seriously wish I had time to go back and play the whole thing over again, right now.

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