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South Park: Stick of Truth is a title with a history almost as convoluted as its subject matter - well not really, but you get my point - the subject of multiple delays and other obstacles that could've prevented this game from coming to light. As the first truly "South Park"-esque experience with Matt and Trey directly involved, the game naturally shies away from the rather sophomoric elements of its predecessors and thus represents their vision entirely. Does their work with Obsidian finally do the series justice, however? I have to say that it's impressive and one of the most entertaining journeys I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Even despite its relative simplicity and modest playing time, Stick of Truth is an rpg jam-packed with hilarity, fart jokes, an uncanny and satirical plot, and an incredibly realized world with an aesthetic so faithful to the series that it feels like you're playing an interactive episode. This may yet be one of my favorite episodes.
Stick of Truth has a very simple premise: you're the new kid in town and inevitably sucked into the gang's roleplaying antics: the humans led by the Grand Wizard Cartman, who reside in the Kingdom of Kupa Keep - his backyard - and the elves of Zaron, their woodland kingdom led by the High Jew Elf Kyle. We learn, as Cartman narrates with the classically overblown shtick of most fantasy films, that the two have battled for a thousand years in a struggle to control the eponymous Stick of Truth, a relic capable of granting the bearer absolute control over space and time. The mysterious new hero, a typical silent protagonist, joins the fray to protect the Stick of Truth after rescuing Butters from an attack by rival elves; essentially, kids with pointy ears glued to their heads. It's then that the game truly begins and the player is introduced to the basics through a relatively entertaining tutorial. In keeping with the general feel of the game, even this segment feels natural and an effective introduction to the game's general mechanics.
Players are given the option of four classes: warrior, mage, thief, and jew. While each comes with its own basic skills, the differences beyond the superficial are primarily nuanced. Warriors obviously rely on brute strength, thieves on attacks that can penetrate the defenses of opponent's armor, mages that take advantage of debuffing or safeguarding allies, and Jews that... well, use crudely inspired variations of different skill. Each class comes with its own perks that players can learn to enhance their class' skills individually, such as perks that add special debuffs to attacks or enhance the damage dealt. Perks pertaining to the character overall, are also available. While it's fairly standard fare for an rpg, Stick of Truth implements their system in ways that remain true to the world in which its story is set.
Combat is context sensitive, with players performing attacks and blocks via timed prompts. Successfully chaining attacks can lead to additional damage as well as other bonuses depending on what your character is equipped with, while successful guards can prevent special attacks from debuffing players. It can be a bit tricky to learn the patterns of different attacks your enemies will use at first, but players should have no problem learning the ropes as they progress. The combat is also turn-based - Cartman explains it away as one of the rules the kids follow while they're "playing" the game - and allows you to use an item or unique skill prior to engaging the enemy. Of course, in keeping with the spirit of the game itself and the kids involved, Stick of Truth takes some silly liberties. Speed potions are cups of coffee, Revive potions are hard-shelled tacos, and power potions are bottles of soda. Weaponry initially consists of bows with plastic-tipped arrows, toilet plungers, wooden swords, and even regular household hammers. As the game progresses and the stakes increase, players will acquire much deadlier weapons.
Special summons that players can unlock via special quests range from Jesus to Mr. Hanky and each comes with their own entertaining - and sometimes disgusting - introductions. While obviously overpowered, they can only be used once a day, and never in boss battles, although the game itself loses its edge due to a relatively swift learning curve. Even on hard, battles may not carry the difficulty expected. Slight misgivings aside, there are no random encounters to speak of, although there are a few surprise ambushes players can run into while exploring. Attacking enemies before they can initiate battle will give players an edge by allowing them to attack first. Players can even stun enemies or use "magic" to inflict negative statuses on them prior.
Debuffing enemies becomes one of the primary focuses in most battles. From basic negative statuses like slow to attack/defense down, players can also inflict bleeding damage, which causes the enemies to lose health progressively each turn, and can worsen as additional bleeding damage is dealt. There's fire damage, which causes the afflicted to scramble about in panic while being burned each turn, and the status that most effectively captures the South Park spirit, Gross damage. Gross damage operates much like "poison", causing the victim to vomit each turn without being able to restore their health until the status is removed. Note that enemies can also inflict these negative statuses on your party, so players will have to keep their eyes sharp for crucial blocks.
Enemies come with their own strengths and weaknesses, some to elements like fire and shock, while others can only be attacked by certain methods, such as using projectiles. One enemy is even capable of reflecting arrow attacks back at the player, while another automatically counters any typical melee attacks you can throw at them, and with only one additional party member being playable at the same time, playing against multiple enemies can occasionally get frustrating if you haven't mastered the combat system's nuances. Your party consists of the hero and one additional companion, ranging from the Paladin Butters to Princess Kenny. Each has their own skillset representing a different trope of rpg games, and players can switch them out for the cost of a turn. Unfortunately, they lack the depth that would otherwise encourage experimenting; I solo'd most of my playthroughs with Butters, only switching out during mandatory segments.
Outside of battle, your party members are given slightly more relevance by each having a special ability required to solve basic problems while exploring during quests, whether it's using Princess Kenny to distract rival enemies by flashing them, or Butter's healing skill to restore the health of downed allies. This isn't used much either, sadly, since they are only needed during segments relative to the narrative. The primary benefit of having different party members however, shows when exploring.
The world of South Park is realized flawlessly, from the aesthetic to the characters and locale. Even the cutscenes are rendered identically to the animated show, often making it impossible not to consider Stick of Truth a canon episode; most of the environment can also be interacted with. The townspeople are faithfully represented in all their glory, with dozens of cameos that add layers of authenticity to the gaming experience. Your party members will often comment on various events that occurred in certain areas, and references to previous episodes can be found, especially in the collectibles that players will acquire. Chinpokomon can be found hidden throughout South Park's set pieces for loot hoarders, and enemies drop everything from spare change to copies of Butter's novel "The Poop that took a Pee". You might even find some space cash; the game has more than enough items for players to find and sell. The most useful collectibles however, are the various costumes and accessories you can customize your hero with.
South Park comes chockfull of garb that players can customize their hero with, from elven themed outfits to Goth clothing replete with skull makeup and pentagram tattoos that you can equip your character with. Costumes each have their own cumulative special attributes, and in addition to these, players can equip their costumes - and weapons - with special attachments that also augment their character, from patches that add fire or gross damage to your attacks, to patches that give your character additional armor or PP; the latter is required to use your party's special abilities, and is an obvious nod to Pokémon. Inexplicably, you can only customize your character, a tragic oversight that would undoubtedly have made combat with your party members more interesting. Nonetheless, special dyes you can unlock to change the colors of your costume in addition to new hairstyles, tattoos, makeup, and other minutiae provide the player with a lot of material to craft their hero's appearance as they see fit while on their misadventures in this epic, yet self-contained narrative.
Fans of South Park know that Matt and Trey are experts at satirizing and spoofing elements of pop culture with biting insight and classically lowbrow hysterics, and in Stick of Truth, they pull no punches. Right from the outset, the hero, known only as ***, is recognized for his impressive control over magic - what farts are essentially called - and is soon christened by Cartman, of all things, "Dragonborn". Your first major fart attack is in fact called "Dragon Shout". You'll find plenty of other references that cleverly play with traditional role playing tropes and pay homage to classics, including Legend of Zelda, in a quest so fun that I won't spoil it further. You might also want to resist the urge to randomly barge into someone's house while you're out exploring; I ran into a couple disturbing surprises.
As the story evolves, so do the antics; one side quest might have you fighting suicidal Nazi cows at a farm while another tasks you with stealing underwear. The reward? Usually a special item and a friendship request to your Facebook account; when you're not saving humans or fighting the elves of Zaron, you're tasked with the goal your parents first sent you off on: making new friends. Stick of Truth handles the traditional notoriety systems of role playing games deliberately by making the pursuit of friendship an integral part of the experience. While a few people you meet may befriend you immediately, others won't until you're more popular or have finished a specific quest relevant to them. This feature adds an incentive to an otherwise neglected segment of the game by not only granting the player access to special perks once milestones are reached, but also access to your own Facebook profile that's updated with new comments as you gain more friends. Some of the interactions give life to what could've been a gimmicky feature, and also reinforce the authenticity of the gaming experience.
However, the game never takes itself too seriously, consistently desconstructing the clichés typically found in videogame storytelling candidly. At one point, a shady government figure complains about the overuse of Nazi zombies in plots; audio logs feature a victim wondering why people in danger waste time recording themselves; a group of undefeatable elves will even tell you that it's a waste of time to fight them and whine when you do anyway. Stick of Truth wisely tells a clever and outlandish story while skewering all of the conventions we take for granted, and when the stakes evolve, the antics only get more outlandish. However, no South Park game is complete without fart jokes.
As the Dragonborn, sir *** is capable of unleashing powerful "magic" attacks via his farts, that can inflict damage or stun enemies to interrupt their attacks. Farts consume mana however, which players can replenish with special potions - chipotle burritos- and have their drawbacks if abused that can result in a complete loss of their mana reserve. The prime usefulness of farts is found outside of battle, however. The hero can use them to clear paths blocked off from the player as well as detonate flammable areas and eliminate nearby enemies. Or if you're bored, you can simply fart on your buddies or a random npc. In spite of all these positives, there are some blemishes.
While I personally experienced very few glitches, others have experienced serious technical problems that in some cases ruined gameplay for them, from framerate drops that made countering in combat virtually impossible, to bugs that made certain quests unfinishable. I count myself among the lucky ones since the most I could ever complain about were slight loading screens while traveling. Tack on a relatively brisk playing time - around twelve to fourteen hours - and a lack of a new game plus feature, and you have a brilliant game sealed within a relatively above average package.
Yet, I couldn't stop smiling every time I heard the faux high fantasy score playing in the background while Cartman chanted in the chorus, or heard classic songs from South Park lore playing inside the various shops I explored. I relished helping a friend battle a dreaded She-Ogre(their sister); hunting outlandish rare animals for sport; even rising to the task to stop a threat located in the deepest recesses imaginable. In these moments, one may come to realize that Stick of Truth is more than simply a game for players to experience; it's not so much a love letter to South Park fans as it is a tribute to gaming and storytelling in general, created by Matt and Trey with obvious dedication.
In closing, South Park: Stick of Truth is an excellent game in spite of what initially seems a relatively average premise. A tightly-woven narrative and near-perfect reimagining of the infamous town provides players with a world realized with the highest fidelity and vision of the series' creators. It may play it safe gameplay-wise, and some technical hiccups may hinder it, but when it does break rules, it does so with purpose.
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