Southpark--The-Stick-of-Truth-Review Southpark: The Stick of Truth Review

   11/03/2014 at 23:31       Richard Horne       0 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Southpark: The Stick of Truth, Obsidian Games, Ubisoft, RPG, Mr Hanky

Pretty much every review of Southpark: The Stick of Truth I’ve read thus far has described how it’s essentially an interactive and extended version of the TV show. That, partly due to the show’s lo-fi aesthetic, but also, in testament to Obsidian’s talented artists and modelers, its visuals blur the line between game and video making the two pretty much indistinguishable. Those reviews have also commented on how the turn-based combat takes its cues from Nintendo’s RPG-lite Paper Mario et al, but has enough additional depth to keep things interesting in the long run. That Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s razor sharp satire is in full and devastating effect but that there’s also more nuance and subtlety to The Stick of Truth’s humour than the early onslaught of dick and fart jokes would have you believe. And all of those reviews would be entirely accurate if not somewhat predictable and trite.

But perhaps the thing that’s most suprising about Southpark: The Stick of Truth, is that while it will undoubtedly claim all the wrong headlines for its crass, puerile humour, if you dig deep enough you’ll actually discover a game with real heart. Which came as something of a shock to me because for all its predictable-but-hilarious-nonetheless shit, piss and anal probe jokes, there’s equal amounts of nuanced child-like innocence and heartwarming naivety.

It’s the individual moments that will pass you by if you’re not paying attention. Take for instance Butters’ special attack, which sees him transform into the ludicrously camp, hand-drawn, 80s-Saturday-morning-cartoon-action-hero Captain Chaos, before unleashing a devastating attack. On the one hand it’s a fun wink and a nod in the direction of the cartoons Matt and Trey, and gamers of a certain age, grew up watching as kids. But on the other hand it’s also a lovely, sweet moment when you consider that this is actually how Butters sees himself in his own mind's eye. The art style of Captain Chaos is a complete contrast to the cut-out, flat, rounded and squat-like nature of the show's normal visuals. But this contrast is intentional. That child-like over-active imagination and innocent playfulness is something, that if we’re being honest, we all miss and wish we could re-capture in our adult lives.

Then there's the side missions. While many of them are brilliantly bonkers and true to the series' gross-out trademarks, there are countless incidental moments that remind you that underneath all the cussing and violence the characters portrayed so authentically in the game are just kids going about their daily lives and doing what kids do. For instance one mission sees you simply searching for 6 kindergarten kids scattered throughout the game's substantial world as you join them in a ridiculous game of hide and seek. Again this can be viewed two ways. Firstly as a commentary on the inane and banal missions types traditional RPG games regularly have us taking part in, but secondly as a reminder that the game's main characters are all kids and this is what kids would do.

Whenever I’ve played a traditional RPG like this in the past there’s always been something of a disconnect between the real-time nature of exploring the world and interacting with NPCs, and the stop-start nature of the turn-based battles. In fact this was the one thing that stopped me from playing Final Fantasy 7 almost immediately many years ago. But yet somehow The Stick of Truth’s framing of these RPGs mechanics, from behind the eyes of a playful young child, seems to fit perfectly. Seeing kids dressed as elves and warriors using household items to make their outfits, and in effect, quite literally role-playing is simulatenously both charming and cohesive. It just seems to make more sense in this context. Cartman even makes jokes about not trying to understand why enemies would take it in turns to hit each other and just accept that that’s how it is, which is a nice touch. 

In fact the Stick of Truth is full of these self-referential quips and takes great delight in mocking game, TV and movie tropes. Another memorable example being the audio logs you’ll collect during one set-piece mission in which the protagonist comments on how he finds it strange that people would find the time and indeed be inclined to record such logs in the face of great danger and adversity. And it's this awareness and ability to take the piss out of itself that makes the Stick of Truth genuinely funny and deserving of your attention.

While the game’s visuals and animations are deliberately stunted and clunky in keeping with the TV show, the gameplay and system mechanics also seem to follow suit. And throughout my playtime with the game I often found myself wondering how much of this was a deliberate design choice, aimed at creating a cohesive and consistent game, and how much of it was endemic of Obisidian’s talents. While renowned for its rich and diverse universes, creating slick and streamlined systems has never been its forte. Take for example the game’s simplistic Facebook-alike menu system. It’s organised into well structured tabs meaning your inventory, abilities, quest log and friends list etc are all easy to navigate to and explore, but far too many times, particularly when I was struggling to find an objective, I’d find myself hitting the back button once then the right trigger 5 times, yet again, to navigate to the in-game map. Something as simple as remembering where the player last looked would in no way have negatively impacted the game’s tone and feel.

Then there's the relative lack of explanation of how some of its systems and mechanics work. You'll find stickers and what the game refers to as a strap-ons, which buff your weapons and abilities, but they're somewhat glossed over and easy to miss. In fact I wasn't even aware of some of these mechanics until a good 3/4 hours into the game.

Ultimately it’s these little niggles and frustrations that will leave a slightly bitter taste in your mouth and go some way towards undoing a lot of the goodwill generated by the fantastic production values and great attention to detail every where else.

Southpark: The Stick of Truth is more than just an homage to the TV show. It’s an intrinsic part of the Southpark experience and an essential purchase for anyone with even a remote passing interest in the series. I haven’t watched an episode since around series 4 but I still laughed hard at a lot of the jokes, knew most of the characters and reveled in its deep and rewarding narrative. I'll certainly be digging back into it and I recommend you come on down to Southpark and meet some friends of mine.

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