Matt Stone and Trey Parker really are quite the jack-of-all-trades men, not only penning South Park for the last 17 years but also taking the time to write feature films, Broadway musicals and most recently, a video game. South Park: The Stick of Truth double as a tribute to the longevity of the show and the weird and wonderful impression it has left on its viewers. However despite all the fan service does the game underneath really match-up to the show’s legacy?
The game certainly succeeds in keeping us hooked, with a lot of the scenarios being perhaps the most memorable aspects of the game. For those of you who have yet to play the game look to the next paragraph now. The abortion clinic stands out as a highlight and it amazes me still how they pulled it off without it becoming uncomfortable to behold. Khloe Kardashian’s giant aborted foetus turned Nazi zombie is definitely one of the most ludicrous boss fights in all existence and I chuckle still when remembering the thing. Yet this is just a champion among the great moments in the game when you recall battling Underpants Gnomes beneath your parents’ rampant, ball swinging sex, travelling through an 8-bit Canada and taking a disturbing journey through Mr. Slave’s anal passages. Even the alien abduction segment (a motif a little more cliché than the others) was made more noteworthy due to some gruesome anal probing (even if Europe is apparently too sensitive for such material). It is during these diversions where the game really shines and the South Park charm is at its best.
However these moments are diversions that have little relation to the actual main plot, which is the boy’s epic game between Cartman’s Kupa Keep and Kyle’s Elven Kingdom for the possession of The Stick of Truth. While the charm of taking the juvenile logic of kids with the utmost seriousness still works as well as ever, especially when pitted in direct battle against the other kingdom, these moments are somewhat outshined by the scenarios between them. Taking the role of the new kid helps here as the main four boys are privy to the majority for once, giving us a different way to approach them (much like Craig’s role in the Pandemic episodes). However because their game is of utmost importance over everything else it’s hard to connect with all the other story elements going on because your party isn’t acknowledging or interacting with events outside the human/elf community. When Butters joined me in the abortion clinic I was expecting more of a reaction than “I’m here now”. This makes the fantasy epic the kids are playing lose itself against the excursions that are really irrelevant aside from the ability you receive at the end, and as a result the feeling of re-watching old South Park episodes supersedes the feeling of playing a South Park video game.
All this talk about the narrative however, it is only a single component that makes an entire game. Only in this case it is harder to remove from the narrative from the equation, because the game performs best when the narrative scenarios are focused and not free roaming. There’s a confused sense of freedom while exploring the town of South Park because it is town that is riddled with loading screens. Sure we have the leisure to explore all we want but simply entering a building will trigger a load screen let alone leaving it moments later and it’s hard to remain engaged with the actual task at hand when there’s so little gameplay between loading time. This is in part why the moments when we’re abducted by aliens or sent to Canada are more engaging than any quest to recruit the girls for war, because these segments aren’t fragmented by the game’s technical limitations. Therefore the parts of the game where the player should feel the most free are also the parts which are most disengaging, because gameplay is in constant interruption. The full narrative throttle moments (which tend to be scenarios separate from the main plot) are therefore the most memorable parts. Perhaps if released a decade earlier, maybe on the PlayStation 2 when load screens were a more common occurrence, the game wouldn’t have felt so strangely outdated to me. Ultimately when the game is providing fan service it soars whereas when it is trying to be a game it falters making it seem as if the technical specifications of the game were made to fit around a plot rather than vice versa.
Finally however, I reach the battle system which is where I feel most conflicted about the South Park video game experience. At first thinking back to playing the game the battles are perhaps one of the last things that come to mind, but that isn’t because the system is bad, rather it is terribly underused. However once they do come to mind I remember the fluctuation between dominating the battle and feeling it slip away brought out some of the most invigorating feelings that any good RPG is capable of doing. Plus there are tons of options to mess around with between you and your six party members giving every battle the potential to feel very different depending on the way you wished to approach it. Only, such variety does not extend to the enemies the game throws at you, and rarely are you forced to use any of the many battle options at your disposal. This is where the feeling of underuse comes to the mind, because there’s a sense of a deep battle system here that the developers weren’t able to utilise to its full potential in the time available. So I will say that if not for any other reason, this is where we can see why a sequel should be considered; because there’s a lot more to offer than what’s on display in this initial entry. Then again a lot of us are still waiting on a South Park theatrical follow-up so we’ll have to wait and see on this one.
Ultimately, when giving an alternative opinion on a game it is easy to focus on the negatives over the positives, so I wish to clarify, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a very enjoyable game which deserves a lot of the merit it received upon release. However it is the potential within the game that makes it most interesting and perhaps, like Uncharted, the next entry will truly display what the series has to offer, something really worth our attention. I would hate to see this game fall into absolute obscurity as quickly as I imagine it might, but unless we see a sequel soon I’m afraid we may never see what South Park: The Stick of Truth could have truly become.
Thanks for reading. Next time I’ll be doing another Best, Worst and Unique involving one of my favourite series. Until next time.