- Developer – Obsidian Entertainment, South Park Digital
- Publisher – Ubisoft
- Platforms – PlayStation 3 (tested), Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
- Release date – 7 March
- Price - £39.99
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Is South Park: The Stick of Truth the funniest videogame ever written? "Well, yes, obviously" is the answer to that. Written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the satirists behind the eponymous TV show, its opening two hours draw more belly laughs than Portal, Monkey Island and all the LEGO games combined. It's packed with toilet humour, coarse language, nods to popular culture. It's also an homage to role-playing games. The conventions of Skryim, World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons are all lovingly sent up, especially in one hilarious scene starring school counsellor Mr. Mackey. I won't spoil it, but it made me laugh more than any part of a game ever.
But the humour is to be expected, right? After all, this is South Park, a TV series which, after sixteen years on the air is still fresh and funny as ever. As soon as you heard they were making a new South Park game you knew it was going to make you laugh. What you didn't know was that it would be deep, challenging and full of heart. For years, tie-in videogames have been the laughing stock of the industry. The Stick of Truth belongs up there with the notable exceptions: Goldeneye, The Warriors, Spiderman 2. It's not just "like the TV show", it's its own thing, ambitious, full, a game of higher aspirations than to just cash in.
You play a new kid who's just moved to South Park, trying to ingratiate himself with the local fourth graders. The titular Stick of Truth is a MacGuffin from a long-standing game of fantasy that Cartman, Kenny et al have been playing. If you've seen the Black Friday episodes of the TV show, or the Lord of the Rings spoofs, you'll be familiar with the set-up already. Using wooden swords, thrown together outfits and their own made up rules ("nuh-uh, you can't kill me, I'm a level 5!") the kids are battling for control of the stick. Your main quest is to find it and defend it.
Combat is turn based, a la Final Fantasy, and there are four different classes to chose from: Fighter, Mage, Thief and, ahem, Jew. Each has its own attacks, special abilities and equipment, all of which are upgradable and customisable. It's a sandbox RPG, basically. You're free to roam around the town of South Park, as well as other locations that you unlock as you go on, and there are collectibles, sidequests and secret items to discover.
Formulaic that may sound, but as well as the humour, the make-believe aesthetic of the children's play fight makes it feel fresh. For the first time in a long time in an RPG you're not battling a goblin, or some high wizard. You're fighting hall monitors, sixth graders, the ginger kids. It does for Skyrim what Canis Canim Edit did for Grand Theft Auto. Given all the swearing and big silly laughs, it might be hard to see, but The Stick of Truth is a loving recreation of nine-year old life. I almost feel silly writing that. This is a game after all where one of your attacks is to fart in your hand and then throw it at someone. But seriously, The Stick of Truth has heart. It captures the essence of small-town summer holidays, where all the kids would play together outside. It'll make you laugh but it'll also make you smile, in recognition.
Some of the quests are a little light. Most are a variation on fetching, requiring you to either pick up or drop off items at various locations around town. The humour picks up some of the slack - Al Gore asking you to find three clues to the location of ManBearPig is a lot more fun than collecting X skeever pelts – but it's still occasionally tedious.
Combat can get a little convoluted as well. There are a lot of button combinations to remember and the occasions for you to use them aren't very well telegraphed. See, aside from the turn-based main fights, there are little moves you can do while you're walking around, like shooting parts of the environment to make them drop on enemies or ordering your buddies to use their special abilities to unlock doors. Using these things requires a tricky combination of the shoulder buttons and analogue sticks and you often end up opening the menu by mistake, or standing still, randomly selecting weapons by mistake.
But those are minor gripes. The largest problem is that The Stick of Truth's environments, though crisply rendered in typical South Park style, feel underpopulated. Yes, there's that sense of childhood and small-town community, but also artifice. NPC dialogue repeats very often and characters simply stand still, waiting for you to collect a quest from them. Once you've accessed an area and completed the quest related to it, it becomes dead – there's no use going back there.
It often feels like The Silent Age, or an old point and clicker. Though it's a sandbox game, populated with characters that we all know and love (especially Randy) The Stick of Truth doesn't feel alive. You're exploring environments that, if you're a fan of the show, you should be intimately familiar with, yet they somehow feel distant. If you open a drawer, it contains loot. If you speak to characters, they either recite a single quip or feed you information relating to your quest. It feels like a game world, not a real world.
Nevertheless, South Park: The Stick of Truth, is a funny, involving and occasionally warm videogame. Especially after swapping publishers, and slipping release date so many times, this is much more than was to be expected. It's not just hilarious, novel and a new way to enjoy the world of South Park, it's complex, difficult and original. Consciously or not, it's the first truly honest depiction of childhood ever in a videogame – imaginative, gross and above all else, plain fun.
- Gameplay: 7/10 – Much deeper than expected though the combat is occasionally fiddly and the world is often airless.
- Graphics: 9/10 – Completely loyal to the basic animation style of the show but great to look at regardless. Colourful, varied, with plenty of funny character and location designs.
- Writing: 9/10 – Hilarious. The typical South Park parody and satire is present and correct but the humoured nods to other videogames are what really shine.
- Sound: 8/10 – Great voice-acting and music. This is the first game with an orchestral score that will, if you listen to it closely, make you chuckle.
- Replay value: 6/10 – Some of the quests are kind of dry and the jokes work best the first time round. Plenty of collectibles and extras to find however.
- Overall: 8/10 – A funny, smart and often heart-warming game that belongs to a small canon of film or TV tie-ins that are actually worth playing.