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South Park already did it

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    South Park: The Stick of Truth

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    South Park already did it

    I was born at the perfect time for South Park. Launching when I was the tender age of nine and being the talk of the grade four playground, the show managed to age along with me. Not necessarily grow up, but as it aged it expanded from purely jokes about poop and farts and kids swearing, to jokes about poop and farts and kids swearing and satires about whatever was in the news and takes on popular social debates. For that reason it was a bigger part of my younger years than the Simpsons (too early) or Family Guy (too late). Add Baseketball, Team America, and Cannibal: The Musical to that and it’s easy to see why Trey Parker and Matt Stone were easily the biggest influences on my comedic tastes.

    Sadly, my following of the show petered out in my early 20’s for a couple of reasons. Out of the show’s control was the fact I decided that internet crime wasn’t worth the effort since I’m not willing to spend $110 a month on fart jokes and sports with Foxtel. Secondly the show had started to lose that "must watch every week" sheen it’d had from season 4 to 10 due to an overabundance of tolerable but underwhelming "in the style of X" episodes along with episodes where the kids play make believe without also functioning on any real-world level to "elevate" it. Sure they’d always done this stuff, but by 2009 it was half the episodes. When I think about the show’s best moments I think about Butter’s Very Own Episode, Fingerbang, or The Tunnel of Prejudice more than Mr Hanky, Sparky the gay dog, snukes, or World of Warcraft.

    The reason I bring this up beyond self-indulgence is that The Stick of Truth perfectly straddles itself around my favourite era of the show without touching it, so it’ll probably kill for those with different tastes where it didn’t for me. This is the most poo and probe based South Park has been since the 90s, and the nature of the story is in the Coon mould where the kids are straight up playing make-believe with the other main plot being largely unrelated. It’s still perfectly enjoyable but it lacks the cleverness that elevates most of the irreverent genital jokes into something memorable. I’d hoped Obsidian could have dragged out something ¡°special¡±, but mostly my final impression is pleasant and full of nostalgia but little more.

    Poop is funny

    Whimsical rape jokes.

    While this approach successfully sets up a lightheartedly vulgar mood, it isn’t particularly funny. With such an innocent context there aren’t many laugh-out-loud hilarious places to go. You poo in toilets. Magic is farts. Diabetes is a magical curse. Kids swear at and hit each other. Children ¡°playing a game¡± is used to deliver meta messages to the player like "silent protagonists are weird" and "real fighting doesn’t take turns". It’s watchable but fairly weak.

    The crazier B-plot which kicks in after a potentially lengthy day of playing humans vs elves is a lot better as it gets into more entertaining territory at least, but it’s all stuff we’ve seen before. There’s the modern Imaginationland styled government agents who are paranoid, incompetent and needlessly destructive. There’s people getting violently sodomized by alien probes and nazi zombie cows which is absolutely the most season 1 thing in the world. It’s an entertaining chance to live through stuff we’ve laughed at for decades and it’ll do.

    I get that you’re sticking it to the man, but explaining a joke never works well.

    Impressively one section managed to make a massive impact by being insanely transgressive and poor taste. This should be fine for South Park fans since it left me with the same slack jawed guffawing as the end of "Stanley’s Cup" or the surgery in "Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina", but for otherwise uninitiated fans of turn-based games or Obsidian be warned that it can be on the heinous side. The Australian censorship intentionally makes things worse; Trey and Matt understand that writing out comedic events sucks the absurdity out of a situation, so they did so as a protest. While it sticks it to the man, it also means what would have been a ridiculous dong and balls minigame is coldly presented as a forced abortion at gunpoint.

    The final and most heavily revisited branch of humour is references. This is absolutely bursting at the seams with endless "hey do you remember this?" moments. Junk items to sell for cash are suitably themed. Collectibles are Chinpokomon or the friendship of minor characters. The entire soundtrack is tunes from the show. Character’s homes are covered wall to wall with mementos of their achievements over the years. It’s so insanely referential it may as well be Family Guy: Stick of Truth at times.

    Why can’t I hold all these references?

    Thankfully for me I’m actually totally cool with referential humour, as you can see by almost every topic heading I’ve ever made. Sure it isn’t belly laughs but I had a great time being reminded of all these little details they snuck in and it really brought the setting alive. Hell yes I enjoy remembering the Stevie Nicks goat. Hell yes I enjoy remembering Cherokee hair tampons. Hell yes I enjoy remembering NAMBLA. There were multiple times I couldn’t leave buildings because I had to finish listening to "Taco Flavoured Kisses" or ¡°Something In My Front Pocket¡± again. Is it cheap and easy laughs? You betcha, but I’m a cheap and easy guy.

    Let’s Fighting Love

    Wait, this is video game review not a TV one right? Even though the comedy isn’t exactly A material, making an entertaining RPG is right in Obsidian’s wheelhouse so expectations were high and… it’s fine. As a (chicken) lover of turn-based combat who also hates anime, anything that tackles the genre without torturing my eyes is going to be of interest. Thanks to fun references in character movesets, entertaining status effects, an interesting take on enemy rows and stances, and a satisfying power curve in gear progression this is close to being wonderful, but a couple of decisions negatively impact the system.

    Why yes this is a burning pedophile vomiting because I threw poo at him. Obviously.

    In attempt to raise interactivity in the menu-centric genre, Obsidian use a style similar to Super Mario RPG or Legend of Dragoon where timing a button press will boost damage or defence. Attachments can be slotted onto gear to make these timed prompts more powerful by adding elemental damage, inflicting statuses, or recharging HP/PP. With these bonuses the timed button presses become a vital part of the gameplay, and that dependency drags it all down.

    Despite the intention of making turn-based combat "more exciting", it’s added in a tedious mandatory QTE for every action in the game. This isn’t a remotely difficult thing to do, but I’d rather half-assedly mash X when burning through filler battles than pay complete attention for the most basic of actions. Special moves utilize more intricate prompts to execute, like doing a full QTE to trigger Princess Kenny’s unicorn charge or spinning Butters around to throw his hammer at enemies. This would have been more than enough extra interactivity over the 90’s model to feel fresh, but when everything has a prompt it lessens the uniqueness of these attacks.

    Stick of Truth is far too easy by default. While this isn’t a big issue for the genre, I really loved fighting in Child of Light after all, this is so simple that the whole row, armour and stance system the entire game is built around can be ignored. It’s pretty much impossible to get yourself into a sticky situation for a number of reasons.

    Each character is given one defensive and one aggressive action back to back every turn. This means you get to heal, buff, buddy ability, or summon two times every round without sacrificing any damage output. It completely scraps the basic attack and defence balancing act the genre has utilized since the 1980s; it’s almost impossible to enter a defensive turn without full health. Receiving a status ailment is meaningless because they can be cleared immediately at zero cost. In addition all health is recharged to max between fights, so there’s no need to worry about damage over time or resources either. Healing potential is so far above incoming damage potential it’s genuinely unfair.

    This is pretty much the only combat screenshot I took that didn’t have a foetus, an expletive, or a penis in it.

    Those statuses the player can so effortlessly heal themselves of are the exact opposite situation for foes. Status damage is insane. Get someone bleeding, vomiting and on fire and they’ll be dead in three turns on their own. Stun them and they won’t even be able to move while they bleed/spew out on the floor while also becoming ridiculously susceptible to special moves. Sure not everything is weak to all of these statuses, but everything is weak to a couple, and due to those perfect attack add-ons all of them can be inflicted in just a couple of turns.

    I never figured out how to damage many enemies properly through their various physical defences, but my attacks doing 1 damage never mattered when the statuses were dealing thousands. This resulted in me never needing to prioritize or strategize in my battles thanks to a one size fits all approach; I’d just spam every status in the world on everything, and usually the fight would be over before I’d started using actual attacks. I started every fight the exact same way, and every time it worked in the exact same way, and everything died in the exact same way.

    On the plus side it can be an enjoyable little power trip. Being a reasonably short game the escalation from 40 damage level 1 weapons to level 14 weapons which deal 6000 is pretty fast, so the weapon and upgrade turnover is snappy and rapid. I did get stuck with my level 7 ranged weapon for like 7 hours since the ability to inflict multiple statuses on an entire mob was more valuable than outright damage to an individual, but otherwise I was constantly regearing. This results in a pretty reliable "holy crap that was insane" reaction every 45 minutes as you consistently outclass your foes in more and more dramatic ways.

    In addition the upgrade paths are also enjoyable. There’s not really a "stat" system per se, with HP and PP being the only things affected by level, but making friends is rewarded with perks which can be used for basic build design, and levels allow for power ups to special moves. This provides a reason to meet friends around town, and levelling always has a little bonus beyond an HP boost; it’s suitably addictive.

    Let’s join The Super Adventure Club

    Said friendships tie into the other gameplay portion; adventuring around South Park. Despite being quite dinky as it’s only about 9 blocks in size, exploration is surprisingly pleasant in Stick of Truth. As I went over with the referential humour it’s all about going to places you know and love so your mileage may vary, but there’s a solid adventure game core to it holding it all together. Due to the adorable cheapness of the presentation it reminded me of the The Room RPG flash game where you get sent around to all the places from the source material and do basic little adventure game things.

    Anyone who doesn’t feel giddy being in Tom’s Rhinoplasty is mung.

    Along with that snappy rate of progress for the RPG side, Stick of Truth also doles out new exploration mechanics every hour or two to go along with the expected keys and quest items. There’s a bow which knocks things off ledges and springs traps, a fart to clear pathways, an alien anal probe for short range teleportation, some targeted farting for distraction, a size modulator, new buddies to perform tasks, and a mega fart to break boulders. There’s also the odd one off activity to break things up like an 8 bit segment or a dancing rhythm game, yet obstacle types never stop appearing so you always need an eye on your surroundings

    Goal locations are clearly indicated in quest logs so there’s none of the classic Monkey Island ¡°what the heck am I meant to do now?¡± confusion so it never becomes a chore. This can be a little restrictive for player discovery at times; in one case I needed a gas mask, so I broke into the police station and found their riot gear thinking I was a genius, but it turns out I just had to buy it at a shop. Usually the goals are explained clear enough that the quest logs aren’t necessary to make progress however.

    Now, Skeeter, I don’t want no trouble.

    The Stick of Truth is a good game. I was never bored or irritated and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. While I didn’t find it hilarious often I was having a solid time throughout the entire experience and it’s not unfunny. The combat’s timing stuff gets a bit overkill but it’s still enjoyable methodically slaughtering hordes of tasteless enemies. It didn’t quite hit the areas I look for in South Park overall but it’s still a good thing for any fan, and if you’re really into Imaginationland it’ll be magnificent because it’s basically the same thing.

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