by Jed Pressgrove
The fact that South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t suck as much as previous South Park games (and other various licensed games) might seem impressive, but don’t be fooled by advertising that claims old jokes and substandard RPG design is an accomplishment.
In terms of creativity and humor, The Stick of Truth is amateur hour compared to Jazzpunk, which might have been more warmly received if it were based on a popular television show. The idea that Stick of Truth “looks just like the show” and is like “playing an episode” leads to gullible consumer logic: if one enjoys the show, then one must enjoy the game. In reality, the show is much more ironic than the game. I did laugh at some of the old jokes in The Stick of Truth (particularly the anal probing segment), but the constant referencing of episodes serves mostly as a reminder that, yes, many of us find these episodes funny. Do we have to play an overpriced game to know this?
Some might point to the “original” writing in The Stick of Truth. When the game isn’t revisiting popular concepts from the show, it jokes about video game conventions such as the overuse of zombies and the silent protagonist. While these moments can be funny, the game’s repetitious use of Nazi zombies doesn’t subvert anything, and Super Mario RPG’s play on the silent protagonist was more inventive in 1996. The Stick of Truth also has humorous descriptive text, but so did Fallout and Disgaea. Even Canada resembling an old-school RPG feels somewhat expected — Zeboyd Games already transported its protagonists to RPG antiquity in Penny Arcade 3.
The Stick of Truth’s window dressing can’t conceal the game’s lack of compelling design. The first time you take a shit works as a critique of quick-time events; the rest of the game’s button mashing is simply dumb. While the game’s environments are faithful to the show, they often make for dull exploration (appropriately, the journey into an asshole is an exception to the rule). The NPCs also seem relatively lifeless compared to the people you meet in Earthbound. The Stick of Truth does allow a good bit of interaction with special moves, but the game favors repetition over the rule-breaking mentality of Jazzpunk.
Substandard RPG elements make up the rest of the game. Obsidian Entertainment has created an awkward mixture of Super Mario RPG and Fallout: New Vegas. Instead of automatically receiving items after turn-based combat, you are forced to check the bodies of individual defeated enemies for items, even though there is no weight limit. The game’s implementation of Super Mario RPG’s innovative battle system is woefully behind the times. The combos are dull things to perform; apparently, Obsidian forgot about The Legend of Dragoon’s accomplishments. The game’s special moves are more interesting, but once you find a viable strategy, you can ride it the whole way — the enemies provide little variation in challenge. The game also lets you heal and attack in the same turn, so the combat pretty much lacks any semblance of drama. The most challenging part of the game is getting used to its awkward twin-stick fart magic.
Given its lack of great ideas, The Stick of Truth is absurdly playable. The game is a very shrewd cash-in on sentimentality for the long-running television show and RPGs. But it’s no better than the much cheaper and more profound Saturday Morning RPG. I would be surprised if The Stick of Truth is more fondly remembered than cartoons on a Saturday morning.