Your enjoyment of the long-delayed “South Park: The Stick of Truth,” written by the masterminds behind the Comedy Central hit, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, is going to come down to how much you forgive gameplay and mechanics problems for storytelling and hysterical dialogue. I have rarely laughed as hard with a controller in my hands as I have while playing “The Stick of Truth”. However, those proclaiming this often-cluttered and frustrating experience as the TV tie-in we’ve all been hoping for since Eric, Kenny, Cartman, and Stan took over pop culture are simply ignoring a few dozen flaws. I get it. It’s been a disastrous year for gamers so far with “Thief” & “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2” disappointing and an increasing hope that each new game will be the first must-own of 2014. And “The Stick of Truth” can be truly enjoyable, especially in cut scenes that play like something out of the still-great Comedy Central show. However, there’s just too much holding this game back overall to completely ignore, even though many people seem to be happy to do so.
From the very beginning of “The Stick of Truth,” you can tell you’re in the capable comedic hands of Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone. Rarely has character customization produced such laughter. I ignored most of the extreme possibilities like facial tattoos in the creation of my little guy, the new kid in town who will befriend most of the “South Park” regulars you know and love (and a few you forgot) over the course of the game. Not long after the game’s opening scenes, you run into Butters and enter a world of RPG make-believe guided by the dictatorial Cartman. He’ll give you your choice of class (“Fighter, Mage, Thief, or Jew”), a nickname (“Douchebag”), and even train you in the mechanics of the game. Then you’ll have to put your party together, finding famous characters throughout town and even adding a few of them, like a siren-esque Kenny dressed as a princess, to your group.
“The Stick of Truth” follows a simple fetch quest structure. Go find X and come back to Y. It’s common in the world of the modern RPG but so much of this game feels like it’s deconstructing the modern role-playing game that it’s disappointing to see it hew to its weaknesses at the same time. While I love the dialogue, I got bored relatively quickly with a gameplay structure that seems to require no discernible skill. The game doesn’t have even standard puzzle-solving requirements. It’s a matter of getting a quest, checking your clunky map to see where to go to complete it, going there, fighting some people, and coming back. Some may claim that this is merely Parker, Stone, and Obsidian paying allegiance to the RPG form but there have been recent entries in the genre—“Ni no Kuni” and “Tales of Xillia” come to mind—in which this structure didn’t feel so routine as it often does here.
It doesn’t help that “The Stick of Truth” is understandably visually thin. It makes sense that the game would replicate the low-budget aesthetic that has served the show well for over a decade but it doesn’t make for the most engaging video game world, especially when the quest structure is generic. In a lot of RPG games, the fetch quest structure at least allows you to visit more interesting places than Jimmy’s basement. Again, it’s funny to battle Jimmy’s warriors while the kid sings encouraging songs or to be encouraged to skip while poor Jimmy tries to get out a line of dialogue but “The Stick of Truth” feels more like “watching a great game” than playing one. And, yes, there is a difference.
It doesn’t help that the fighting mechanics are woefully inconsistent. Like any good RPG, you’ll get new weapons, armor, etc. throughout the game and there are different special skills that can be attained, a few of them based around deadly farts, but none of the combat is as refined as we’ve come to expect in 2014. Blocking is relatively random in terms of timing (again, not uncommon in the land of the RPG) but it’s the lack of strategy required that really frustrates. Success or failure rarely seems truly within your control. One boss fight saw me relatively challenged and defeated on the first attempt; on the second, I stunned him once and just whaled on him for the next 7-8 consecutive turns. Same boss. Same people in my party. Same weapons/armor. That’s an example of inconsistent, poorly-designed combat.
None of this matters, right? I should ignore the cluttered menus that are more annoying to navigate than helpful. I should dismiss the weak gameplay writing, poor environment design (in which it can often be incredibly difficult to tell where you’re supposed to go next), and inconsistent combat. I want to. I really do. And there are times when I did. There are times when “South Park: The Stick of Truth” is just so funny and so smart that none of its problems mean a thing. If it wasn’t so smart, it would be a mess. But just know that underneath all that great dialogue and voice work, the mess is still there.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is now available for the PS3 and Xbox 360. A review copy was provided by the publisher.