One does not simply walk into South Park
So, where were you when South Park: The Stick of Truth was announced? This was all the way back in 2011, around the time another certain RPG title was on the minds of players. It was certainly a surprising reveal, don't you think? A brand new full-fledged RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment and written and produced by the talent from the show? Sounded pretty cool to me. With an initial 2012 release date, I was looking forward to the day I could try it out.
But then things happened; it got delayed, and delayed again, and then the original publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy. Things seemed to have looked up when Ubisoft acquired publishing rights and announced a new date. But then it got delayed again, and again. This game has been delayed so much, the TV show it's based on has actually poked fun at the situation. Seriously, go check out the episode "Titties & Dragons" -- it was almost like a tease.
But now, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel as the game has finally gone gold. With less than a month away from release, Ubisoft invited the press to get some much-appreciated hands-on time with the long-delayed title. Though read ahead with warning: if you hate South Park and you're otherwise easily offended, I can tell you now this game will probably piss you off.
South Park: The Stick of Truth (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [previewed])
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release date: March 4, 2014 (US) / March 7, 2014 (EU)
Opening with a parody of Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of The Rings, in full rotoscope style, South Park: The Stick of Truth tells the tale of the war between humans and elves; both vying to claim the power of...The Stick of Truth. Of course, this is all just an exaggeration, as the war is really just a game played by the kids of the neighborhood.
When a new kid moves into the town of South Park, Cartman takes him under his wing and tasks him with protecting the Stick of Truth in their 'game' against the elves. But in South Park fashion, things quickly escalate out of control and a fairly harmless rivalry is turned into an epic quest with real consequences.
Now, the South Park series hasn't had much luck in the gaming department, and understandably so. It's very difficult to translate the over-the-top and comedic sensibilities to a game without making it into something that it's not. Even though I was kind of fond of the N64 title, it wasn't really a game worthy of the series. Because of this, the minds behind the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, were very adamant to be hands-on with the development.
Speaking with Jordan Thomas, creative director for BioShock 2, Thief: Deadly Shadows, and serving as a creative consultant on The Stick of Truth -- he spoke about the title's development and how the theme of play is something the creators wanted to focus on when writing the game's script.
"If you look at South Park, there's always been a love affair with games that's evident in their storytelling...that the characters have a fetishistic mysticism regarding gaming," said Jordan Thomas, recalling the television series' use of videogames. "The creators would not have allowed the game to be just a joke vehicle, they wanted a proper game."
Instead of taking on the role of one of the established characters, players will create a unique character who is the new kid on the block. As this New Kid, players will forge alliances and come into conflict with others while making a name for themselves in South Park and its surrounding areas.
Of course, comedy is the backbone of South Park -- and The Stick of Truth pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to its humor. As a videogame, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the developers at Obsidian were able to craft a story that parodies many tropes and cliches of the medium, while at the same time creating something that speaks to the themes of engagement, play, and obsession in ways that could only be done in a game.
Much like the television series and film, The Stick of Truth covers the whole gamut of pop culture, politics, religion, and life in an unusual small town. And the transition to a game has not neutered its humor one bit. My hour with the game made me realize that this is likely the raunchiest South Park has ever been. Swearing is uncensored, and yes there is nudity, and so much more.
Over the course of your adventure, players will come across places and situations referencing abortions, race relations, anal probes, drug addiction, sex, extreme violence, and poverty, just to name a small few. It has enough satirical bite that it'll likely leave a lasting impression on many. But of course, this is South Park, and feeling uncomfortable is nothing unexpected.
"The way we looked at [humor] was if this moment was a hot button for the audience, should we make it worse, because they [creators of South Park] love to push boundaries and their default response was definitely not to back down, but the really healthy counterbalance was, can we make it funnier -- and the answer was often yes," said Jordan Thomas. "It was definitely the right amount of pressure. In my eyes, [South Park] explores topics that makes people uncomfortable, and it does so above all out of love and truth."
The Stick of Truth incorporates many elements of fantasy fiction and RPG gameplay, while re-appropriating it for its own humor and style. When players enter the realm of 'Kupa Keep,' which is just Cartman's backyard with crude signs and dressing, they're brought into the conflict between the factions. From here, players will be able to define their character and choose their class. Despite players being able to name their character, Cartman and the others will henceforth refer to the New Kid as 'Douchebag."
Character growth and evolution is conducted through a standard leveling and class system. Battles yield experience points and loot, and leveling up allows players to spend skill points across the various class trees. Though don’t expect anything extremely intricate. While you do have options, don’t go in thinking you can make rich variations of each character class. In The Stick of Truth, the classes cover the standard fantasy archetypes, but with a twist. There's the Fighter, Mage, and Thief, and last but not least, the Jew.
The Jew class, which is illustrated with an evil-looking sorcerer character card, allows players to focus on long-range and sniping abilities to weaken, debilitate, and otherwise undermine your enemy's strengths from afar. Moreover, the Jew utilizes special abilities in 'Jew-Jitsu' and another skill known as the Sling of David, which allows players to cast the first stone against their enemies and stun those out of distance.
Obviously, I decided to roll the Jew class for my character, Sir Douchebag (and so did everyone else at this event, by the way). From here, we learn the ins and outs of combat. On the surface, it looks to be a standard turn-based RPG game in the vein of Final Fantasy, and while that is true, the core combat takes a far more action-oriented and dynamic approach to engaging your foes. Players will be able to partner with other characters, such as Cartman, Stan, Butters, Kyle, and many others from the series in during battles, and many of them possess their own unique skills and abilities.
During battles, offense and defense require timed button presses to maximize effectiveness. For instance, weapon attacks come in both basic and power versions. When attacking, your characters will ready themselves and pressing the attack buttons at the moment when the weapon flashes will enable the specified move. Basic attacks allow for combos, each hit requiring timed presses, and power attacks allow for a one-hit strong attack against enemies. Each has its uses and is required for specific enemies. Heavy armored enemies can be weakened through combo attacks, and power attacks can break through enemies carrying shields.
Though be warned, enemies use the same skills as you do, and that's where blocking comes in. When enemies attack, a small shield icon will appear below your party members. This prompts you to press the action button to diminish the effectiveness of their attacks. Success also allows players to restore PP (yes, there's a joke for this), which power your special skills in battle. Blocking is especially important when facing foes who use attacks with status effects attached. For instance, bleeding drains character health over time, and cannot be healed unless you have special potions.
I found myself really enjoying the combat. It's definitely a much more dynamic, but still tactical approach to turn-based combat. The action-oriented approach reminded me of combat from the games like Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga or Paper Mario, which really stressed that battles are not a spectator sport. I felt very active during every battle, and as enemies populate the environments during exploration, you can expect to see a lot of action. Battles can be pretty challenging, even early ones. I was overwhelmed by a group of elves at one point and was wiped out after missing the timing on blocks from a group of archers.
Though it may all seem like fun and games when battling kids with fake elf ears, things eventually get real when you start battling other foes in South Park; such as Meth Heads looking to protect their stash, overzealous rent-a-cops who aren't afraid to use pepper-spray on children, and creepy territorial hobos. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
One feature that the creators of South Park wanted was allowing fans to explore the town freely, while meeting many of the series characters, and getting into trouble along the way. "You're going to visit the town, properly," said Thomas as he elaborated on the exploration design. "There are few limits placed, which use Metroidvania-style unlocking, but there's a lot to explore, and around a lot more places around the town as well."
Scattered around the town are NPC characters going about their business, and also a variety of shops, where you can buy new equipment, items, and special buffs for your characters. In Metroidvania style, players can explore the area at their leisure, but some areas are blocked off by obstacles and and obstructions that require special abilities.
Interaction with the environment is a key part of gameplay during traversal and puzzle solving. Players will be able to uncover hidden paths and chests while examining and attacking obstacles. Moreover, new abilities open that allow players to activate switches from a distance, destroy obstacles with your farts, and use your other party members and friends to uncover clues and take out groups of enemies without even entering battle. I was pretty pleased with how detailed the settings were, but at times I had difficulty finding certain objects for quests, as they blended in too well with other decorations in the background.
Exploring the town of South Park felt surreal, and extremely authentic. In many ways, it felt like I was watching an episode of South Park showing off a really demented and comical parody of EarthBound, except I was actually playing it. The comparisons to EarthBound and other JRPG titles were no coincidence, as they were a major influence for the writers of the series and folks at Obsidian. They really nailed the look and feel of the TV series, as there were moments during cutscenes I'd stop playing, and then I'd have to remind myself that I was playing a game after some time passed.
There are many incentives for taking time out from the main quests to explore and get to know the exact layout of the town, which is a first for South Park. Many familiar places, such as the South Park Elementary, South Park Mall, Bijou Cinema, City Wok, Tweek Bros. Coffehouse, and many others are available for players to come across and explore.
Another reward for the exploration is meeting other characters, who friend you on the social media site, Facebook. Yes, this is a full on parody of Facebook and they don't even shy away from the absurdity of social media. Character's can even comment on your 'page' making jokes and mocking your performance. Your Facebook page also serves as your main menu, possessing journals, inventory, and acquiring more friends will gradually unlock special points which can be used to buy special perks to strengthen your character's abilities.
Many of the characters and creatures you encounter during your quest are referenced throughout the television series, and even the most political and controversial of characters will likely make an appearance. In one instance, I came into contact with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore who needed help with tracking the fabled ManBearPig, as it was stalking the citizens of South Park. This scene totally came out of nowhere, I felt the sudden urge to drop whatever I was doing and do what he asked. How can you say no to Al Gore?
Everyone involved with the game seemed pretty much on the same page. One of the key takeaways from both the creators of the television series and the developers at Obsidian, and Jordan Thomas, was the desire to make South Park: The Stick of Truth the definitive South Park experience, across all media.
And judging from my time with the title, they certainly have made something unique to the series, that will speak to fan's love for the franchise. While there are some rather obvious bugs that will hopefully be ironed out, such my character being permanently being stuck in the aiming stance during exploration, and some issues with items not being clear enough to identify in the field, I came away pretty pleased with what I played.
It's looking like the game was definitely worth the wait. While the developers certainly didn't have to worry about raising the bar for South Park games, which was pretty low as it was, they've definitely made something that speaks to fans of the show, and might even earn the attention of some RPG fans in the process.