This week, Zero Punctuation reviews South Park: The Stick of Truth.
I remember when South Park first became a thing. The Simpsons had already advanced animation from Josie and the Pussycats to the point that it could say "Hey, maybe your parents actually are still having sex," but it was South Park that went a bit further and declared "Hey, maybe they're having sex with pigs and handfuls of their own shit and, I don't know, velociraptors." Someone has to be pushing at the boundaries 'cos otherwise we wouldn't know where the boundaries were, we'd just be huddled in the middle of the prison exercise yard swapping WWE stickers.
But I haven't watched South Park in quite a while. Nothing specifically made me go "Never watching that show again, my wife's a velociraptor!" Interest just kind of dwindled. I think you can only transgress taboo for so long. It was like a giant orange space hippo from Mars descended from the sky and started dancing about on a hill playing bagpipes, and at first we flocked to see the giant orange space hippo but after a while we realized he only knows how to play "Scotland the Brave" and all his jumping about is shaking your fillings loose. So these days I just occasionally notice him as I glance out of the window and think "Is he still playing them fucking bagpipes?"
So South Park: The Stick of Truth in this analogy is like the giant orange space hippo is still dancing about playing bagpipes, but now he's hired a zebra to sit at his feet and read poetry, so I've come out just to maybe see where the two of them are going with all this.
Now I've put off reviewing the game for quite a while, and indeed am continuing to put off reviewing it in the review itself, because you can't really take the piss out of something that is itself taking the piss; this isn't a fucking bucket chain! Nor can I be crass about something that is literally already crass; it's like trying to embarrass a poo by making it wear another poo as a hat. The only recourse left for me then is to be completely humourless and straightfaced about it: "South Park: The Stick of Truth is a role-playing game set in the titular cartoon town and enjoys the benefit of having been made by the original creators of the series, thus elevating far above all attempts at South Park video game tie-ins that were like having your head forced into the tortured vagina of the person you used to respect."
You are a silent protagonist and brand new original character in South Park, meaning you are literally any character in South Park with a different haircut, and upon your new arrival in town, you are immediately roped into a make-believe fantasy war between the armies of man and elf starring all your favourite faces from the show. Meanwhile, a series of events involving aliens, a zombie virus and an incursion by government peacekeeping forces threatens the town itself with total annihilation and then someone farts on someone else's face, "deploy humour, 'ha ha ha,' humour deployed."
South Park has a reputation for being nothing if not irreverant, so it's obligated at this point to start training its scute, sterical eye on the world of video game tropes. It's just that it's kind of starting on the ground floor on that front. "Hey," it says brightly. "Have you noticed that if someone in real life was a silent protagonist, then they would come across as cripplingly socially inept and make everyone around them really creeped out?" Uh, yeah, Half-Life 2 was making that joke ten years ago, but well done for joining us at the kiddie pool, South Park.
I was reminded of EarthBound right off the bat (no pun intended), but then EarthBound was reminding me of South Park before South Park was invented, somehow. I was also reminded of Paper Mario because you have NPC partners aiding in the turn-based battles and have special abilities that let you bypass specific obstacles in the overworld, just like Paper Mario, and you can do more damage or defend in battle with timed button presses, just like Paper Mario, and it takes the piss out of other MD games a lot, just like- Come to think of it, it's exactly like Paper Mario. Maybe it's all the contract you have to sign when you set out to make a game that looks like it's made out of craft paper but actually isn't.
Fortunately for you, South Park, I really like Paper Mario, but that doesn't mean I won't ask for tighter combat design. The special attacks, magic attacks, summon attacks and weapon upgrades that can be removed and reapplied at zero cost all make it easy to be completely overpowered by applying multiple status effects that leave your enemy a weeping flaming mess quietly shitting itself on the floor. It's also not the most expansive RPG in the history of quietly shitting itself on the floor. The whole game is isolated to the titular town which you can walk around once at the start of the game and discover most of the sidequests with a single cast of the net, although there is a section later on in Canada that takes the piss out of top-down retro RPGs and goes on long enough for the joke to start wearing thin, whereupon it goes on a bit longer for good measure.
You know, South Park humour kind of lost something after a while, because a taboo is a finite thing; you can only extract humour from ingesting faeces and owl pellets for as long as it takes to start developing a taste for them. So to South Park's credit, while it isn't above making trouser trumps a major game mechanic, it seems to devote a little bit of time to the entire comedy spectrum. Yes, knob jokes and gay jokes and rape jokes as well, and let's not forget abortion jokes! You may have heard that the game fell victim to the censorship hammer here, entangled in the petticoats of the nanny state Australia, wielded as ever the way a monkey wields a typewriter, and that several scenes were replaced by a text description under a picture of a crying koala. Yes, very funny joke, "Fuck the Man" and all that. But the funny thing is, after the fourth or fifth time, I kind of lost sympathy for the creators. "You know what," I thought, "from your description, that does sound pretty fucking stupid and I'm kind of glad I was spared it. You just bang that shock humour glockenspiel until you're ready to continue, I'll just be over here reading the Spectator." Oh, I shouldn't get sniffy; I was talking about forcing heads into vaginas four paragraphs ago, and I say the hits and misses balances out evenly enough.
The bottom line on Stick of Truth is the standard tie-in game review sentence (all together now): "Fans of the show will like it!" which is not to say I disliked it. It's rare for creators from another medium to come over to the videogame sphere and show it enough respect to actually make a videogame, that comes together pretty well as a game with more ambition than merely advertizing the source material. At least I hope that wasn't the intention 'cos I still haven't worked up the interest to find out if they're even still making the show. But on the whole, it was like lifting up a piece of funiture I hadn't moved in a while and finding a Malteser I'd forgotten about; nice Malteaser while it lasted although there was something in the middle that might have been a dead wasp.
- They found him up someone's bum: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- On second thoughts don't Fuck the Man because you know what he's like he'll probably be into that
- The nanny state has paradoxically large tits