There was a point in South Park: The Stick of Truth—somewhere between performing an abortion and farting on Nazi zombies—when it occurred to me that Obsidian's new RPG isn't just ridiculous—it's also kind of brilliant.
Much has been made about Stick of Truth's impeccable comic timing—and it is impeccable!—but just as impressive is the game's turn-based combat system, which somehow manages to stay consistently fresh and entertaining throughout some 10 hours and 100+ battles. STEP ASIDE, FINAL FANTASY.
South Park's combat system is sort of like a cross between Earthbound and Paper Mario. Your characters line up across from the bad guys, waiting their turns to use attacks and spells, and in order to execute those abilities, you perform mini-quick-time-events that involve pressing buttons in the proper order at the proper times to both attack and block your opponents' moves.
To see what it's like, check out this video of the game's first 13 minutes, which also serves as a good tutorial for Stick of Truth's combat:
Really, Stick of Truth is an excellent game—other than the bugs—and I think it's worth dissecting the strengths and flaws of the combat system. So today on Random Encounters we're putting on our JRPG-Style Turn-Based Game Design Hats and digging into the pros and cons of fighting off elves and homeless people in the South Park video game.
PRO: You have to pay attention to every move.
Many turn-based RPGs are best played while doing something else. I don't say that to be insulting—there's a comforting rhythm to the A-mashing grind of a game like Dragon Quest IX—but it's a fact: you don't need to pay much attention when you crawl through dungeons in a lot of role-playing games. Enemy encounters are often so simple and monotonous that all you have to do is hammer "attack" to get through the bulk of an RPG, with the occasional stops to heal or level up. Challenge and strategy are reserved for boss battles and other unusual fights.
But Stick of Truth, like the Mario RPGs that inspired it, requires your full attention. When you're on offense, you have to stay focused in order to do anything in battle, which is for the most part much more fun and interesting than leaving your brain on auto-pilot and hammering the A button. It takes some practice—if you get button timing wrong, you often won't do any damage at all—but once you get into the swing of things, it works quite well.
There's enough variety in your ability-set to keep this system from getting old, and the animation is amusing enough that even some of the longest abilities—like Butters turning into Professor Chaos—are fun to watch repeatedly. Most of the abilities have a nice rhythm, too, like the timed flashes of the circumcision move, or the quick-mashing of Kyle's arrow attack.
CON: You can use items and attack in the same turn.
In any given round you can both heal yourself and damage your opponent, which is sort of like playing the whole game on god mode. The core of combat in most turn-based RPGs is that tension between offensive and defense. Deciding at any given moment whether to stay conservative and heal or go aggressive and attack is one of those minute-to-minute empowering choices that makes RPGs work. (Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Stick of Truth lets you stack up tons and tons of different types of healing items, to the point where it's impossible to run out.)
So even on the hardest difficulty mode, Stick of Truth's combat is a little too easy—toward the end of the game, thanks to attack-all abilities like the Jew class's plague spell and Cartman's fire... uh... magic, it's simple to blow through even the most difficult battles in one or two rounds. If items cost a turn, the game would be significantly more challenging.
PRO/CON: You get all of your health back after every battle.
On one hand, this means you don't have to go through the tedium of healing in menus between battles. On the other hand, this makes resource management even less of a factor. I'm calling this one a tie.
PRO: Status effects work in boss battles.
There are few JRPG tropes more annoying than bosses being mysteriously immune to negative status effects, rendering your poison and sleep spells useless. Stick of Truth wisely decides to make status effects matter, and every enemy in the game can be affected by your skills.
CON: There are too many status effects.
The downside! By the end of the game, you'll be regularly slamming your opponents with crippling effects like Gross-Out and Burning (both of which deal damage, like poison), and while it's entertaining to watch meth-heads and aliens puke all over the floor, it also leads to battles ending a little too quickly. There's something anti-climactic about a big bad boss dying not because you attacked them, but because they bled to death.
PRO: Almost every battle feels meaningful.
My biggest concern going into Stick of Truth was that the combat, as energy-consuming as it is, would be way too draining if there were too many battles. Wisely, the folks behind the South Park RPG chose not only to limit the number of encounters in every stage but to give you ways to interact with the environment in order to take down baddies outside of battle. You can set traps for mice, send aliens down garbage disposals, and electrocute your fellow fourth-graders while exploring the ridiculous world of South Park and its surrounding areas.
This is a rather simple system—there are only so many objects you can touch, and only so many things you can do—but it makes you feel smart when you manage to take out an entire gang of elf kids without even entering combat. Other than a few sections—like, say, Canada's annoying dire wolves (like wolves, but dire)—there are no battles that feel unnecessary or wasted.
PRO/CON: The abilities are really cool...
...but you only get four of them per character class. The combat system is so fun and satisfying that the game left me wanting much more.
PRO: The party members are great.
All six of Stick of Truth's buddies are fun and helpful, particularly if you're a South Park fan who appreciates the references to things like the V-Chip and Anime Princess Kenny. Cartman is a little overpowered—as he should be—but everyone's useful.
CON: You can only use one party member at a time.
This is personal preference more than an Actual Game Flaw, but I've always preferred the complexity of large parties in role-playing games, and it's a little disappointing that Stick of Truth only lets you use two people at a time, especially when you'll face groups of four or five enemies at once. This is a world full of hilarious and fascinating characters, and it'd have been nice to see bigger, broader parties including the likes of Randy Marsh (who is just an NPC) and Mr. Hankey (relegated to summon attack).
Of course, it's easy for the JRPG columnist to sit here and drone on about all the things he'd have liked to see—I didn't have to go through development hell to make a South Park game happen—but there's a trend here: Stick of Truth is easy. This is a game designed for people who might not be familiar with RPG combat—people who just want to enjoy playing through a hyper-extended episode of the show.
That's fine, of course. But ultimately, in the unlikely case that Obsidian teams up with the South Park crew for a sequel—or if they do the same thing for another beloved franchise (how about The Simpsons?)—I'd love to see them refine and expand this combat system to add more challenge, more abilities, and more variety. Also, while I'm telling people what to do: hey Obsidian, send copies of this game to every RPG developer in Japan, along with a note saying "LEARN FROM THIS." It'll be worth it.