I wish I could spend this entire review talking about how South Park: The Stick of Truth is one of the funniest games I've ever played.
I wish I could stick to telling you how the story feels like one 10-hour episode of South Park; how the world is a blast to explore; how the combat blends the best parts of Paper Mario with the crude-yet-smart humor that has made South Park so appealing over the years.
But Stick of Truth, out Tuesday for 360, PS3, and PC, is a game marred by bugs and technical issues, and it is impossible to separate the art from the faulty product surrounding it.
During the ten hours I spent playing Stick of Truth, I ran into dozens of glitches ranging from minor to major. Sometimes my main character would pop in and out of cut-scenes. Sometimes the music would randomly stop playing during boss fights. Once I loaded up an old save file and learned that my newer file—saved manually, not via an auto-save that might have been overwritten—had suddenly disappeared.
Worst of all, playing the game on Xbox 360 led to constant stuttering that made the whole game feel like one turbulent airplane ride. I wanted to take a Dramamine after playing.
I captured some footage to show you what it's like. Note the major stutters at 0:04, 0:11, etc., and the minor stutters throughout. That's not YouTube. It's the game.
Isolated these stutters aren't so bad, but when they happen every few seconds, they become unbearable. I couldn't walk anywhere in Stick of Truth without feeling like I was sitting through an earthquake. That's on Xbox 360, with my game installed to the hard-drive, and the day-one patch installed. Your experience may vary, and some people might not even run into this stuttering—I asked a few other reviewers, and only one had run into the same problem—but for me this was a critical flaw.
The PC version runs more smoothly, but has its own technical issues. Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton couldn't get through one mid-game cut-scene without his game crashing. He had to skip it. Other PC reviewers have also reported save glitches and other bugs, and one reviewer playing on PS3 told me he couldn't load out of a boss battle. Playing Stick of Truth felt like walking through a china shop; I was constantly worried that something would break.
UPDATE (4/25/14): Nearly two months after release, Stick of Truth has seen a couple of patches on both console and PC, but it's still full of bugs. Still, even though it doesn't seem like many of the technical issues I ran into will be fixed, the game is good enough to recommend. We've changed the verdict from a NOT YET to a YES. (Read my full explanation for the swap here.)
It's a real shame, because Obsidian has created something special here. Not only are the writing and voice work top-notch—as you might expect from anything devised by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone—the game itself is just straight-up satisfying. Everything is very quick—combat, dungeons, cut-scenes—and outside of a few annoying QTEs, nothing ever drags.
Stick of Truth is also full of South Park references ranging from obvious (Kyle's Mom Is A Big Fat Bitch) to obscure (the Mexican Staring Frog from Southern Sri Lanka). Most of the game's items, enemies, and locations are taken directly from the show, and the voice acting is all impeccable. There are some great little touches, too—that South Park banjo twang plays whenever you load up a new save file, for example. Every character has a unique reaction to your physical and magical attacks. Cartman's mom is really into being hit.
In fact, hardcore South Park fans might not enjoy Stick of Truth as much as casual viewers or people who haven't watched it in a while. More than a few of the game's scenes and jokes are taken verbatim from the show, and you'll collect tons and tons of items that all reference episodes from South Park's 17-season reign over foul comedy. I imagine it's not easy to find the perfect balance between innovation and fan-service, but Stick of Truth leans a little too far toward the latter, even if there is something charming about getting to stuff your inventory full of South Park throwbacks like Sea People and Cherokee Hair Tampons. (Also, as you might expect, just about everyone in this town has a copy of Butters' best-seller, The Poop That Took A Pee.)
I suppose I should note that yes, I am a diehard fan of South Park, and I've seen all 247 (!) episodes over the past couple of decades. More casual fans might not notice all the references, or duped scenes, which actually makes Stick of Truth perfect for people who maybe used to like South Park back in the day, or just watch it when it happens to be on.
On the other hand, if you don't like crude humor, or fart jokes, or seeing... uncomfortable things, this isn't the game for you. Stick of Truth pushes the boundaries of taste to do some things that I've never seen in a video game before, all for the sake of comedy. And it works—several scenes left me sitting in front of my television, alone, giggling, wondering just how the hell they got away with some of this stuff. (Although I guess in some countries they didn't.)
The basic concept of Stick of Truth is this: you, the New Kid, have just moved to the quiet little mountain town of South Park. Your parents tell you to go find some kids to play with, and you wind up joining a live-action role-playing game conducted by Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny, and all of the other children. You pick a class—Fighter, Mage, Thief, or Jew—and fight to find and protect the Stick of Truth, which is a stick. Events escalate, and eventually you wind up doing all sorts of ridiculous things, none of which I will mention, because they are best experienced when you don't know what's coming.
Stick of Truth does an excellent job of playing up on the fact that you are a kid pretending to be in an RPG, and the game is at its finest when it's mocking video game tropes. Stick of Truth's best jokes are about turn-based combat, silent protagonists, and silly quests, all of which are also features in Stick of Truth. One early section on audio-logs—experienced by listening to audio-logs—is particularly hilarious. It's clear that Trey Parker isn't just a fan of video games; he's very aware of the structural narrative limitations that video games create.
You also get to go to Canada, and it is just delightful.
Because you are role-playing, you can only fight enemies in turn-based combat—"just like in medieval times," as Cartman sagely points out—which is essentially an R-rated version of Paper Mario. Like in those Mario RPGs, you attack and block through micro-games and mini-QTEs, except instead of using shells and hammers, you get to use farts and circumcisions, because this is South Park. The system works well, and it's almost always hilarious. The balance gets a little out of whack toward the end of Stick of Truth, when it's easy to kill most enemies with just a couple of big moves, but battles are way too funny for that to matter. (It's never quite explained why meth-heads and rabid rats participate in the same LARP combat system as children, but hey, that's just part of the fun.)
And that is what really matters in a game like this, no? Stick of Truth is hilarious, through and through. It's a little shorter than I was hoping—I beat Stick of Truth in about nine hours—but that's because there's no padding. Every scene is just as long as it needs to be. No punchline drags on too much—except when Jimmy's around—and every ridiculous moment, from Butters' nebbish whines to the wonderful absurdity that is South Park's Canada, is timed perfectly.
The little jokes all add up, too. Stick of Truth's item descriptions are always good for a laugh, and there's an ongoing Facebook feed filled with comments from the people of South Park, not to mention the random little things they'll all say and spew as you explore the town. One throwaway line that's just too good not to share: "Wow, a sewer level! Now we're really playing in a role-playing game."
In general, wandering through South Park is a ton of fun—which, for me, just made those stuttering issues even more annoying. I wanted to take my time, saunter around the city, and soak in every moment of the game, but it's tough to really get into a game like Stick of Truth when things don't run smoothly.
So if you're thinking about getting this one, especially on consoles, wait it out. Give Obsidian a little while to patch the game, or else you're rolling the dice in hopes that your experience won't be as broken as mine. Stick of Truth is a foul, wonderful, hilarious game, and it's worth your time—just not until it works properly.
For a second opinion, check out this review of Stick of Truth written by Steve Bowling over at TAY, our reader-run blog.