In 2002, Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote “The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers,” an All-Time Hall of Fame South Park episode which effectively retells the whole J.R.R. Tolkien Rings trilogy in half an hour. What makes the episode great was that, somehow, Parker and Stone had it both ways with their Rings parody: It simultaneously lacerates the inherent silliness of the phenomenon while glorifying the high-nerd excess of that silliness. (All this, and they still found time for the immortal line: “Backdoor Sluts 9 makes Crotch Capers 3 look like Naughty Nurses 2!”)
The new videogame South Park: The Stick of Truth begins in the same backyard-fantasy milieu as that episode. You play as the fully-customizable-except-for-gender “new kid,” arriving in South Park under mysterious circumstances. You quickly meet show mascot Cartman, in his Gandalf-y guise of “Grand Wizard,” who is leading one group of kids (the Humans) against another group (the Elves). You can choose one of four classes, three of them familiar (Fighter, Mage, Thief) and one of them unique (Jew.)
The game is designed to look like an episode of the TV show, but it plays like a well-tuned retro-adventure. At times, it suggests a lost ’90s Squaresoft RPG — all of the battles are turn-based, and you can spend roughly a fifth of the game navigating menus to upgrade your character. At other times, the game feels a bit like a lost LucasArts game, a point-and-click graphic adventure with the goofy sensibility that defined Grim Fandango and Sam & Max. (The designers themselves have pointed to EarthBound as an inspiration.) After a snappy opening tutorial session — narrated by Cartman as a knowing parody of tutorials which is nevertheless a more effective tutorial than most AAA videogames can manage — you’re set loose in the open world of South Park, which draws on locations and people familiar from nearly two decades of TV mythology.
It might sound weird to ascribe the word “mythology” to South Park — you imagine the lead characters all rolling their eyes — but part of what makes Stick of Truth so much fun is how it takes advantage of the show’s densely-layered world. It’s more than just in-jokes. Like Goldeneye and Arkham City, Stick of Truth is the rare licensed videogame which brings its franchise’s history to life in a radical new way.
At times, Stick of Truth feels like a wonderful bit of nose-thumbing at the general state of videogames. (There are Nazi Zombies.) But at other times, it reveals itself as a love letter to the whole videogame medium. A trip to Canada is rendered as an 8-bit adventure, Ultima-style. There are legitimately difficult boss fights. Parker and Stone actually wrote the game, which explains why Stick of Truth is so funny. But more than the humor, there’s a sense of composition — to the ambient dialogue and to the rising-action storytelling — that most non-BioWare videogames never even try to attempt. Some games hit a high point in the beginning; most good games are at their best in the middle; but Stick of Truth has a great final act, featuring some of the most fun and most disgusting sequences I’ve ever seen in a videogame.
Am I praising the game too much for achieving modest ambitions? Stick of Truth might tip its hat to Skyrim, but it’s a decidedly more compact experience. (I think my total runtime — doing most of the side-missions, on the hardest difficulty — was about 17 hours .) The different classes have slightly different attacks, but they don’t represent radically different experiences: It’s a pretty-good ’90s RPG, not a great ’90s RPG. (It’s Breath of Fire III, not Breath of Fire II, if you know what I mean.)
My PS3 copy was marred by occasional glitches and graphic slowdown, the sort of thing that’s usually a dealbreaker in games with more realistic visuals. I’ve seen a few other reviewers ding the game for these glitches — and this is perhaps another opportunity to discuss how the videogame industry needs to stop relying on day-one patches as a crutch.
But I think it speaks volumes that I loved the game — had to force myself to stop playing it as midnight turned into 2 AM — in spite of the glitches. The relatively simple decision to make Stick of Truth look and feel like a South Park episode gives the game a unique sense of style which sets it apart from the mass of undifferentiated major-release titles. Like the best episodes of South Park, there’s a sense of leave-it-all-on-the-field maximalism. There’s a Kardashian joke that turns into one of the grossest bossfights in history. There’s a primal scene and an abortion minigame and Al Gore. The Stick of Truth is a spoof RPGs which is also a grand RPG. It’s the first great videogame of 2014.
(Available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC)