South Park: The Stick of Truth Switch Review
Where the Sun Don’t Shine
About a year ago, I was gifted a $50 card for the Nintendo eShop, American, and I went to town in the bargain bins. After a baker’s dozen purchases, I was left with some cheap stuff, some odd stuff, and some seriously discounted stuff. Of the odd and the discounted, there was South Park: The Stick of Truth. Even though it had been a good two decades since I last sat down willingly to watch an episode of the show, I figured this was as good a time as any to experience what I’d heard to be an interesting RPG experience.
This game was never released in Japan. It took me all of fifteen minutes into the actual content to see why. The Japanese CERO ratings system goes from A (fun for all) to D (restricted/mature content) with a side-order of Z (gratuitous violence, gore, and glorification of crime). Stick of Truth would have required the CERO to consider a completely new rating category, just for being true to its own source material. Even the Japanese indie PC game market, notorious for its lack of restrictions, would not go down some of the glory holes this game has found for itself.
The hero of the game is the New Kid, the customizable player avatar who never seems to talk and yet has a weird and tragic backstory alluded to in the opening sequence. His parents are hiding him from something or someone, and they’ve decided that a nice, isolated, quiet town in the mountains where nothing ever happens is the perfect place to do so. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen to move to South Park. That same weekend they arrive, the boys in the neighborhood are so deep into a live-action roleplay event that in other contexts it would count as civil war. It’s the Kingdom of Kupa Keep, led by the Grand Wizard Cartman, against the High Elves (and everyone else who hates Cartman) in a highly involved game of make-believe where cardboard swords are dangerous weapons, Cheesy-Poofs are healing potions, and the almighty taco can revive the fallen. The game’s story takes place over the course of three days of internecine conflict and shifting alliances, while the nights are filled with alien abductions and underpants gnome shenanigans. The disparate elements of the plot come crashing together in true South Park style, until the part where the self-proclaimed Dark Lord is commanding literal Nazi zombies fueled by alien goo seems the least ludicrous element of the narrative as a whole.
This is the situation in which the New Kid finds himself. Somehow, through the twin powers of Facebook friendship and ferocious flatulence, he’s saddled with the task of ending the war, fending off the aliens, defeating the Nazi zombies, as well as a grab-bag of completely unrelated issues to deal with in between. During the daylight scenarios, he’s got a choice of handy partners, each of whom have their own combat tricks and special field abilities to get through particular obstacles. During the big plot events, day or night, there are ways to use the area around the enemies to best effect, often eliminating some or all of them before combat can even commence. This gives Stick of Truth an engaging puzzle element at times, much like an old PC adventure game, but with more cusswords.
As I said before, it’s been at least twenty years since I last saw an entire episode of the show, but I still got a majority of the references made in the game, at least by association. A cursory knowledge of the show is a must, if only to know who the principal cast is, but there’s little in the way of in-depth trivia outside of some cameos, decorative background elements, and all the junk items the New Kid can sell for quick cash. This does not mean that the game makes much sense outside the stochastic nature of the show’s humor. All the way to the end, Stick of Truth throws curveballs so twisty that they require special narration from a fake Morgan Freeman to explain away.
As part of the adventure side, the New Kid gains a variety of field skills, including four flatulence abilities that the game’s LARP paradigm has dubbed magic. These skills can stun enemies in the field, light fires, cause distractions, or even unleash the seismic forces of gastrointestinal fortitude. In the Switch version, these are all controlled with the right Joy-Con stick, though not always easily. The magic-learning segments can be tricky to perform, and the major plot events that require them will take much trial and error to get right. There’s also a specific quick-time event in one battle that does not appear to be possible to succeed, though after some research this turned out to be an issue across previous versions of the game, and not just the Switch version. The gist is that the fart powers, though silly and useful, are hampered by control issues endemic to the game, and nothing’s been done to fix them.
Combat is surprisingly simple, with the New Kid and a partner versus the world, but there’s a lot of variety put in. Every turn, a character can take a minor action such as an item or support skill, and then follow up with a major action (usually an attack). Some characters have a choice of melee or long-range, and every attack has its own button-press timer to match for added oomph. It’s a solid system that encourages the player to find exploits while still providing challenge, which is exactly what Stick of Truth needs as a backbone for the rest of its insanity.
The player has a choice of four classes at the start, each with their own skillsets and play style, and the added choice of partner mixes things up even more. A broad arsenal of largely improvised LARP equipment provides bonuses and boosts, with modifiers to give extra powers as desired. All combat skills use up Power Points, but as these points reset at the start of each battle and there exist multiple ways to restore them through modifiers and equipment choices alone, running out in mid-battle is rarely an issue past the mid-point of the game. ‘Mana’ for flatulence does not restore outside of battle, but there’s plenty of appropriately gassy foodstuffs to help recharge when necessary.
It’s hard to say anything about this game’s graphics beyond the fact that it is unmistakably a South Park product that plays close to its source material. When that source material is a cartoon of well-practiced graphical mediocrity, then it can only be lauded for getting so much right. Stick of Truth really is an interactive episode of its series in many ways, with plenty of visual flourishes and callbacks. The fact that it is both derivative of its source and not obliged to push the boundaries of its graphical engine ironically allows it to have a variety in its scene-setting and visuals that many games lack.
Likewise, Stick of Truth benefits greatly from having the voice cast of South Park available to it. The entire game is dubbed for every line of dialogue, no matter how minor, as well as background music and noise effects taken directly from the show. On the other hand, a complete lack of narrative text boxes means that the player must play this game with the sound on in order to get the full experience and know what the heck is going on at times. If one searches the configuration menu, there is an option for subtitles, like for movies, but it’s not optimal for people who prefer larger text sizes. All this does not make it any easier to play when children are in the house.
To stretch an analogy worthy of the game, South Park: The Stick of Truth is much like its “magic” burritos. It is far tastier than it has any right to be, taking a solid, meaty system for combat, beans and cheese for field interactions, and then wrapping them up in the tortilla of South Park. It’s filling in the best (and worst) ways, and that gaseous feeling it leaves behind is just one more part of the total experience that will linger well after it’s over. Much like Tex-Mex, it’s a flavor not to be found often in Japanese gaming, and though I miss it at times, a mouthful like Stick of Truth is more than enough to last me through the next decade.
Also, be aware that your experience will vary depending on which eShop region you buy the game from.
Everything you like about South Park
Strong core gaming elements
In many ways a unique gaming experience
Lingering control issues from previous editions
Not safe for work
Not safe to play around children
Probably not safe for adults, either