There are many surprising things in South Park: The Stick of Truth - Nazi zombies, bovine suicide bombers, alien anal probes, and deadly battles with underwear-stealing gnomes barely begin to describe the cavalcade of bizarreness and obscenity this game provides.
Perhaps its biggest surprise, however, is it's quality. Yes, The Stick of Truth is good. In fact, it's better than good: it's that rare one-two punch of a licensed product that does justice to its source material, but is also a solid and enjoyable video game on its own terms.
How this happened is a mystery beyond my reckoning - this was a game with literally everything against it. First of all, it's an adaptation of a TV series, a subgenre riddled with poor quality releases that struggles to produce even tolerable games, let along good ones. I tried to make a list of great games based on TV series, and managed only two: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, and Duck Tales on the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
Stick of Truth was developed by Obsidian, a studio with a lot of experience and plenty of talented people on board, but which always seems to produce deeply flawed games. Fallout: New Vegas is typical of their output, a game which had a lot to love, but which was nearly crippled by bugs and problematic design. This is a pattern that recurs again and again in their back catalogue: Neverwinter Nights 2, Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, and so on.
Finally, Stick of Truth was originally going to be published by THQ, before they fell into deep financial strife late in 2012. The once-great publisher was stripped like a stolen car, broken down into its component pieces and sold off a bit at a time. While franchises like Saints Row were gobbled up, Stick of Truth went through some uncertainty before finally being picked up by Ubisoft.
What followed was a year of unflattering rumours. Some claimed Ubisoft were not happy with how offensive the game was and had delayed it in order to edit out the worst of the obscenity, while others suspected the publisher had decided to cut its losses and kill the project off entirely. All the fans knew was that the game's original release date came and went - before going bust, even THQ had delayed it for six months. Ubisoft's promised 2013 release slipped past, and fans began to despair.
When Ubisoft finally announced a revised release in March 2014 six months ago, many remained sceptical, but the date held, and last week it finally arrived on retail shelves. Considering all the of these factors, it's amazing that Stick of Truth is even playable. The fact that it's a genuinely great game is nothing short of miraculous.
It's a difficult game to summarise. In its battle sequences, it most closely resembles a Japanese role-playing game, with the player's team facing off against groups of enemies and taking turns to attack back and forth. Visually, it's pure South Park, with a more game-like visual style completely eschewed in favour of a remarkably faithful recreation of the TV show's paper cut-out look. User interface and menus aside, every moment of action in the game could be taken directly from an episode of South Park.
The story starts out simply enough, with a new kid arriving in the little Colorado town and being sent outside by his parents to make friends. The neighbourhood children are playing an ongoing fantasy game, and have split into two factions: humans and elves. Former friends have been estranged by this division, with the show's four main characters - Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and Kenny - split between the two groups.
From here, the story plays out as an affectionate parody of fantasy (particularly Lord of the Rings) and of video games. True to the genre, the new kid - dubbed Sir Douchebag by the always classy Cartman - is completely silent, with many characters reacting hilariously to his mute stares, ranging from "He never says anything. That's so hot!" from one of the neighbourhood girls, to "Just say SOMETHING!" from a frustrated Cartman.
The new kid gets entangled in factional politics, carrying out various tasks to prove himself to the leaders, as well as helping out random South Park residents in the process: the local bar owner needs the rats in his basement killed (a standard fantasy game beginner's quest), the local goth kids want to strike a blow against the status quo, and the kindergarten kids just want to play hide and seek.
Things take a weirder turn when an alien spacecraft crashes into the town, spilling out glowing green slime that has devastating effects on the local residents and wildlife. Inevitably, secretive government men in black suits and dark glasses arrive to hush everything up, and things only get worse from there.
One of the most pleasant surprises in The Stick of Truth is that story-wise, this is basically an episode of the show. It looks spot-on, the voices are all provided by the real cast, and the script is classic South Park. References to memorable episodes of the show are almost impossible to count, with dozens of locations and over a hundred characters lifted straight from the show, and more references, in-jokes, and sight gags than I could count.
Those who have never watched South Park may be baffled by the quick-fire references - Tom Cruise hiding in Stan's bedroom closet, Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo having marital difficulties, and a surprise appearance by Mr Hat in the most disgusting location imaginable - but fans will be in heaven. Essentially, this is an interactive 20th anniversary special, only a couple of years early.
It's important to note, however, that this is a seriously offensive game. Outside the constraints of television, the game's writers have been free to push South Park's already distasteful humour to dizzying new heights (or lows, depending on your point of view). This is a world where "magic" is actually just farting, where an abortion clinic is overrun with zombie fetuses, and botching a minigame results in brutal anal trauma.
In Australia, some scenes were deemed to extreme and were edited out. These sequences - violent anal probing on board an alien craft, and several interactive sequences in an abortion clinics - have been replaced with an image of a crying koala, superimposed with text explaining what was removed. Despite these edits, this is still a very objectionable game. I have a fairly thick skin, but several times I felt deeply uncomfortable and even slightly nauseous.
There's something to offend everyone here, and a honestly can't imagine even the most jaded gamer playing it from start to finish without wincing or dropping their eyes at least once.
If the filthy humour doesn't put you off, though, this is a wonderful little RPG. The combat has a surprising degree of depth to it, with simple tests of timing and reflexes required to pull off most combat moves. More powerful attacks generally require more complicated input, and in the heat of battle it's possible to fumble the controls and waste an attack.
There is a gigantic range of weapons, clothing, modifications, and consumables to find and use. Most weapons and armour have one or two slots for "patches", add-on items that enhance that item's capabilities. Perfectionists like me can spend quite a lot of time putting together an armour and weapon set that perfectly synergises to give the most powerful result.
South Park itself is recreated in loving detail, with all of its major locations accounted for. You can look around the homes of the show's main cast, including discovering some disturbing items in the bedroom of Cartman's mother, and you can walk downtown and see Jimbo's Guns, Tom's Rhinoplasty, and more. Explorers are rewarded with a wide range of hidden bonuses and side-quests, and there is even a Metroid-style element to it, where some items and locations are inaccessible until returned to later with a new ability.
Of course, Stick of Truth has some flaws, but they aren't huge and they don't spoil the experience. By default, combat is a little too easy, though you can bump the difficulty up or down at any time to suit your skill level. That said, the difficulty curve can be a bit rough, with some extremely challenging fights coming out of nowhere.
The game's biggest flaw is that it feels slightly incomplete, and several features seem to have been roughly chopped out before release. Most of the items you can collect are labelled "junk", useful only for selling to shops to fund other purchases, but many of them feel like items that can be combined into weapons, armour, and other items. I don't know for certain that there was a crafting system, and that it was removed late in the game's development, but it certainly feels like it.
Similarly, the fact that your character can only ever be aided in a fight by a single ally feels like a late change. The combat feels like it was designed with a group of three or four allies in mind, and the fact that it ended up being just you and one buddy feels like a rushed compromise. One ally in particular has capabilities best suited to enhancing the capabilities of allies, and having him support just your character seems strange.
None of these issues spoil the game, and in fact that offer some hope for additional content in future. While there is no DLC on launch day (a pleasant change from the current norm) there is a "downloadable content" item on the game's main menu, so it seems Ubisoft and Obsidian have some extra game content in the works. This is a game begging for more stories to be told, and at 17 years old the show certainly has enough background material to draw from. If this coming content could add additional party members to battle or implement a crafting system, as well as adding new episodic stories, then all the better.
I don't know how it happened, but South Park: The Stick of Truth is a startlingly good game, entertaining as hell and a decent length, packed with fan-pleasing references, and marred by only minor issues. If you're a fan of the show, you simply have to buy it. Even if you've only watched the show occasionally over the years, as I have, then it's still extremely entertaining. The only people who should avoid it are the easily-offended (and, to be honest, the moderately-easily-offended).
If you have the stomach for it, this is a laugh-out-loud funny adventure wrapped around a well-designed game, and I had a great time with it.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez