South Park: The Stick of Truth is the story of a children's game gone horribly, awfully, disgustingly awry. It opens with you, the new kid, being invited to partake in a war where humans and elves battle for control of an all-powerful relic that allows its wielder to control the universe. Only, the "war" is just swinging cardboard swords, the "elves" are kids wearing the sort of cheap plastic ears you see in Halloween stores, and the "all-powerful relic" is a stick. Just an ordinary stick. It's all pretend. Or is it?
During your quest to claim the Stick of Truth, you'll explore alien vessels, witness your parents having sex, perform an abortion on a man, fight Nazi zombies, crawl up an anus, and face off against a shadowy government organization, and all of it is very real. But you and your friends are still kids, playing pretend. Your paladin friend doesn't really have a Hammer of Justice, he has a ball-peen hammer taken from his home. Your wizard friend isn't casting Magic Missile, he's throwing menstrual pads. And you, dear child, you're not swinging a "vibroblade," you're wielding a dildo. This mismatch of childish innocence and adult depravity is what the South Park television show has always been about, and Stick of Truth conveys it wonderfully. It's childish and playful, yet wholly inappropriate and vulgar. This is an RPG where "Jew" exists alongside the usual Fighter, Thief and Mage classes. At one point, underwear-stealing gnomes magically shrink you down and battle you underneath your parents as they have raucous sex. Every so often, you have to dodge your father's swinging scrotum.
Some of the humor will be lost, however, if you're not an avid fan of South Park. And I mean avid fan. If you happened to miss the episode "Woodland Critter Christmas," the joke of Christmas music playing during abortion scenes will leave you scratching your head. If you've never heard of ManBearPig, Al Gore's entire quest line becomes nonsensical gibberish.
Even if you can appreciate the jokes, quests where you go here, kill this, go there, collect that are common, and they aren't dressed up as anything more than the simple chores that they are. A quest for the children's school counselor, Mr. Mackey, is literally taking a piece of junk to his storage locker for him. It's not exciting or interesting, and if you weren't aware that Mackey has a hoarding problem, it's not even funny. Without reference-based humor to power them, Stick of Truth's quests reveal themselves to be uninspired and tedious.
To its credit, Stick of Truth references some of the most popular episodes of the series, but if you're looking for a solid RPG first and a South Park game second, this isn't it.
Combat is turn-based and is perhaps best described as RPG Lite – weapons and armor aren't restricted by class, so what you pick at the beginning of the game has little effect on how you approach hostile situations. On Normal difficulty, most fights can be powered through with brute force.
Your chosen class grants you unique abilities – as a Thief, I could stab enemies in the back to induce bleeding and cause damage over time. As a Jew, I could use my Sling of David – AKA a stone placed into a sock – to attack any enemy, even those hiding behind beefier comrades. Your allies also have special abilities. My personal favorite belongs to Butters, the mild-mannered weakling, who can transform into his beefy, villainous alter-ego, Professor Chaos (specifically, the anime version that appeared in "Good Times with Weapons").
When it's your turn to defend, things get slightly more interesting. Pressing a button at the right time allows you to partially deflect enemy attacks, many of which can be devastating if you fail. You have to watch and pay attention, which adds some excitement, especially since enemy attacks are entertaining in their own right. Wild dogs hump your face, Al Gore gives a slideshow presentation on global warming, and hallway monitors berate you for not having a hall pass.
Should you find yourself backed into a corner, you can also summon certain characters that are able to obliterate entire groups of enemies in one hit. Six hours into the game, Jesus Christ was not only my character's friend on Facebook, but I could call him into battle as well. When summoned, Jesus swoops down from the heavens and sprays enemies with machine gun fire before sliding on some sweet sunglasses and flying off into the sunset. Like the rest of Stick of Truth, it's all a little silly.
Elements like that are important, because as rote as combat can be, it's still funny. Even though I found no reason not to use Professor Chaos in almost every battle, I always enjoyed watching him stomp his way onto the battlefield. It's adorable, but again, if you don't get that joke, it's not going to be as charming.
How you'll feel about South Park: The Stick of Truth comes down to how you prefer the peanut butter to chocolate ratio in this weird little flavor mash-up. To get the most out of it, you have to buy into its world; you have to play pretend. More than that, you're going to want to know the kids you're playing with. If you're well-versed in South Park history and can imagine cookies as a "health potion," you're off to a good start. If you can also forgive the repetitive nature of combat and some uninspired quests, it's worth taking up arms – or dildos – for The Stick of Truth's hilarious, disgusting adventure.
This review is based on a Steam download of South Park: The Stick of Truth, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.