maanantai 17. maaliskuuta 2014

REVIEW - South Park: The Stick of Truth | Xbox 360 | 2014

RELEASED: March 4, 2014
DEVELOPER(S): Obsidian Entertainment, South Park Digital Studios

First question: does anyone even remember when they started making this game? Second question: did anyone ever REALLY come to think that this game might turn out good? Let's go back to August 13th, 1997. Based on an animated short now cult among fans, and a second one which is considered the pilot episode, Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed South Park on Comedy Central with the first episode called "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe", which was an instant hit, and is still regarded one of the best episodes in the show's colourful history. 17 years later, the all-rule-breaking cartoon continues to thrive and stay fresh thanks to its timely humour and extreme audacity, both of which know less bounds as time goes by - as Parker and Stone have often said, "if you aren't allowed to make fun of something, what's the point in making comedy?" Existing for almost as long as the show itself, is an array of bad games that are not only bad by standards of gameplay, but games that completely lack the show's look and atmosphere, and have only been made to cash in on the brand name, and none of which have had Parker and Stone's direct involvement. An RPG completely written by Parker and Stone, partly based on the success of a 2002 episode named "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers", was announced to be in development by Obsidian Entertainment, fairly fresh off Fallout: New Vegas, in 2011. After the first official trailer was launched in late 2012, it was announced that publisher THQ had filed for bankruptcy. Ubisoft bought the rights to the game in early 2013, but could not nail down a specific date for the release - except that it would be out in late 2013... when it was announced the game would be delayed again due to censorship issues, among other things. Well... believe it or not, but after all the countless delays, even frustratingly noted by Parker and Stone on the show, here it is - it's called South Park: The Stick of Truth, and it is more than you could've ever dreamed of. It's fucking awesome.

Definitely gonna have myself a time

Trey Parker : Grand Wizard (Eric Cartman) / Stan Marshwalker (Stan Marsh) / Various
Matt Stone : High Jew Elf Kyle (Kyle Broflovski) / Princess Kenny (Kenny McCormick) / Butters the Merciful (Butters Stotch) / Various
Mona Marshall : Sheila Broflovski / Linda Stotch
April Stewart : Wendy Testaburger / Liane Cartman / Carol McCormick / Mayor McDaniels / Sharon Marsh / Shelley Marsh / Principal Victoria

You are the "New Kid", a 9-year old boy fresh off a move to South Park, struggling to become cool by making tons of friends on Facebook, and getting entangled in a war between the humans led by Grand Wizard Cartman, and the drow elves, led by High Jew Elf Kyle; a bloody war for the most sacred artifact in the history of fantasy gaming, the Stick of Truth. ...Too simple, you say? Enter Nazi zombies, aliens, Crab People, Underpants Gnomes, Jesus, Mr. Hankey and family, Terrance and Phillip, Big Bad Government Guy, Mr. Slave with a thermonuclear device (plus mounts of other stuff) up his ass, and just about everyone and everything else that ever made your trip to South Park a nice one.

South Park premiered in Finland on October 7th, 1999. Since that fateful Thursday night, I've been a humongous South Park fan - I would even go as far as to rank it my second favourite TV show in history, right after Twin Peaks. (Kinda ironic that they're both completely different shows set in "quiet" little mountain towns, huh?) I was in the 9th grade, and I had never even heard of South Park. One of my classmates was like "Hey, you know what happens tonight? South Park airs, baby, yeah!", and I was like "Dude, what the fuck is South Park?", and he goes "It's the best fucking show ever!", just like any of the kids on the show would describe anything slightly above standard. So, I sat down to watch the pilot episode with my brother, and we both laughed 'til our asses bled, straight from the first couple of lines. Sure, if you want to be snippy about it, we already had The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-head, two animated shows that used to be referred to as crude toilet humour, but never anything like South Park - nothing as brutal and honest. If Parker and Stone happened to offend someone, they responded by making the next episode positively worse than the last. While The Simpsons has long since run out of semi-decent jokes, Beavis and Butt-head has lost all its anarchistic appeal with the times, and even Family Guy suffers from season-long slumps every now and then, South Park just tramples on (despite its admittable share of really bad episodes), 'cause it quickly improves from mistakes and stays with the times. 17 years and counting... and now we finally have a game that reaches that level of entertainment - a perfect mix of a love letter to long-time South Park fans all around the world (except Germany and Australia, where the game is banned altogether for good reasons), and humorous insight on modern trends. Just what you'd expect from a game that was probably aimed for the show's 15th anniversary. There's more to it, though - cinematically, it's just like one long-ass South Park episode. And, if that isn't enough of a hook, let me tell you it's a great role-playing game too - if you're a South Park fan and ever liked comical RPG's such as the Mario RPG's (Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi in particular), you should wait no longer. I'm going to tell you a bit about it, but I'd probably never forgive myself if I spoiled too much. So I'll try to be careful.

Your house. You're not allowed to come home
'til you've made some friends on Facebook.
The graphics are fantastically crappy; the game is just like South Park down to the last detail, it adapts the cut-out animation style of the show and does it perfectly, complete with the occasional CGI effects that've been featured on the show for several seasons, as well as some special effects created specifically for the game to spoof the role-playing genre. Even the world map is a faithful recreation of the town of South Park, at least up 'til the fifth or sixth season of the show, with hotspots such as Stark's Pond, the school and Kenny's house ("in the ghettooooo") definitely in the game and just where they should be. The game also sounds like South Park to the last detail, and features some genuinely good music, ranging from epic fantasy score to classics such as "Kyle's Mom Is a Bitch", "Sexual Harassment Panda", "Blame Canada", Chef's old pillow tunes and finally, even songs from Parker and Stone's other works such as Team America. When it comes to who makes an appearance in the game and who doesn't, let's just say I can't think of many popular characters from the show's history that don't at some capacity, even if it's just a barely noticeable reference, a mention in the dialogue or a song clip or whatever; some of them deserve screen time or more of it, but I guess they just didn't fit and I'm perfectly happy with what we've got here. 'Cause we've got plenty.

Let's concentrate on what's key, first. South Park: The Stick of Truth isn't supposed to be the biggest RPG there ever was, far from it. Don't go expecting a gigantic, fully open world complete with full customization of your character and tons of hotspots to explore. Even one of the modern RPG's biggest draws, dare I say requirements, crafting, is totally ousted; and that's something I can't come up with any excuse for, since there's so much junk to be collected that I totally expected some sort of an item-crafting or alchemy feature to pop up at some point. You can modify your weapons and armour with different badges and stickers, and even dye 'em to match your favourite colours, but that's it; you can't make anything yourself. The "world" is the town of South Park, nothing less and very little more - though you'll find that very little is plenty, just wait 'til you see it. Character customization is very minimal, but on the other hand, how you design your South Park avatar in the beginning of the game is just a start. You can't choose your gender or age, there's not much you can do to your face (this is South Park, after all) and there are very few other options, such as hair and clothes, available in the beginning, but you get more wigs and make-up all the time. But, as one of the loading screens says, if no amount of wigs or make-up can patch up your broken self-esteem, you can always head to the nose clinic and get yourself hoffalized. Everyone's happy, wouldn't you say? What you gotta remember though, is that looking like the Hoff doesn't mean you can swim or sing like the Hoff. I kinda swirled off the task at hand here - usually happens when we're talking about David Hasselhoff - what I was supposed to say is that South Park's got something other games have not. An endless pool of the most crude and sexual toilet humour ever seen in any other game. Thought the movie was over the top in this sense? Or the last few seasons of the show? No... this is the climax of everything South Park ever stood for. Parker and Stone have got a whole lot of work to do if they want to keep the show on the air, and up to this standard. When it comes to simply making you laugh, this game is fucking merciless. It should come as no surprise that the game does not have one serious moment in its approximate 15-17 hours of total length, but what might, is that there's not one bad joke in the whole game. There are some who might disagree, but I highly doubt those people are interested in the game to begin with.

Now how did we get here?
Like most episodes of the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth has two separate, but equally funny and surreal stories, which bind together one way or another towards the end of the game, and just like in Skyrim - the main course here when it comes to video game parody - your character is a mysterious "hero" that practically appears out of nowhere, and finds himself "destined" to find a conclusion to both conflicts. The kids' story is about a role-playing game which they're taking just a bit too seriously, with elves led by King Kyle and humans by Grand Wizard Cartman fighting for the Stick of Truth, which in actuality... is just a wooden stick, that however is the key to the game's conclusion in one way or another. I won't go into too much details, but let's just say right now that the game is very linear. You get to make some small decisions which do not however have ANY major weight on how the story will ultimately play out. Even the lines are the same, they're just spoken by a different person. And, no matter how much you'd like to stay on one side throughout the game, you must work for both factions, starting with the humans who teach you everything you need to know five minutes into the game. Cartman will immediately make a sarcastic note if you choose the oddball class of "Jew" - which I believe most players will, just for curiosity, the other classes being as mundane as Fighter, Mage and Thief - but doesn't give you as much shit for it as I expected, after all you're probably a good choice for handling the faction's finances.

The other story that eventually combines with the kids' fantasy game is about the government trying to mask an UFO crash in the South Park Mall as the construction of a new Taco Bell restaurant - which gets harder on the go as an alien substance is turning every organic being into primal, brainless, flesh-eating... Nazis. There are quests related to both stories throughout the whole game, and of course, a few fun errands for sidequests, including a vintage mark hunt ordered by Jimbo and Ned. With a rare item or two in almost every single screen of the game, obtainable with certain story upgrades, it doesn't matter how long it takes you to beat South Park: The Stick of Truth - you'll never be still, not for a moment. Except when someone's poking something up your ass. Perhaps then you should. Suck it in, walk it off - it's just the world these people live in.

Those hobos have gotta go.
Although the tutorial of the game claims that you cannot use specific equipment or talents if you're in a specific class, that's not true at all. You can use any armour or weapons regardless of class, you always carry two weapons (melee and ranged), and you inevitably learn four different magic spells crucial to your progress in time. More specifically, powerful farts only a true Dragonborn can perform - and to serve as mana potions, you have burritos, beans, broccoli and whatever else you can think of that might have a wanted effect on your bowel movement. However, consuming too many of these "potions" will literally make you shit your pants and lose all your mana. The classes essentially differ in their variety of special abilities, simply dubbed "Powers", which use the blue Power Meter instead of the green Mana Meter. Each class has totally different Powers, and it's fun to see what they do, especially since even though you eventually have a Fighter and a Mage at your disposal as party members, their Powers are completely different from yours even if you're in one of those classes. Just to mention a few examples of your character's abilities, you may play a round of Roshambo with an enemy as a Fighter (fans will know), and perform an impromptu circumcision on an enemy as a Jew. Ouch. Either way, the classes are way too indifferent for immediate replay value. I took the game for a second round right away because of the errands, collectables and minor jokes I might've missed, not for a forcibly different gameplay experience. Might as well come out straight with the fact that the game will "continue" after the credits have rolled, but you won't be able to access all areas. Many collectables must be found on the first (and only) visit to certain places, which is a total drag for Achievement enthusiasts and perfectionists, especially in a game that otherwise supports the Metroidvania style. The post-credits game is more of an opportune DLC gap than anything else.

The game has a day/night cycle, which however is only active during the main quest - which lasts for three days. During the day, you have infinite time to explore and again, if you're aiming to collect everything in the game, you should do that right away - there'll be no second chances at the worst, not even on another day. During the day, you also enjoy the full benefits from your party members. At nights, you'll have to deal with mythical creatures of the night all by yourself in special levels not accessible from the world map, kind of like to challenge your experience level and make you see if you're equipped and experienced well enough.

Regular combat level pretty much equals to yours, as per usual in modern RPG's, but some bosses are really tough shit, not just for low levels but certain classes that lack certain types of Powers. If you've played those Mario RPG's I mentioned earlier, you will find the combat system really familiar, simple and comfortable. All available commands are laid out around your characters in a circular fashion. You use the left analog stick to choose the command, and a different minigame determines the success of each command except for the use of items, even standard attacks. By leveling up, you can upgrade your Powers, making the related minigames a bit more complicated but the Powers all the more effective. After learning your first magic fart, you can spice up any standard attack with a bit of gas, raising the effectiveness of the attack and often leaving your enemy grossed out (poisoned) by the cut cheese. You can also use any magic fart you learn by itself in battle; each fart has a special feature in addition to the gross-out effect, which might make up for something your chosen class generally lacks. What I'm trying to say is that you can win this game, no matter how you go at it. There are tough moments, but you will easily learn from your mistakes. Just sit back, understand the point of this ride and enjoy it.

Humans against the world.
Summons are most definitely in the game as well, but as the summonable characters themselves point out, they're only summonable once per day each, and won't go head to head with bosses, each for their own reasons. At some points of the game, you might find yourself in a single, semi-regular battle you're not ready for, and at these points, the summons come in very handy. There are four different summons, all acquirable through four different, simple sidequests. What you've got to remember is that each time you use a summon, you need to wait 'til the next day and seek that character out again to re-acquire his services. Might sound tedious, but if you had constant and unlimited access to the summons, you'd be done with this game in record time, and would probably miss a lot of its glamour. Same goes for one of your buddies who joins the party in a thankfully late part of the game, and is therefore only available for a very limited period of time.

One of the major keys to success is making friends on Facebook. Conquering every part of the main quest, every sidequest and some secrets, even just walking down the street and talking to everyone, result in a friend request or two, or a whole bulk of 'em at a time. The more friends you have, the more perks you have. Unlike in many RPG's that have a perk system, each perk is unlocked from the beginning. These include the standard stuff - an increase in maximum HP/MP/PP, resistance to certain types of illnesses, and all that. Just like you won't be able to get all upgrades within the confines of the game, you can't have all the perks, and you can't cancel 'em out either - but there's nothing you can't live without.

I guess I've run out of things to point out - there's no need to go over fast travel politics or how the Metroidvania schtick presents itself 'cause I would inevitably have to spoil a few key moments of the game in telling you about some of the abilities besides the farts. (Yeah, you need 'em for field work as well.) I guess I could tell you about the collectables before I head to wrap this up. There are 30 Chinpokomon toys hidden throughout the game, some in those secluded locations you can't visit beyond that one time; missed one on my first round, so heads up for those... each solid piece of equipment (weapons and armour, not the upgrades) found on the field or bought from a merchant counts as a collectable, as does every Facebook friend. This is South Park, so don't go thinking Facebook is just for humans; some of the friends are very well hidden, and some characters who won't speak to you on the first day, might like to have a word with you at a later time. Yet, this once more, it's occasionally kinda difficult to find the right time to do certain stuff, and you're punished by not being given the chance to correct your mistake. Not very Metroidvania- or RPG-like, and perhaps the greatest flaw of an otherwise fantastic game.

Learning the (f)art of war.
Out of the 50 Achievements of the game, a total of 13 are related to the number two, and most of the secret Achievements require you to dress in a certain way in certain battles. Both types of Achievements are the most frustrating types in a game that is otherwise really easy to complete, Achievement-wise - but we do need something for instant replay value beyond the humour and smooth gameplay, 'cause the game really is THAT straightforward. So I don't have much gripes with the Achievements, the secret ones are outright impossible to figure out without a guide though. I mean, who the hell will think of dressing up as a girl and having David Hasselhoff's face on him in a certain boss fight, when none of the attire even makes any sense, not even in a South Park-sort of way?

Despite its linearity and occasionally poor utilization of a certain classic style of gameplay, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a phenomenal game, no less than one of the best licensed games ever made. It's an endless laughfest which honestly makes me think that Parker and Stone spent most of Season 16 writing this game, almost ruining the show for the whole season with leftover jokes and lame plots that were way too clean and serious, and might've worked on The Simpsons. This game is nothing like it; it's like retribution for every bad South Park episode ever made, I think it's actually as long as every bad South Park episode put together. Tell you what: take a week all to yourself, watch the trilogy of episodes made in promotion of this game and leading to its originally planned release date, then slap this one in and give it your sweet time, don't stop 'til the credits roll. I guarantee you'll walk away a happier person. A bit grossed out maybe, but happy.

+ It's just like watching a long-ass episode of South Park - a simply phenomenal one
+ It's got an honestly good plot with bits and pieces of classic episodes and characters paid homage to here and there at just the right pace; even most of the Powers are familiar to fans
+ Great video game parody which comes to a raging climax in a late part of the main quest
+ Genius South Park-style adaptation of vintage role-playing elements
+ Fun combat with minigames keeping you on your toes

- Frustrating tutorials, especially the fart tutorials which make the execution of the farts seem much more difficult than it actually is 
- Lots of junk, but no crafting system of any kind
- A few must-have characters are missing, though usually subtly referred to
- Some collectables must be acquired at a specific point of time, as they are placed in levels that are rendered inaccessible after the first visit
- Most of the replay value stems from Achievements (besides the humour); the customization of your character is minimal at the start of the game, decisions don't really count, and all the classes essentially share the same key talents

< 8.9 >

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