Back in 1998, the first trailers for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut touted millions of dollars spent on cutting-edge technology just to bring Cartman to life to do his little German dance. South Park: The Stick of Truth feels like a game trying to take that joke to its ultimate conclusion. Two extra years in development, another six-month delay on top of that, and a change in studios just to have a game that looks, sounds, and acts like South Park.
If you're a new or longtime fan of the Comedy Central cartoon, you can go ahead and forget that any other licensed games based on the show ever happened. The Stick of Truth mostly foregoes latter-day South Park's usual satire and social criticism in favor of lovingly jabbing at RPGs and gaming in general. The quest for the titular Stick of Truth starts as a simple extension of the foul-mouthed Lord of the Rings/Dungeons & Dragons material from the show and, of course, this being the town of South Park, balloons into something wilder, involving an alien threat to the whole town, with you, the silent protagonist New Kid (or Douchebag, as he's later dubbed), as its only hope. There's always been a strangely innocent charm to how the fantasy material has melded with the larger adult world around the kids on South Park, and it translates extremely well to the RPG format, where every object one can think of has a use and magic to it, from a lead pipe to an alien sex toy.
It's an especially commendable achievement given how much the game leans on extreme humor, even beyond what the show has done in the past. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have Bigger, Longer & Uncut's carte blanche on content again, and they've hit some new comedy highs by reaching new lows. There's a boss fight with an Underpants Gnome warlock that happens underneath a bed on which the hero's parents have sex—and its possibly the grossest, most hilarious QTE this medium has ever seen. The fact that there's maybe half a game after that moment that actually succeeds at topping it should daunt anyone trying to make comedy work in a game for years to come.
The lesson to be learned from it is for anyone making this kind of game to find the beauty in simplicity. Also, to never, ever fart on another man's balls.
The Stick of Truth doesn't really have many high-reaching ambitions, but that's a good thing. Japan's current penchant for every new RPG to try and reinvent the wheel with combat has created a landscape where a game such as this taking so many of its cues from Paper Mario and Earthbound feels like a breath of fresh air. You create a character, select a class from Fighter, Mage, Thief, or Jew (it's essentially a cleric/healer class, only Jewier), you get some basic training from Cartman, with more complex spell (read: fart) tutorials down the road, and everything else is self-explanatory. The town is small, but open world, with the townsfolk giving fun little sidequests, and almost any major location from the show is free to explore, and rife with collectables, hidden bosses, and all the glorious XP therein. The equipment system is basic, but heavy on customization and add-ons. Some are logical, like strapping nails to your weapon, which adds the ability to make enemies bleed every hit, or a lit match allowing you to have fire arrows. Some are, well, exactly what you'd expect from a South Park game, like pasting a ginger kid's pubes to your weapon to gross them out (the game's version of poison). You earn perks to your abilities by adding Facebook friends from around the town (complete with an increasingly hilarious, and well-implemented newsfeed), and the major characters from the town are either helper characters by your side in every battle or one-time-use Summon characters, a la Final Fantasy, but instead of ice goddesses and giant dragons, you get Jesus descending from on high to kill everything in your path with an AK-47, before pulling a David Caruso with his sunglasses. Because, why wouldn't that happen in this game?
As with Paper Mario and Earthbound, it's not a terribly complicated or difficult game, especially once you figure out, just like real life, that kicking your enemies in the nuts should always be your first move. And yet, that lack of difficulty allows the game to hit that sweet spot of requiring thought and preparation for every obstacle, but still ushering the player along to see what it's got to offer; unlike many RPGs, it's not just a barely interactive cutscene festival. The world has essentially been given South Park: Even Bigger, Impossibly Longer, & Holy Hell I Can't Believe This Is Uncut in the form of the first unpretentious turn-based role-playing game we've seen in ages. The Stick of Truth would only have hurt itself had it made itself more accessible. As such, the game winds up feeling like the best RPG in years by ignoring everything its contemporaries have been doing for the last decade. The lesson to be learned from it is for anyone making this kind of game to find the beauty in simplicity. Also, to never, ever fart on another man's balls.