Monthly Archives: February 2015

Stick of Truth: Matt ‘n Trey make a Paper Mario of their very own

SouthParkTheStickOfTruthI just played and finished South Park: The Stick of Truth. Been a while; finally got around to it.

Reaction? Pleasantly surprised!

I knew the game was an RPG, and I knew that Obsidian were damned good at making RPGs. There’d been good buzz, and anybody could tell that the graphics were dead-on from videos and screenshots.What I wasn’t expecting was that Stick of Truth played like an old-school JRPG. And what I really wasn’t expecting was that it was going to be a Mario RPG!

Yep. That’s what it is: a JRPG. Stick of Truth doesn’t play like either your Skyrim or your Final Fantasy. It doesn’t have the wandering aimlessness of the former, nor the complex, baroque combat favoured by the latter. What it’s got is exactly what Nintendo’s been providing in their RPGs going all the way back to SuperStar Saga: two-person combat teams, a choice of two distinct direct attacks that use timed presses of action buttons, upgradable “magic” attacks that focus on QTE-style button prompts, and time defences that you must use if you want to survive.

Heck, it’s even got the swappable companions that you’d see in Paper Mario, and the companion abilities that you use for both out-of-combat puzzle and in-combat ass-whuppins!

See, what separates good JRPGs from bad ones, more than anything else, is that the bad ones make you slog through fights you don’t enjoy and wish you could skip in order to get dribs and drabs of storytelling, while the good ones make a point of having encounters be something you want to do and enjoy doing. There are lots of different ways to do that–Suikoden 2 and Panzer Dragoon Saga both pull it off, but in completely opposite ways–but that’s the core of it. So, yes:

Stick of Truth is a damned good JRPG.

It’s one of the rare RPGs where I actively sought out combat simply because the combat loops were intrinsically engaging, instead of extrinsically rewarding with levels and loot and such. Every attack cycle featured meaningful choices, tests of player’s system knowledge and hand-eye skill, and gave both kinaesthic and visual rewards for success. It’s a joy to play, just as Nintendo’s JRPGs have been.  It’s proof that the “JRPG” vs. “western RPG” concepts aren’t really about Japan at all.

(It’s really about the way that the game abstracts skill and handles the division between “exploration” vs. “encounter” mode of play.)

Most people probably don’t buy it because they’re JRPG fans, though. Who’d even know? Obsidian hasn’t made one before now. Obsidian’s proven that they know exactly how it works, and even provided some great nods to previous RPGs, but players won’t know that. No, they probably buy it because it’s a South Park game. How’s it stand on that? Here’s the answer:

Stick of Truth is also a damned good South Park game.

You probably already knew that the visuals are dead-on. It’s almost eerie. Excepting the camera-angle and camera-distance concessions made for ease of player movement, it could easily be an episode of the series. The voice work is just straight-up South Park, too. All the available voice actors return, and the character voices are handled with the same level of care that the series has. It’s South Park.

The plot is a continuation and resolution of the whole Game of Thrones-related plotline from a while back, so it fits into the series’ continuity, and the way that the player’s integrated into the whole thing as the “new kid” is seamless. It even has the standard South Park plot structure, where a relatively simple conflict between the kids in the first act escalates into absolute madness by the end. It doesn’t quite feature the social insight that makes the best episodes so good…but it also doesn’t have the complete lack of political insight that makes the worst episodes so painful.

Is it funny? That’s too subjective to say. laughed. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes out of shock–at times Stick of Truth was the most vulgar game I’ve ever played. If you’re easily offended, stay away. It is unapologetically offensive.  It pushed a lot of buttons, including buttons I didn’t even know I had. Be aware.

(Since I’m Canadian, but also spoiler-averse, all I’ll say is that, yes, the game’s moment of crowning glory involved the True North Strong and Free.)

I’m not sure how relevant all of that is, though. The strange thing–the funny(?) thing–is that I never really played Stick of Truth for the jokes, or the art, or the voice work, or the story, engaging as they all were. I played because I enjoyed it as a game. I enjoyed exploring and finding stuff. I enjoyed upgrading and customizing my gear. I enjoyed using my out-of-combat abilities to gain an advantage in combat, and in both taking down tough bosses and absolutely crushing the “trash mobs” in a few turns.

It also shows what was so wrong with Fez. Like Fez, it has winning, clever core interactions that are intrinsically fun to do. Unlike Polytron, though, Obsidian and South Park Studios took that core and placed it inside a framework of meaningful choice and engaging narrative-building.

I also feel that shows that the whole narrative vs. ludology thing may be a bit of a misdirect; that truly solid games do both. You can focus on one or the other, but even the most narrative-driven storyteller should maybe break out the ol’ deck of cards and test out some gameplay loops.

In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on all those old SP episodes I missed. Also going to need to start digging through Obsidian’s back catalog. I’ve been sitting on New Vegas for ages. Think it’s time to rectify that. And since Trey Parker gave EarthBound a specific shoutout as a design inspiration, it’s time to rectify that little gap in my knowledge, too. Wish me luck.

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