Before we begin, there's a simple question that you need to ask yourself: Do you find South Park funny?
If the answer is yes, then all is well. Come on in, kick off those wet shoes, and I''ll regale you with stories from an hour or two spent in the company of an interactive, feature-length South Park episode filled with all of your favourite characters. We'll chuckle about side quests that see you hunting down Man Bear Pig for a super-cereal Al Gore, delight that the game has you trotting about the Colorado town collecting Chinpokomon, and giggle at infiltrating Kenny's garage to pick up some crack from a bunch of addicts for Tweak's dad.
If the answer is no, then we might have a problem, though I'm not entirely sure why you're reading a piece about an RPG based on South Park anyway.
The game opens with a brief character creation screen (The Stick of Truth wins bonus points from allowing me to have an afro -- complete with comb jutting out of the side -- from the start) followed by the arrival of your character in South Park. You're new, a silent amnesiac (a well-worn trope that game takes great pleasure in pointing fun at), you have no friends, and your parents are incredibly insistent that you make some. So off you trot, out onto the streets.
It isn't long before you bump into someone who's also rather eager to make a proper friend or two, dressed up in a tin-foil hat, and stumbling over words in a rather endearing fashion. Butters introduces himself as a Paladin, befriends you on the South Park version of Facebook, and whisks you off to meet his chum who just so happens to be an all-powerful wizard with an affinity for Cheesy Poofs, and protector of the game's eponymous magical totem. Cartman asks you for your name -- a regular feature in RPG games. But the interface doesn't let you, and so after three attempts, and much taunting, Cartman resolves to call you "douchebag" for the entirety of the game.
Wizards? Paladins? Magic? They might seem a little incongruous, but the basic premise for The Stick of Truth revolves around what is, quite simply, the most epic piece of Live Action Role-Playing ever witnessed. You've arrived in South Park to find the children of the town obsessed with fantastical LARPing, and the magical Stick of Truth lies at the heart of it all. Cartman and his human allies are stuck in a war with Kyle and his elven brethren, and both sides will stop at nothing to secure the powers of the Stick of Truth.
It's a premise that lends itself wonderfully to the framework of an old-school-minded, turn-based RPG, but with a bunch of modern concessions. The game is being developed by Obsidian -- a studio with some serious pedigree when it comes to deep, engrossing RPGs -- but, truth be told, at first glance it seems as though South Park: The Stick of Truth is a bit of a simple affair. Rather than the Fallout, Neverwinter, and Baldur's Gate listings that grace the annals of the studio's legacy, a better comparison would be Paper Mario -- a lighthearted 2D RPG, stuffed with little mechanical twists to keep players engaged, and rife with fan-service and chuckle-inducing Easter eggs.
I was advised to follow the main quest line early on to try and see as much of the central gameplay as possible, but I couldn't help going off the beaten track to have a little poke around. Stepping into Cartman's house, I threw open the closet doors in his room to find a referential treasure trove, from a Beefcake shirt to the Faith+1 platinum album to his Coon outfit. Nipping across the landing to his mum's room, her drawers yielded various sex toys and new hairdo I could add to my character at a later stage. I stopped off in the family bathroom to relieve myself of a Number 2, and then retrieved my deposit and stuffed it into my inventory in case it came in handy later on.
Butters remains your companion through the very first few stages, but we were told that you'll be able to change allegiances later on should you wish, and side with Stan or Kyle. As you talk to people in and around South Park, you'll unlock Friend profiles for them, and you'll be able to swap characters in and out of your two-man active party.
Combat unfolds in turn-based fashion, something to which poor Clyde -- roped into training service as a punching bag for the development of your skills -- objects. "I know it's lame!” yells Cartman. “But taking turns is how we're doing it, 'kay!" You have basic attacks, ranged weapons eventually, and special abilities. The efficacy of your attacks, and blocking enemy moves, are reliant on timed button presses, such as when your weapon flashes just before you strike a blow. It's all introduced in steady fashion, but interspersed with some terrific dialogue and some hilariously awful one-liners from Cartman that ensure even genre veterans don't get bored.
It's also pretty tough. Your training complete, you're instantly thrown into the fire as the elves attack and steal the Stick. Though the mechanisms are introduced well, once you head outside of Cartman's back yard into the town to retrieve it, it's clear to see that battles aren't to be taken lightly, and mistiming those buttons presses, particularly on the defensive end, can prove a little costly. There aren't any random encounters, though, and you can always try and leg it if you're a little light on energy.
You can also augment your attacks with a fearsome Dragon Shout, as Cartman puts it. This involves twiddling the thumbsticks rapidly, and then unleashing an enormous fart of rumble-inducing magnitude upon your enemies. Oh, and I learned that the log I'd laid earlier on could be flung at people like a nutty, brown grenade.
I'm not ashamed to say that I nearly pissed myself giggling.
Playing through the first hour or so on PC, running at 1080p, was like diving into an episode of the show. As good as Ni No Kuni was, as outstanding a job Level-5 did on recreating Studio Ghibli's aesthetic, you knew which cutscenes were in-game and which had been crafted apart. Here, there's none of that; it's all so seamless and perfectly presented, helped along by a HUD that doesn't appear until you call up the menu or engage in combat.
I had an enormous, stupid grin on my face the whole time I was playing South Park: The Stick of Truth, and that's because I'm a massive fan of Parker and Stone's series, and their inpuit is to be found everywhere here. Obsidian have done much of the work at the coalface, but Parker and Stone have been incredibly hands-on with this game, and it really shows. It starts with the script, loaded with zingers that I won't spoil here, and stuffed with material that's frequently puerile, often outrageous, and devastatingly funny. There's an abundance of fan service here, and some well-balanced RPG stylings begging to be explored, all wrapped up in a bundle that's bound to cause offence to pretty much anyone and everyone. But that's South Park -- nobody is safe -- and it's refreshing to see a game channel its source material so magnificently in both form and function. The metafictional core -- the LARPing that presents a game within a game -- allows for some brilliant skewering of gaming tropes, again presenting parallels with Nintendo's superb, self-effacing Mario RPG series.
Only one question remains, douchebag: What class will you choose: Warrior, Mage, Thief or... Jew?
And don't forget to bring a towel.