South Park: The Stick of Truth

OK, apparently I don’t feel up to finishing This War of Mine right away, so let’s try something sillier and less stressful from the same bundle. The Stick of Truth, despite its South Park theming, is pretty much a conventional combat-oriented RPG, premised on a promise of inevitable progress and growth, and that seems a good antidote to TWoM‘s constant grim struggle to stay afloat.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a South Park fan. I’ve seen a bit of the show, I saw the movie, and I even played one of the previous South Park games — specifically, the 1998 FPS using the Turok engine, which, heretically, modeled the characters in 3D. But the whole thing always seemed too mean-spirited for my tastes, its comedy created mainly from the relief that follows the shock of the transgressive. And I do specifically mean shock, not just offense; the whole effect depends on things being unexpectedly offensive. I think in particular of the Terrence and Phillip show from the movie here: the humorous part wasn’t just their relentless profanity, it’s that they broke into it so suddenly and without warning, while not even seeming to acknowledge that it was happening. Even the animation style is designed to contrast with the content, putting the viewer off-guard by making the show look more innocent than it is. But to keep that working for any length of time, they have to keep ramping up the tansgressiveness. That’s a road that ultimately leads to Princess Hears a Strange Noise, and I for one am not willing to follow it that far. And on top of that, a lot of the characters talk in the sort of silly voices that people only use in real life to make fun of other people.

The game, then, has sort of the opposite feel from Undertale. Where Undertale encouraged you to empathize with monsters and treat them as beings worthy of basic respect, The Stick of Truth treats all its characters with derision and contempt.

Despite an intro that presents the war between the Humans and the Drow Elves to control the Stick of Truth as something real happening in a fantasy realm, it quickly turns out to all be a neighborhood-wide LARP. And by LARP, I mean schoolchildren playing make-believe as an excuse to beat each other up. As a result, the game is kind of like a meaner version of Costume Quest. Not just because it involves wandering around a suburb with children in costumes, but because it blurs the line between reality and make-believe. You eat packaged snack foods to regain hit points, and your RPG-standard search for loot just means invading people’s houses and stealing stuff, but when you’re fighting, you really do have the magical powers and special abilities of your fantasy RPG character.

The combat is a great deal more involved than Costume Quest, though. There are a number of status effects to keep track of, both positive and negative. Your enemies can enter a Riposte stance, which makes your melee attacks backfire, or a Reflect stance, which does the same for missiles. Both attacking and defending prompt the player for timed button presses, often multiple presses in sequence. The result, for me at least, was that combat was, if not exactly taxing, then at least involving enough to keep my mind off other things, like how mean the premise is, and how crass the dialogue. This may be how the game is setting me up for sucker-punches to come, when it ramps up the transgressive enough to punch through my indifference.

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