There’s little point in reviewing South Park: The Stick of Truth. I can neither recommend it nor not recommend it. If you like South Park, you want to play this game, full stop. And if you don’t like South Park, you’re going to be so turned off while playing it that you might actually throw up in your mouth. It’s a sixteen-hour-long episode of the show with turn-based RPG combat. That’s either your dream game or a dripping, horrible nightmare.
Personally, I mostly loved the combat and was pleasantly surprised at how often the game featured environmental puzzles requiring more of me than “find the key then find the door”. I did run into a problem, though. I hesitate to even call it a problem, really, because I know a lot of players strongly feel it belongs in the “feature not bug” category. I know that because this same problem has cropped up in a lot of turn-based games recently. Just off the top of my head, I remember encountering it in Persona 3, the first two Paper Mario games, and all three Final Fantasy XIII games. I’ll describe it to you, and see where it gets me.
About halfway through the game — maybe a little less — I realized I could win every random encounter with this sequence of actions:
- Get the first strike by hitting the monster on the map.
- Use the attack that causes Bleeding (South Park‘s version of Poison) on all the bad guys.
- Use Jimmy’s bardsongs to restore some PP and then put all the monsters to sleep.
- The monsters all wake up from heavy Bleeding damage, but not before losing their turns.
- Combine my “do shitloads of extra damage to Bleeding enemies” attack with my passive “take another turn when you kill an enemy” ability to mop everything up.
Okay, so I couldn’t resist sneaking in an Underpants Gnome joke. It’s not really appropriate here, because there is no “???” step. I had a perfect formula for winning every fight without 1) ever allowing any monster to have a turn and 2) ever using most of my player characters or special attacks. Indeed, there’s an entire type of magic I never used once in the entire game, until the very last battle where it was required to win.
Sometimes I would screw up the formula. Like, I’d be using some non-Jimmy character for their map ability, and forget to swap him back in. Or I’d botch the first attack and let the enemies get a free opening round on me. In these cases it was actually faster to just reload my save and start the fight over than to just play it out.
I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand I never really got bored with the combat. I mean, the game just wasn’t long enough to wear out its welcome. And the game goes out of its way to let you skip a lot of combat by exploiting environmental hazards, which was fun. And, I don’t know, maybe the Killer Formula only exists on the character class I chose, and 75% of players don’t encounter it. Or maybe the fights don’t boil down so well if you play on Hard Mode, rather than Normal.
Or maybe not. Sometimes, if I didn’t reload after a botch and the monsters actually got a turn off, I’d find myself pretty deep in the shit. South Park is similar to a Zeboyd game in how quickly battles can turn against you. One bad round and you’re on the mat. Good thing for those friendly reloads! It very much feels like the game intends for you to find and apply the Killer Formula as early and often as possible.
I remember thinking of this as a flaw in Persona 3, where battles either went 100% in your favor, or 100% against, with very little middle ground. You either got the first strike and scored an All-Out Attack on the first round, or the monsters shoveled so much rapesauce onto you there was no way to recover. What that game, and South Park, and much of the back half of my beloved Final Fantasy XIII fails to convey, is a sense of heroes actually fighting monsters. Instead of going up against bad guys and having a damage/buff/heal back-and-forth, you are instead presented with a puzzle. Once you solve it, the game tests you by making you solve that same puzzle, repeatedly, for as long as you can stand it.
I want to stress that South Park doesn’t have enough combat for this to become really tedious. It’s a rare dungeon that has more than four or five encounters, as opposed to several hundred like in Persona 3. But I did notice myself reaching that point where I felt like, okay, I already know which six buttons to push, and in which order, and it’s not really engaging anymore. The game never challenged me to look beyond my Killer Formula.
Maybe the lesson game developers ought to learn is “don’t make your turn-based RPGs longer than sixteen hours”. Which… yeah, I could get behind that. We’ll go with that. Thanks for letting me think this one out, guys!