Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Talk Softly...

Like basically anyone who plays PC games, I have a ridiculous backlog on Steam. And, like most people who play RPGs, mine is particularly daunting: RPGs easily run to dozens of hours in duration, with one hundred hours not out of the question. Even a handful of RPGs can represent a year's worth of commitment of gametime, creating a weird feeling of obligation or burden.

Fortunately, now that my work on The Caldecott Caper is winding down to bug-fixing mode and the holiday break is affording more time for leisure, I'm finally able to start playing through some of these games that I've meant to play for ages. First up on the list: South Park: The Stick of Truth!

Some background: In my entire life, I've probably seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 episodes of South Park. That's scattered over the entire duration of the show: it made a big splash when it premiered during my high school years, was an occasional staple of late-night dorm TV watching in college, and every once in a while I'll sit down and watch a particular modern episode which has entered the zeitgeist. I have a weird relationship with the show: I enjoy it, but only in tiny morsels. It's so deliberately gross that I can feel physically ill after watching more than one episode, even if I do find it funny.

I've always enjoyed their marquee events, from the musical movie Bigger Longer and Uncut to their epic storylines riffing on Lord of the Rings, the capture of Saddam Hussein, or... heck, there's way too much to cover here. The game received positive reviews, and I tend to really enjoy Obsidian's games. This one was particularly interesting because, unlike many of Obsidian's earlier games, they didn't have a publisher pressuring them to release it in an early and unfinished state.

The end product was fantastic: both as a South Park episode, and as a video game, and as a South Park role-playing game. It has lots of great references that fans of the show will enjoy, but they aren't just trotted out as signposts: an original and engaging story is built up around them, and the writers bring new dimensions to previously-told events and characters.

What I personally enjoyed even more, though, was the way the game plays with RPG tropes. Obsidian is uniquely positioned to do this; these developers started back in the days of Interplay, and are not merely familiar with the tropes of the genre, but helped create many of those tropes in the first place. The sparkling combination of irreverence and complete mastery of the subject matter is a hallmark of South Park. Even when it feels like the show is viciously attacking something dear to your heart, you can't help but admire them, because they clearly know everything there is to know about what they're criticizing.


One of the very earliest examples comes near the beginning, when you need to choose a class for your character. Like every fantasy RPG ever, your choices are Fighter, Mage, and Thief. And, because this is South Park, the fourth class is Jew. Needless to say, I chose the latter. It was awesome. It isn't just a one-off joke, but has an entire (ridiculous) fully-developed progression track, with upgraded abilities and items and cosmetic equipment. You can attack enemies in a sensitive area with your imzel, call down plagues upon them, grow out your forelocks, and wear a variety of blue-and-white garbs.

The part of the game that made me laugh most was probably a segment on a space ship. As part of your exploration, you come across audio logs. But all of the audio logs are from a guy complaining about all of the audio logs he's finding on the ship. "Oh, God, they're coming, why am I standing here making this audio log?" "I've looked everywhere but I can't find anything to eat or a clue to get me off the ship. Just more audio logs! They're everywhere! For some reason I listened to every minute of every one of them, thinking there'd be some useful information's like they're just filler! Useless filler! This filler is driving me into madness!" "Okay, I did find one audio log that was mildly amusing. A woman trapped on this ship left an audio log about some paper she had left in an alien cabin and she told me the code was 776. That was kinda cool, because I didn't know the code before that... But when I opened the cabin there was only some kind of power up I didn't really need."

The whole time I was listening to those and laughing, I kept thinking about System Shock 2. It is one of my all-time favorite games, but also the game that single-handedly initiated the use of audio logs as this kind of ancillary story-telling device. Again, it's such a perfect South Park thing to do: it feels a little like they've ruined part of System Shock for me, but it's also kind of hard to disagree with their analysis, and it's presented in an extremely funny way.

Not everything is polemical, though: a lot is just straight-up goofy. There's a fantastic sequence late in the game where you travel to the distant land of Canada. I was delighted to see the country presented as a terrific top-down 8-bit game, like The Legend of Zelda. It's perfectly in keeping with the show's well-developed antipathy towards primitive Canadians, and perfectly expressed in this video game medium. The overall concept is great, but so are all of the little details: smashing pots to collect maple leafs and Canadian gems, sailing in a boat to an island, wandering into people's houses.

They also do a fantastic job at fully embracing the tropes they're echoing. 90% of RPGs feature you as a special person with unique abilities who is responsible for saving your land/world, and Stick of Truth follows in that tradition. But they just go for broke here, revealing that you are the "Dovakiin" whose "Dragon Shout" is a unique power that everyone wants. (In case you aren't familiar, that is exactly the plot and terminology of Skyrim, the most popular and best-selling FRPG of the current generation.)


So, the story and humor are great. How is the gameplay?

Pretty good! From a pure mechanical level, I'd say it's one of the better modern RPGs: there are things about it that slightly annoyed me, but those are mainly issued with the genre more than this specific game. The overall progression is very well done, with you gradually learning more abilities and techniques as you progress throughout the game. Leveling is very fast with absolutely no grinding necessary. (And maybe not even possible, though I never tried exploring the forest.) I do feel like leveling might have been too fast, or more specifically that you outlevel your equipment VERY quickly. After pretty much every major story beat, you've gained a level and new gear. I kind of would have preferred a smaller amount of equipment (items and/or slots) to minimize time spent futzing around in the inventory screen; but again, that's a key element of RPGs, and South Park is far better than many other modern games I could mention in that respect.

The money curve isn't great, although again it's much better than (e.g.) any of the Elder Scrolls games. There's some stuff worth buying; I picked up a couple of Speed Potions (coffee drinks), and occasionally some gear. There's so much money available that there's no reason not to buy stuff, which I guess is good, but also makes money feel a bit pointless. What's great about the economy here, though, is the Junk category. Like many RPGs, a lot of the stuff you pick up only exists to be sold. Where most RPGs feature things like "broken scabbards" and "agate gemstones," though, the Junk category here is hilarious: hundreds of items referring back to prior events on the show, such as copies of "What Happened To My School?" and Mr. Twig and blobs of stemcells and a Sarcastaball trophy. The money itself might be boring, but reading the item descriptions while you sell them is not.

One really fantastic element was that this isn't just an RPG; it's more of an adventure-RPG. The most enjoyable part of the game was probably the various environmental puzzles. Many of these are linked to combat: while you can fight your way through enemies, you can often discover alternate ways to defeat them by using the level to your advantage. You can knock over lanterns, ignite fireballs, electrify puddles of water, topple obstacles, and so on. Sometimes figuring out these alternate solutions took longer than just fighting them would have been, but it always felt much more satisfying to solve the puzzle and beat them that way.

Character personalization is really interesting. There's a mix of slots. Some of them directly impact gameplay as well as your appearance: weapon, shirt, hat, glove. Others are purely cosmetic (except for a handful of brief quests): face makeup, wig, eyeglasses. You end up getting a huge range of appearances available, in addition to the skin tone you select at start. Because of South Park's 2D cartoonish look, these go a huge way towards creating a unique character. I mean, keep in mind that Stan and Kyle look exactly the same, but have significant personality differences, based entirely on their clothing.

I felt briefly sour at the very start of the game - despite the choice to pick my race (real race, not fantasy) and class (or, in my case, religion), you always have to play as a male. That's been one of my hobbyhorses lately, and I thought it seemed particularly dumb to restrict you to being a boy in a South Park game - since you're an unvoiced protagonist, and boys and girls look basically the same anyways, why not let people choose to play as a female?

By the end of the game, though, I was happy with the way they played with gender. First, as noted above, the cartoonish art style makes it really easy to present as whatever you want: take a boy, slap a long-haired wig on him, and poof, you have a girl! This is explicitly explored within the game multiple times. As on the TV show, Princess Kenny has embraced her feminine side (and, it must be said, the rest of the friends are surprisingly serene about the transformation - the reaction is "This is Kenny's thing right now, I don't claim to totally understand it, but it seems to make her happy," which seems remarkably progressive for someone like Cartman). Later in the game, an entire arc revolves around your character disguising himself as a girl in order to infiltrate The Girls, making textual something I had been idly playing with the entire game. (And culminating in a makeover that would have been amazing if it were not for some unfortunate interactions with darker skin tones, but that's probably better to discuss in the album.)

Speaking of which: yes, of course I have an album! Here it is. Lotsa spoilers, and much more detailed ramblings about the game's plot and whatnot.

Yeah. South Park: Stick of Truth is a great game for any fans of the show, and most fans of roleplaying games. It probably would also serve as a decent introduction to the genre for people who aren't already steeped in the arcana of creating, leveling, and equipping characters. It's an RPG which perfectly captures my modern criteria for gaming: unrepetitive, with your character always learning or doing something new, progressing through an engaging story as you master the mechanics of the game.

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