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game review

If you still haven't decided where you stand when it comes to the crude humour of South Park – even though the show has been on the air for nearly 20 years – The Stick of Truth will likely help you figure that out within just a few minutes. One of the first choices to be made in this new video game is which type of character to play: fighter, mage, thief… or Jew. If you find that funny, then good news – you're going to love this game. If you don't, stop immediately: it's definitely not for you because things are going to get worse. Much, much worse. Throughout the next 15-or-so hours, you'll be dealing with anal probes, abortions, vulgar language, racism, feces throwing, Nazis, zoophilia and, of course, lots of fart jokes. Like a full season of the show, there aren't many taboos – either high-minded or juvenile – left untouched.

For those who do like South Park this game is a fantastically faithful romp through the show's long-running catalog of satire, parody, envelope-pushing and plain old obscenity. It isn't just an homage to one of the most offensive – and often bitingly hilarious – TV series in history, it's also the best effort to date at bringing it to life in the form of an interactive story. Playing The Stick of Truth feels like having your own starring role in the show, which is a great accomplishment by the developers at Obsidian Entertainment and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Players take on the role of the New Kid, a boy of few words who has just moved to town with his parents. The family, we learn through the odd dropped hint, has been forced to relocate after a mysterious altercation in their previous town that involved their son. Ma and Pa are now encouraging him to go out and make friends so that "things will be different this time."

As soon as the New Kid sets foot outside, he finds himself in the middle of a fantasy play-war being waged by the children of South Park. On one side is the scheming Cartman and his disciples of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (yup, the KKK), on the other is a band of "elves" led by the more conscientious Kyle. Cartman, believing the newcomer is the prophesied savior of their make-believe game because of his unusual proficiency in using farts in combat, wastes no time in recruiting him to his cause.

The New Kid is quickly dispatched to win support for Cartman, which means roaming the town and meeting its supporting cast of colourful characters, who typically request favours in return for rewards. Gun nuts Jimbo and Ned, for example, ask him to hunt down various creatures in exchange for more powerful weapons, while the goth kids require him to prove that he isn't a conformist by acquiring coffee and cigarettes. If he succeeds, they'll join him in battle for the titular Stick of Truth, an all-powerful artifact that can supposedly settle the war.

The town of South Park itself is basically an open world, but unlike most such games it's not grossly expansive, which again works well given the context. Although the TV show has added 3D elements and CGI over the course of its 17-year run, it derives much of its appeal from its basic two-dimensional construction-paper cut-out look. It still feels very much like the sort of rudimentary animation that anyone could put together if they had the time or inclination, and that's reflected in both the game's look and layout.

There are lots of nooks and crannies to discover, but South Park is otherwise linearly set up along three main streets. Travelling from one side of town to the other takes only a few minutes, and that can also be sped up by calling on Timmy and his motorized wheelchair-driven wagon. It's just the right size of open world – big enough to enjoy the freedom, but not so large as to be difficult to traverse or explore.

Game developer Obsidian cut its teeth on such role-playing franchises as Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights, so it's no surprise that at its core The Stick of Truth is an RPG. The New Kid collects weapons and armour and levels up by gaining experience points, which unlock or improve abilities. If you play as the Jew character class, for example (I couldn't resist), you can choose to increase the damage you do through your Jew-jitsu ability or the effectiveness of your Sling of David attack.

The Stick of Truth also works in some "Metrovania" elements, where new parts of previously explored areas become available as you gain additional abilities. Because this is a game that relies on shock and surprise, I won't give any of these away, but let's just say they usually involve fun twists in settings and gameplay. One hint: Underpants Gnomes.

The game's core action is the sort of turn-based combat that used to permeate RPGs, especially Japanese ones like Final Fantasy. Basically, the New Kid and his chosen ally – Butters at the beginning, with others becoming available as the game continues – take their turns doling out magic and melee attacks or using potions and special abilities, and then the opponents go, repeating until only one side is left standing.

This sort of real-time-breaking system gets more dated with each passing year, but it actually works perfectly in The Stick of Truth, a game that is rooted in absurdity. With South Park frequently parodying Japanese pop culture – there is a horde of Chinpokomon collectables hidden throughout the game, for example – there's something very funny and even appropriate about using such a trope as a basic gameplay mechanic.

Combat is varied overall, with enemies becoming increasingly difficult as the game continues. The New Kid and his buddy start out battling other kids, but before long they're taking on powerful hobos, mutant rats and Nazi zombies. The key to winning each battle lies in figuring out the right blend of abilities, attacks and defenses. Taking your power-restoring potion at the wrong time instead of casting a defensive spell or healing your buddy can result in losing the fight and having to start over. Similarly, entering a skirmish without having your "mana" meter fully charged can often result in defeat, since it means wasting a turn to ready up your devastating fart attacks (also, I can't believe I just wrote that).

I found myself relying on a few tried-and-true abilities and weapons, but that's because the game does a good job at ramping up the difficulty as you go, even if it doesn't always make sense. In one case, for example, a few mutant rats got the better of me after I underestimated them. I had dispatched them easily earlier in the game, but their hit points and damage capabilities ratcheted up to stay on par with my levelling, so the later fight ended up more challenging than I expected. The game does a nice job of keeping you on your toes all the way through.

If there's one gripe I have, it's about the amount of gear the New Kid finds: As in most RPGs, there's just too much of it. You barely have time to get used to one new weapon or piece of armour before a whole lot more is shovelled your way.

The Stick of Truth is a thoroughly consumable RPG – it's not dauntingly big, but rather feels like just enough. Playing through the main story and all the side missions takes about 15 hours and, unlike many RPGs, most of the side tasks are not to be missed because they inevitably deliver more laughs. This is easily the best South Park game made yet; whether or not you can appreciate that largely depends on if you find humour in the creators' attempts to shock and offend.