South Park: The Stick Of Truth – A short, focused game is better than a longer bloated game

The last time I played a South Park video game was an awful quiz game on the PSone. I’m glad to report that South Park TSOT shows much more respect for the series and should set an example of how games licensed from material outside of the games world should go about expanding into video games (not to say others haven’t done it well. Die Hard Trilogy was one of may favourite games as teenager). It shows a level of respect and understanding for the source material that as a fan of the show, I really appreciated, and on top of that it stands up on it’s own as a work of game design.

In the game you take control of a new kid recently moved to South Park, you are forced out of your new home to make friends and quickly get recruited into a kind of LARPS game with the neighbourhood kids using whatever junk and weapons they can get their hands on. The children’s fantasy game quickly gets tangled into a bigger real life plot with dire consequences. I wouldn’t say the story is that great, As authentic and funny as it is, and as much as people have lauded the writing, it’s nothing like the quality we’re used to in the TV show. Sure it’s funny and puts you in some hilarious, outrageous and memorable situations. Only it all just feels like a bunch of stuff that happens, there really isn’t much point to any of it.

Overall it looks and feels just like the show, the town is full of fan favourites from the show and the game world is always a fun place to be, you are always stumbling onto something interesting or fun, the amount of nods and references to the TV series is huge. I spent a good ten minutes just reading the descriptions of the junk items that are usually just sold without thought, it’s impressive the level of detail they put into crafting the South Park world, in any other game these junk items would be just nondescript useless items (like the broomsticks and tableware in Skyrim that is little more than decoration and clutter to be sold or ignored) but in South Park there’s hundreds of items found only once that relate to their location (like finding the Brad Pitt survival kit in Cartman’s house).

Fans of the show will appreciate the level of detail in this game

Fans of the show will appreciate the level of detail in this game

The gameplay for the most part is a joy to experience, much of the time I spent in the game was wondering around, exploring and discovering, all the time being entertained my the well written and performed voice acting. The world is made to feel alive this way, your companion and the inhabitants of the town are always adding bits of dialogue, and sure sometimes you end up hearing the same line a dozen times, but mostly it’s entertaining and sometimes gives you a little hint towards new quests or how to pass a certain puzzle. When not exploring, you are mostly fighting, the leveling up system feels a bit small and inconsequential: the only time I felt like I was getting stronger than the average enemy was when I bought a new stronger weapon, the only noticable benefit from leveling up is giving you access to better equipment and special moves. The fight animations and depth of the combat system will keep you interested throughout most of the game, but it can easily boil down to spamming stackable status effects, the game does compensate this with certain enemies and most bosses having immunities, but for the most part you can pile on the status effects and then defend until the enemy kills themselves.

This game is wonderfully designed, there was little I could fault it on, which makes it disappointing that the tutorials you have to play as part of the main storyline are so terrible. I’m referring specifically to the sections during cutsecenes where you must perform a certain action before the game will let you move on. I wonder who was part of this part of the game, because they seem really out of place in how amateur they are. There are some better tutorials, often new mechanics are taught through gameplay and you barely notice they are there, and the problem mostly comes from having to teach the needlessly complicated magic spells (farts) mechanic. The spells have too many inputs to execute, a step by step guide is about the only hope of teaching them. But the tutorials detailing this have little resemblance to what you have to do in the game itself, and on top of that the way to use the spells is in most cases different between using the spell on an enemy in combat and using it when rest of the gameworld. I probably found these tutorial sections the most frustrating part of the game, and all I can suggest is to grit your teeth and get through them to enjoy the rest of the game.

Sure the game has it’s problems, but apart from the awful tutorials I’m mostly knit-picking. The game is straight up fun, the issues I have a not enough to prevent me giving this game a good recommendation, especially if you count yourself a South Park fan.

 

Playing this game and reading the opinions of others on it bring up thoughts about an issue around games that will surely become more relevant over time if game development costs at the AAA end of the spectrum continue to spiral upwards out of control. That issue being game length.

Sure for the most part this game has received praise, but the short length of gameplay has at times come into question. Sure I knocked this game out in just a few sessions over a couple of days. But none of that time felt wasted, I was never bored, and the content maintained a high standard throughout. Compare that to another game I played recently; Deadpool. I am barely a few hours into the game and already it feels like it is outstaying it’s welcome. It’s a problem all developers have to face, you always want to make the biggest and best game you possibly can, but on the other hand you are restricted by budget, hardware limitations and time constraints. Somewhere something has to give. South Park TSOT feels like it benefited from it’s long development time and the visual style that surely meant adding new content was relatively fast and low cost. Sure the game is short, but it had a level of focus making almost every aspect of the game earns its place. By the end of the game, I didn’t feel short changed, and I didn’t feel like I was trying to wade through repetition to reach the conclusion. It is a master class in balance and management of interest and difficulty. Most of the time though, full retail games can go a number of ways, there are the ones that are over too soon and leave you wanting more, and the ones that feel like content is being copy-pasted in to bulk out the play time, I certainly felt the latter was the case in Deadpool, there is some entertaining content in the game, but the combat got boring very quickly, some sections felt like a grind, suffering from the “kill X amount of enemies to unlock the door” syndrome, apart from getting boring quickly, it makes me wonder who the enemy is that he would have a private army of hundreds who are all so willing to throw themselves into the meatgrinder to protect their boss from someone like Deadpool, I think I’d quit after I saw him murder the first dozen of my co-workers.

I know it’s not an easy problem to solve, if you can only afford to generate so many environments and write and design so much content, then you can either release a shorter game, or bulk it out with more enemies, but there are good and bad ways to go about doing both.

South Park TSOT is a good example of the short method, the gameplay is satisfying and every part of the game has been given enough attention of cumulatively make a good game. The best example I can think of for a bulked out game that stays entertaining is the Arkham series. The Arkham games

are packed with hordes of criminals to beat up. But they remain entertaining for a number of reasons:

  • The combat is fun, the freeflow combat system is intuitive, deep and can accommodate for most play styles (perhaps with the exeception of button bashers, this is the most commom complaint I hear, that you have to learn the combat and can’t just bulldoze through it)
  • The numbers of enemies make sense in the context of the story and game world. The Batman world (Gotham and the prisons) are bleak and unfair, it is a soceity split between wealthy decadence and appalling poverty, combine with the depressing and dark feel of the city and the harsh weather, it’s no wonder so many turn to crime. And it is communicated well by the enemies you face, they are simply copy pasted nameless thugs, but have varied motivations. Through voice over snippets we get an idea of how some of the thugs think, ranging from desperation to survive in a world that offers little alternative, some seem to be stuck in a situation they can’t escape, some are more scared of their crime lord bosses (Batman may break bones but Joker or Black Mask may kill them) and some are just sadists and psychopaths
  • To an extent you can control you engagement, some encounters can be bypassed with stealth or by going the long way around, often you can chose to dive in and start a fight or pick enemies off one by one, and always there is the choice of using powerful strategies to beat the enemy quickly, or beat them with style, finesse or patients. One is easier and quicker, and one requires more development of your skills and some effort, but offers more rewards.
  • The majority of enemies are no match for Batman, it’s satisfying to take on a dozen men and learn them wincing in pain in heaps on the floor without breaking a sweat or taking a hit.
  • You can for the most part see how much resistance is ahead of you, and once they are beat, you can move on to the next challenge.
The Fleeflow combat system in the Arkham games makes you feel badass!

The Fleeflow combat system in the Arkham games makes you feel badass!

Compare this to Deadpool, the combat is little more than hack and slash, it doesn’t matter who you are going up against, they all have massive armies willing to lay down their lives for their leader. The game throws more and more enemies at you at times, leaving me wondering, when will this fight end so I can get on with the rest of the story. Even with one solitary enemy of the weakest kind, it takes to many hits to kill them that it feels like a chore. They missed out on what is the appeal of Deadpool as a fighter, that is that even without his healing factor, he is a highly skilled assassin and martial artists. He should be able to slice his way through huge crowds of ememies with skilful ease, instead we are expected to mash attack buttons and watch Deadpool hack away at enemies as though his katanas were butter knives. The Akham games fulfil the Batman fantasy by letting you plough through the minions and sprinkle in doses of more challenging enemies and bosses. Deadpool does not deliver of the fantasy of the character, I’d rather play him with the skilful precision of the Arkham games Batman, or the cut through the crowds Dynasty Warriors style, where one or two swings of a weapon can take out a dozen enemies. That’s more what I think of when I think of Deadpool, not flailing swords around chipping off health, and when the bosses turn up, they are little more of a challenge then regular enemies with bigger health bars.

Another consideration may be story versus gameplay. I may go into this in more depth another time, but games can have a tendency to overeach and try to do both of them equally and fall short on each. A number of games have found a great niche for themselves by focusing on a strong story with simple gameplay (Asura’s Wrath, Catherine) or by havin engaging gameplay that players keep coming back for despite a lack of story (Street Fighter and Tekken series, multiplayer focused shooters like Titanfall and MOBA’s). Doing one well can often work better than doing avargely on both

In conclusion, since developers can’t all hope to make a game like Skyrim with huge amounts of unique content to have you measuring gameplay time in days rather than hours. It will pay off in the long run for developers to use their resources wisely. Don’t out stay your welcome, I for one would rather play a shorter game where no moment it wasted, than a bloated game that heavy handedly uses repetition to pad out the play time. The key is to find the thing in your game that appeals to your audience and focus on that. Nothing should be in your game simply because it’s expected of games today; be it story, visuals, RPG elements… know what your game is about, know it’s appeal, know the reason people will want to play it and keep playing, and focus on that. Focus on this a make it the best it can be and you will surely make a better game, if there’s time/money left over, then work on the rest.

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