The Good And Bad Of South Park's Combat

The Good And Bad Of South Park's Combat

There was a point in South Park: The Stick of Truth — somewhere between performing an abortion and farting on Nazi zombies — when it occurred to me that Obsidian's new RPG isn't just ridiculous — it's also kind of brilliant.

Much has been made about Stick of Truth's impeccable comic timing — and it is impeccable! — but just as impressive is the game's turn-based combat system, which somehow manages to stay consistently fresh and entertaining throughout some 10 hours and 100+ battles. STEP ASIDE, FINAL FANTASY.

South Park's combat system is sort of like a cross between Earthbound and Paper Mario. Your characters line up across from the bad guys, waiting their turns to use attacks and spells, and in order to execute those abilities, you perform mini-quick-time-events that involve pressing buttons in the proper order at the proper times to both attack and block your opponents' moves.

To see what it's like, check out this video of the game's first 13 minutes, which also serves as a good tutorial for Stick of Truth's combat:

Really, Stick of Truth is an excellent game — other than the bugs — and I think it's worth dissecting the strengths and flaws of the combat system. So today on Random Encounters we're putting on our JRPG-Style Turn-Based Game Design Hats and digging into the pros and cons of fighting off elves and homeless people in the South Park video game.

PRO: You have to pay attention to every move.

Many turn-based RPGs are best played while doing something else . I don't say that to be insulting — there's a comforting rhythm to the A-mashing grind of a game like Dragon Quest IX — but it's a fact: you don't need to pay much attention when you crawl through dungeons in a lot of role-playing games. Enemy encounters are often so simple and monotonous that all you have to do is hammer "attack" to get through the bulk of an RPG, with the occasional stops to heal or level up. Challenge and strategy are reserved for boss battles and other unusual fights.

But Stick of Truth, like the Mario RPGs that inspired it, requires your full attention. When you're on offence, you have to stay focused in order to do anything in battle, which is for the most part much more fun and interesting than leaving your brain on auto-pilot and hammering the A button. It takes some practice — if you get button timing wrong, you often won't do any damage at all — but once you get into the swing of things, it works quite well.

There's enough variety in your ability-set to keep this system from getting old, and the animation is amusing enough that even some of the longest abilities — like Butters turning into Professor Chaos — are fun to watch repeatedly. Most of the abilities have a nice rhythm, too, like the timed flashes of the circumcision move, or the quick-mashing of Kyle's arrow attack.

CON: You can use items and attack in the same turn.

In any given round you can both heal yourself and damage your opponent, which is sort of like playing the whole game on god mode. The core of combat in most turn-based RPGs is that tension between offensive and defence. Deciding at any given moment whether to stay conservative and heal or go aggressive and attack is one of those minute-to-minute empowering choices that makes RPGs work. (Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Stick of Truth lets you stack up tons and tons of different types of healing items, to the point where it's impossible to run out.)

So even on the hardest difficulty mode, Stick of Truth's combat is a little too easy — toward the end of the game, thanks to attack-all abilities like the Jew class's plague spell and Cartman's fire... uh... magic, it's simple to blow through even the most difficult battles in one or two rounds. If items cost a turn, the game would be significantly more challenging.

PRO/CON: You get all of your health back after every battle.

On one hand, this means you don't have to go through the tedium of healing in menus between battles. On the other hand, this makes resource management even less of a factor. I'm calling this one a tie.

PRO: Status effects work in boss battles.

There are few JRPG tropes more annoying than bosses being mysteriously immune to negative status effects, rendering your poison and sleep spells useless. Stick of Truth wisely decides to make status effects matter, and every enemy in the game can be affected by your skills.

CON: There are too many status effects.

The downside! By the end of the game, you'll be regularly slamming your opponents with crippling effects like Gross-Out and Burning (both of which deal damage, like poison), and while it's entertaining to watch meth-heads and aliens puke all over the floor, it also leads to battles ending a little too quickly. There's something anti-climactic about a big bad boss dying not because you attacked them, but because they bled to death.

PRO: Almost every battle feels meaningful.

My biggest concern going into Stick of Truth was that the combat, as energy-consuming as it is, would be way too draining if there were too many battles. Wisely, the folks behind the South Park RPG chose not only to limit the number of encounters in every stage but to give you ways to interact with the environment in order to take down baddies outside of battle. You can set traps for mice, send aliens down garbage disposals, and electrocute your fellow fourth-graders while exploring the ridiculous world of South Park and its surrounding areas.

This is a rather simple system — there are only so many objects you can touch, and only so many things you can do — but it makes you feel smart when you manage to take out an entire gang of elf kids without even entering combat. Other than a few sections — like, say, Canada's annoying dire wolves (like wolves, but dire) — there are no battles that feel unnecessary or wasted.

PRO/CON: The abilities are really cool...

...but you only get four of them per character class. The combat system is so fun and satisfying that the game left me wanting much more.

PRO: The party members are great.

All six of Stick of Truth's buddies are fun and helpful, particularly if you're a South Park fan who appreciates the references to things like the V-Chip and Anime Princess Kenny. Cartman is a little overpowered — as he should be — but everyone's useful.

CON: You can only use one party member at a time.

This is personal preference more than an Actual Game Flaw, but I've always preferred the complexity of large parties in role-playing games, and it's a little disappointing that Stick of Truth only lets you use two people at a time, especially when you'll face groups of four or five enemies at once. This is a world full of hilarious and fascinating characters, and it'd have been nice to see bigger, broader parties including the likes of Randy Marsh (who is just an NPC) and Mr. Hankey (relegated to summon attack).

Of course, it's easy for the JRPG columnist to sit here and drone on about all the things he'd have liked to see — I didn't have to go through development hell to make a South Park game happen — but there's a trend here: Stick of Truth is easy. This is a game designed for people who might not be familiar with RPG combat — people who just want to enjoy playing through a hyper-extended episode of the show.

That's fine, of course. But ultimately, in the unlikely case that Obsidian teams up with the South Park crew for a sequel — or if they do the same thing for another beloved franchise (how about The Simpsons?) — I'd love to see them refine and expand this combat system to add more challenge, more abilities, and more variety. Also, while I'm telling people what to do: hey Obsidian, send copies of this game to every RPG developer in Japan, along with a note saying "LEARN FROM THIS." It will be worth it.


Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


Comments

    Con: You can't opt to 'pass' on a move. There's too many times where I've been left with no option at all BUT to attack hand to hand an opponent who is in riposte, leaving them able to easily kill me. Had I been able to simply 'pass' that turn, instead, I could have avoided this.

      Seconded, but I found you can use your ranged weapon and just not press anything and it functions essentially like a pass. But if that's available to the player so should a pass button.

        I think this is more in regards to some of the companions who don't have a ranged attack ability and not the player character.

          Sorry yeah, should've been clearer about that. Like when I'm using Butters, he has no ranged attack option. If the enemy, especially a boss, is in riposte and Im out of tacos, but can heal him next turn, I want to avoid him actually *dying*... but I can't pass or opt to defend instead? I think the combat is a little broken in that sense, in most JRPG's you can opt to pass or defend due to circumstances such as this, meaning you will take half damage the next turn. A fair tradeoff.

            Can we take a moment to just honor the line that was just spoken...

            If the enemy, especially a boss, is in riposte and Im out of tacos,

            Edit: Oh beaten to it, by a rock lobster!

            Last edited 15/03/14 5:13 pm

    I actually find blocking a problem. Playing on PC with the xbox controller.

    I can click in time perfectly with the attacks, when it comes to block and I press a, a lot of the time it seems nothing happens and I get hit. There's no consistency.

      I was getting that as well, it feels like there might be some strange input lag on the blocking or something. Felt like I was hitting it bang on time but I was only getting maybe 60-70% success rate.

    Despite what this article claims, almost all actual bosses are immune to a variety of status effects that debilitate. You can see this by examining the boss in combat.

    Maybe he thought that the bosses should be immune to the damage over time and defense/attack down status effects? I think that's nit picking though about a potential balance issue in the game - the fights are a bit on the easy side.

    Also, while I’m telling people what to do: hey Obsidian, send copies of this game to every RPG developer in Japan, along with a note saying “LEARN FROM THIS.” It will be worth it.

    It feels like Obsidian have done the inverse - taken every JRPG, and integrated them into their own strong Western RPG experience. I think that's part of what makes it so fun to play.

    I found the magic tutorials the hardest, oddly enough. I had to switch between kb+m and my 360 controller.

    Finished the game on hardcore dying less than a handful of times, so I don't think it's me..

    Stick of Truth wisely decides to make status effects matter, and every enemy in the game can be affected by your skills.

    Not true. I hit quite a few bosses that were immune to stun.

      Pretty sure every boss is immune to stun, and 2 other things, if you use the 'examine' feature or whatever it's called.

    Con: Incredibly easy game, excluding that one bs Al Gore fight
    Con: Summons, while interesting were not worth going back and gathering a second time
    Con: Breaking through armour was just time consuming
    Con: Way too low level cap

    ^Despite above it was a great combat system that had me really enjoying the fights

    To be fair the "item" con was one made of necessity since you party is normaly just 1 or two people. And unless your w/ a healing companion your going to be stuck in an endless loop of using heal items until you run out.

    I must be the minority but I disliked almost every aspect of this game and that was so disappointing because i had been following this game for a long time.

    The length was too short, the story quests consisted of about 30% of the game, your class was irrelevant just like all story related rewards and amours and about 90% of the items in the games.

    The combat itself was abhorrently boring, I literally did the same thing for the ENTIRE GAME, got a throwing weapon that bounced with bleed and or gross/fire and used that to "dot" (because 5 stacks of bleed deals like 80% of the hp of regular mobs and fire or gross on top of this would kill them outright). I was forced into this because after the first couple hours everything has several 100 armour which goes up to 3k by level 15 and giving things defense down attack up or reducing armour were all worthless compared to a simple speed pot and double throwing attack that would instant kill all mobs after their turn ends.

    In regards to gear, the above tactic was so good that I used a lvl 7 throwing weapon from the whole game. I even stomped all over al gore with it. The melee weapons were just as awful, I used a lvl 8 sword until i got the sweet katana because it had the godly 3x total armour in bonus damage which made it more powerful than every single weapon besides the sweet katana despite it being a mid level.

    The armours were just the same, I used whichever gave + armour because all the rest was useless, thorns were pathetic, extra heals a waste of time since you regen every battle. The worst part was every item received from the main story was miles too low in level and already trash compared to what you were wearing if you did even a few side quests.

    This is another point about 90% of all gear was rubbish because of x stats or no mod slots or because 1 particular stat was godly by comparison to everything else. When I say classes were irreverent I meant it, as the rogue I was wearing full armour, with a 2hd sword and the only useful skill was backstab because all the rest where inferior to a thrown weapon attack with bleed/fire/gross. Even then you only backstab at 5 odd stacks of bleed, which is only a few bosses.
    Had I been a mage or a jew i would have done the exact same thing, throwing wep full armour bleed mobs to death.

    The single redeeming quality of the game was the first few story missions and even that was ruined once i went to Canada. The side missions were terrible and contained little to no humour imagination nor were of any interest.

    The game was bad by all metrics for me and honestly I wonder what they spent such an absurd time making and delaying considering the end result. PS the battles were the opposite of meaning full, they gave f all exp and all those wild "encounters" were an utter waste of time and the magic was so utterly limited and useless in real combat I just don't understand.

    Last edited 16/03/14 6:19 pm

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