Remember when "South Park" debuted on Comedy Central in 1997? Remember how shocking the cursing, toilet humor and black comedy seemed?
Take that level of shock and multiply it by, oh, 20 and you'll have some idea of what you should expect from "South Park: The Stick of Truth" (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99), the new video game written by series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Even fans of the theatrical "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" may be taken aback by the level of raunch on display here.
The curse words are un-bleeped. There's a sex act that makes the notorious "Hot Coffee" scene in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" look like something off the Disney Channel. There's a cringe-inducing scenario set in an abortion clinic. And more.
Like its cable TV counterpart, "The Stick of Truth" gleefully tackles issues like gun control, racism, sexism and pedophilia. If you're not a "South Park" fan, by all means avoid it. Even if you're a fan, there are moments that will make you say "ick" — even as you're laughing at the game's audacity.
Your character is the new kid in town. Cartman, grand wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (yes, the KKK), invites you on a quest to recover the titular stick from a tribe of elves, led by Kyle and Stan. The war between the two gangs evolves into something more dangerous, though, once aliens invade and unleash a plague of Nazi zombies. The ensuing romp reels in almost every character from the cartoon's 17-year run, from regulars like Kenny and Butters to guest stars like Mr. Hankey and Jesus.
The gameplay was designed by Obsidian Entertainment, the California studio known for role-playing games like "Fallout: New Vegas" and "Dungeon Siege III." ''The Stick of Truth" is RPG lite. You get to create the new kid from scratch, building from scores of facial features, clothing items and accessories. As the game progresses, you get more resilient armor and more dangerous weapons. And you learn increasingly effective magic spells that, true to form, typically involve flatulence.
Whenever you encounter an enemy, the screen switches to battle mode, in which you and one partner take turns attacking and casting spells at the bad guys. Most actions, whether offensive or defense, require pressing a button at a certain time to achieve maximum power. The combat recalls Nintendo's "Paper Mario" and "Mario & Luigi" series, and demands more strategy than you might expect.
Those Nintendo franchises have produced some of the funniest games on the market, so perhaps there's something about the turn-based RPG that lends itself to comedy. In any case, over the 12 hours I played "The Stick of Truth," I found myself laughing dozens of times — sometimes at its broad slapstick, other times at more subtle gags.
For example, there are hundreds of collectible items hidden in South Park, and nearly every one has a joke attached. (The profane text accompanying "Phil Collins' Oscar" indicates Parker and Stone are still bugged about losing the 1999 best original song trophy to him.) Some of the targets are outdated — what have Al Gore and Rob Schneider done to anyone lately? But that could be the result of the game's long, somewhat turbulent development history.
"South Park" has always been aware of video-game culture, and some of the funniest elements of "The Stick of Truth" play off familiar tropes from the likes of "Call of Duty," ''Final Fantasy" and "Skyrim." A tremendous joke about Canada two-thirds of the way through is the cleverest twist I've seen in a AAA game in years. But even before then, this game is packed with so much comedy that you'll forgive some uninspired gameplay. Just don't play in front of your kids. Or your parents. Three stars out of four.