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South Park: Tenorman's Revenge review: Poo-Choo express

South Park: Tenorman's Revenge sounds like genius on paper — a four player cooperative platformer as a direct sequel to one of the most popular and funny (and completely deranged) arcs to ever hit the foul-mouthed Comedy Central cartoon.

Make it 2D, give all the kids special powers and the occasional ability to transform into superhero alter egos like The Coon and Mysterion, and how could it fail?

I regret to inform South Park fans that the "how could it fail" question has been answered in spectacular fashion. South Park: Tenorman's Revenge takes the few good ideas it has and flushes them down a toilet of awful game design and blatant disrespect for the player's time.

South Park: Tenorman's Revenge looks like South Park, but it's not so in your face that it doesn't read as something you can play. It's actually kind of neat that you can see the characters at standard, side-scrolling platformer scale talking and moving the way you'd expect in the show. It's not such a bad start.

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The setup is simple: Scott Tenorman has stolen the hard drive to Cartman's Xbox 360, and has ... fled ... through time ... creating a race of Ginger-haired robots to take over realit- alright, so maybe it isn't very simple. But the ridiculous hyper-logic of absurdity that serves as the basis for almost every South Park episode is present, and it makes a reasonable framework for Tenorman's Revenge.

That's where reasonable flies right out the window. South Park: Tenorman's Revenge falls apart at the intersection of two things: its demands for perfect platforming and the controls' complete failure to work reliably. It's a murderous combination, often literally in the game.

Tenorman's Revenge expects you to make difficult jumps between moving hazards with irregular patterns throughout the game, often while deploying one of the South Park boys' special abilities — Kenny can jump higher, Stan has a football to activate distant switches, Cartman can smash through special barriers, and Kyle can take off his hat revealing his Ginger heritage, allowing him to pass through Ginger-calibrated force fields.

Platformers can be notoriously demanding, but the best of them — see: every Mario game — gives you precise tools for the task at hand. Good platformers provide capability, and put the onus on the player's ability. Finding the perfect route while passing the reflex test has been one of the most satisfying feedback loops in video games for the last 30 years.

But when the capability isn't there, it's a betrayal. South Park: Tenorman's Revenge will often fail to respond to player input. Sometimes this seems like a bug of some kind, like how climbing up stairs, turning in the other direction, and hitting jump often results in... nothing, save for an awkward pair of steps — inconvenient in the face of a steadily approaching tsunami of pee (true story). At other times, platforms have poorly defined collision, and you'll fall off the edge before you've reached the visual end of the object. This is especially frustrating given how often Tenorman's Revenge expects perfectly timed jumps at the very edge of a platform.

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There are other hostile design decisions. Injuries will send your character flying upward and possibly to either side, depending on your momentum. This is pretty standard for platformers, and you'll be immune to damage for a few brief seconds. But you aren't immune to further contact; if you're hit by an enemy or hazard again, you'll be knocked aside again.

This led to more moments than I count where I would be volleyed like a ball in a tennis match in hell between a spiked Ginger and actual spikes for what seemed like an eternity until I died and was thrown back to a checkpoint portal that was much further back than it should have been.

THE Game's CHARMING EXTERIOR SLOUGHS AWAY TO REVEAL THE MONSTER UNDERNEATH

But the most blatant middle finger in South Park: Tenorman's Revenge's considerable stockpile: forcing solo players to complete campaign levels multiple times in order to progress. In Tenorman's Revenge, completing a level allows the next level to be unlocked, but only if you've collected enough Time Cores from previous levels. This is a bizarre enough design choice, as this system doesn't unlock extra content, but instead serves as a wall to forward momentum.

Initially I was thankful that Tenorman's Revenge at least counted cores across the game toward that unlock requirement. That was until I realized that the minimum number of cores required for later levels becomes ever more draconian, and as many as half of a level's Time Cores are hidden behind routes accessible only to character-specific abilities.

The moment I realized this was the point where South Park: Tenorman's Revenge's charming exterior sloughed away to reveal the shambling monster underneath. The jokes and South Park references are enough the first time through a level to distract somewhat from all of the problems that are there, but on the second (or third) forced playthrough, there's no ignoring how poorly constructed South Park: Tenorman's Revenge is.

Usually licensed games will keep players moving, hitting that cheap emotional resonance of "this is just like that thing I like" as often as possible. But Tenorman's Revenge drags the player back into its levels again and again. I don't think I've ever played a game so infuriatingly sure of its own mechanical perfection that fails so often in that respect. Seeing the "Game Over" screen isn't demoralizing so much as it is an invitation to stop playing.

Licensed games get a bad rap, but South Park: Tenorman's Revenge fails in ways far beyond the average cash-in. While some players might leap at the chance to spend upwards of 13 hours slogging through the main game by themselves, and rabid South Park fans might be able to muster some excitement at the prospect of riding on the Poo-Choo Express, everyone else should steer clear.

South Park: Tenorman's Revenge was reviewed using code provided by Microsoft Game Studios. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.