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They do provide an emblem above the character indicating buddy powers (looks like a finger pointing at him); once I noticed that (which was fairly quick), tried kenny's power, didn't work, so immediately thought I'd try to use butters power, so went to menu to see if I could switch to butters.
Then, problem solved. You can tell that is what obsidian was expecting people to think when they ran into it; I'm just surprised at the people complaining because their hand wasn't held and told explicitly what to do.