In my review for South Park: The Stick of Truth, I praised the game for creating the most authentic South Park experience on a video game console. The franchise has been adapted to the medium before with so-so results but the power of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 was enough to recreate the show’s paper cut out style and it’s intentionally cheap animation. It was a game I enjoyed playing even if it were a little light on calories. I was surprised, and disappointed, that it’s sequel offered--with few exceptions--little variation from the 2014 game. Despite a new development pipeline and continued involvement by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park: The Fractured But Whole brings so little to the table.
Taking place sometime after the events of The Stick of Truth, the children of South Park cast off their fantasy costumes and replace them with their superhero alter egos. Eric Cartman, aka The Coon, has aspirations of turning his superhero group, Coon and Friends, into a marketable Marvel Cinematic Universe-style franchise and finds opportunity in a posting for a lost cat. It’s a race against time, however, as Cartman has to deal with a splinter group or superheroes established by Kenny McCormick, aka Mysterion, called the Freedom Pals looking to do the same thing. As a member of Coon and Friends, the New Kid is sent on missions by Cartman to track down the lost cat and interfere with the Freedom Pals’ plans.
In regular South Park fashion, the innocence of youth hides their eyes from strange goings-on all over town as the adults grow increasingly out of sorts. As far as the story is concerned, I wasn’t a fan. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t into the superhero arc as featured in the TV series and framing an entire game around it didn’t jive with me. By the time the credits rolled, I felt the story landed with a hard thud. It ended with a familiar hard cut to the credits that, in this case, was less funny and more of an attempt for the writers to get themselves out of a corner.
The gameplay is not dissimilar to The Stick of Truth--in fact, large parts of the game feel really similar to the previous game. You’ll wander around an open world version of the town completing primary quests that move the story forward and secondary objectives that give New Kid a chance to increase his standing amongst the community. You’re welcome to travel on foot (which is tedious) or make use of Jimmy’s fast travel system that uses a series of markers spread out all over town--usually a few screens away from your objective.
Some pathways are blocked and require the use of a “buddy” to help move you along. By scanning objects you’ll need to select the right buddy to bypass security systems, hop across gaps, or blow away dangerous materials. New Kid also has a small repertoire of farts that are powerful enough to stop time, change day into night, and rewind time, all of which are in the service of completing environmental puzzles. Once again, the New Kid interacts with the townspeople by making superficial connections with them through Coonstagram, the South Park equivalent of Instagram. Just like Facebook in The Stick of Truth, followers impact character progression and not everyone will do selfies until you’ve completed a personal fetch quest.
The Fractured But Whole is an RPG-lite and many of the mechanics you’d expect to find in the genre have been removed to either make it more accessible or because the developers couldn’t quite fit the game they wanted to make into the RPG mold. The Hero Rank, which increases when you reach specific thresholds, does nothing except open up additional artifact slots. Artifacts are objects that increase the party’s Might, the number that determines if the group is strong enough to complete quests. For a game that offers so many customization options, it’s a little sad that Might is the only thing worth caring about and nothing else, be it Titles or the overwhelming number of costume and characterization options, affect New Kid’s abilities to any valuable degree. There are also quests that involve filling out the New Kid’s character sheet which, again, offers no intrinsic value other than giving you a platform to compare your New Kid with other players.
Exploring South Park offers a chance to interact with people, gain followers, and rummage through dozens upon dozens of cabinets, backpacks, storage bins, and trunks in pursuit of finding crafting components. The town of South Park is overflowing with usable junk that can be turned into new costumes, artifacts, and health items. There are vendors who will sell you crafting recipes and components, the latter I found to be mostly unnecessary given how generous the game is with dispensing these materials to you from lootable containers and earning Hero Titles (which fall into the category of “defeat/find/talk to/get selfies X number of times”). So much, in fact, that by the end of the game, I was sitting on over a thousand units of different craftable items. What I love most about the crafting system is how it changes the nature of summoning special characters in a fight. Instead of being limited to using characters like Jesus, Mr. Slave, and Tuong Lu Kim once a day, the summons is now craftable and can be used once per battle.
The best part of The Fractured But Whole is, by far, the new combat system. Fighting South Park’s colorful residents in The Stick of Truth wasn’t particularly fun over extended periods of time because the engagements were always the same: you and another party member take turns fighting enemies using QTE commands to launch attacks and defend from incoming hits. For the new game, combat was overhauled to offer a lot more nuance, variety, and strategic thinking. Battles now take place on a grid where movement is limited and attacks can either hit single enemies or entire rows and columns. Each South Park child have abilities that target unique grid patterns and make use of positive and negative status effects like burning and poison to healing and protection. Outside of common encounters you’ll face battles that are less about killing everything on screen and more about fulfilling special conditions that involve knocking foes into specially marked grids to more wacky stuff involving obese strippers, elder gods, and escaping an old folk's home. With some exceptions, you’re free to switch out party members at the start of a battle and, in the case of New Kid, switch powers in and out across numerous character specializations. This revamp of the combat mechanic is a wholly welcome change. I only wish the same amount of thought and care was put into the rest of the game.
There are a lot of design decisions that don’t make a great deal of sense to me. There comes a point when experience points are worthless after all eight artifact slots have been unlocked. You’ll continue to earn experience and increase your hero rank even though you can’t do anything with it. Unless the upcoming DLC offers additional artifact slots I see no reason why experience points should exist. Something else that confused me was the New Kid’s character sheet. Filled out in part by Cartman and other notable residents, this document is used as a record of your unique New Kid. While the process of working on these fields is often accompanied by amusing scenarios (one of which is a pretty great Kanye West joke), these labels have no discernable impact on gameplay.
For example, when asked what my character’s “Kryptonite” was, I selected Crab People. When these goofy creatures made an appearance in the story, I was prepared to fight them while suffering a conditional status ailment or other negative effects since I specifically identified that I am weak and frightened by them. The result? Nothing happened and the monsters were easily defeated. So...what exactly is the point of the character sheet, then? Sometimes, you’ll get the character sheets for the individual members of Coon and Friends and Freedom Pals as a reward but just like my own sheet, they exist without meaning.
The game isn’t without it’s South Park charm. Fueled by the style of comedy that gave the series its identity over the years, it’s not for the easily offended. The sheer amount of dick and fart jokes isn’t surprising nor are the boundaries crossed. Offensive material and topical hot buttons, such a social justice and racism, are common and to be expected. A lot of the humor comes from callbacks and references to the show’s history which, naturally, will be a problem for those not up to speed. As absurd as the material can get, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game plays things safe. Maybe I’ve become too cynical and desensitized to the show’s brand of shock humor but when I think about certain moments in Stick of Truth, such as the New Kid performing an abortion on Randy, I can’t shake the feeling that they pulled their punches. Again, it could just be me.
Ultimately, I believe that The Fractured But Whole has a problem with quantity over quality. Ubisoft San Diego crammed the game with lots of things to see and do, most of it comes off as a result of someone repeatedly asking, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we put this in?” The new grid-based combat mechanic is great and there are some fun moments to experience, my favorite involves searching the town for yaoi images of Tweek and Craig. What brought me down, though, was the weak story, how closely the game resembles The Stick of Truth, and the copious amount of window dressing content. In the end, the only people I can see getting the most out of this game are those who got to the end of The Stick of Truth and said, “Yeah, I pretty much want more of that.”
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.