For the past 20 years, “South Park” has not so much been pushing the boundaries of good taste and storytelling, as much as obliterating them. And after 2014’s “The Stick of Truth,” the minds behind the show proved they could push just as many limits when it came to the world of video games. Now, three years later, the team at Ubisoft and South Park Studios are back with “South Park: The Fractured But Whole.”
Taking on everything from the superhero movie genre and identity culture to the Catholic Church and common video game tropes, “The Fractured But Whole,” hits all the right notes from the show’s best episodes. The writing is some of the best you’ll find in a game, and it improves on “The Stick of Truth’s” combat and mechanics enough to make it well worth picking up.
There are still some minor flaws that carried over from the first game, namely how easy it is, but “The Fractured But Whole” easily overcomes them, making it a must-play for fans of the series.
The ‘Franchise Prequel’
If you want to get the full story behind “The Fractured But Whole,” you’re going to have to watch “South Park’s” fourth episode of the season titled “Franchise Prequel.” The episode follows the boys Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny as they play superheros as part of Cartman’s Coon and Friends team, from the show’s popular Coon and Friends story arc.
The boys and their friend are working out their plans to launch a superhero movie franchise but end up splitting into two groups, Coon and Friends and the Freedom Pals, when they can’t agree over which kids get their own standalone movies. Butters has also reassumed his identity as Professor Chaos and is sowing discord throughout South Park with his chaos minions.
The game kicks off with you, the mute new kid, as you try to join up with Cartman’s team. Like any good role-playing game, you spend the first few missions shoring up your character selection. You can choose from three initial classes including Brutalist, a tank; Speedster, the movement-based class, and Blaster, a ranged character.
You’ll eventually be able to unlock additional classes and combine classes, letting you mix and match the character setup that best suits your play style. As you move through missions you’ll also gain new party members with their own unique abilities.
Leveling is handled via the game’s hero rank system, which sees you complete portions of the story, side quests, fight enemies and collect specific items, like the unsettling Yaoi-style pictures of Craig and Tweek, to gain experience points. Each new level allows you to equip a new type of artifact, which augments your party by improving members’ health, power and the effects of certain kinds of attacks. You acquire artifacts by collecting them in the world, crafting them or buying them from merchants.
Artifacts also impact your party’s might score, which you use to determine if enemies or missions are too advanced for your current ranking. I found the first few artifacts a bit lacking, especially when I purchased a far more powerful one at a nearby shop. That said, they do add another dimension to the gameplay that helps add a sense of depth that was missing from “The Stick of Truth.”
DNA upgrades provide you with additional boosts to your power, though you’ll have to balance the disadvantages they have to your character with their advantages.
Come on down to South Park
Like “The Stick of Truth,” “The Fractured But Whole” lets you explore the entire town of South Park. You’ll visit familiar locales like Tom’s Rhinoplasty and the Photo Dojo, as well as Unplanned Parenthood and, of course, South Park Elementary.
Simply traveling through the town, opening every door and finding every hidden item is a treat. It also helps that Ubisoft and South Park Studios add in more than enough fan service. From the songs playing on the radio to the ads on TV in your friends’ houses to the characters’ closets, the developers mined every bit of the show’s 20-year history to create a living, breathing version of South Park.
Exploring the town provides you with plenty of opportunities to collect hidden items. Unfortunately, many of the puzzles that block your path are just too easy to solve. Most of the time, you’ll simply punch your way past an obstacle to access a special area.
Of course, your quest sees you come across all of your favorite towns folk including Stan’s dad Randy Marsh, the goth kids, Mr. Macky and Big Gay Al. You’ll need to find as many people in town as possible, take selfies with them using your smartphone, which doubles as your menu screen, and upload them to Coonstagram to ensure Coon and Friends have more followers than The Freedom Pals. Adding followers also adds to your experience, which helps you build your hero level.
“The Fractured But Whole” plays like a classic turn-based RPG. Like games like “Earthbound,” you’ll want to initiate combat with enemies to ensure you attack first or your enemies will get the drop on you.
Ubisoft and South Park Studios largely reinvented the combat system from “The Stick of Truth,” adding a grid format that requires you to place your party members in the right positions to attack enemies. If, however, you’ve got a character that does close combat damage, and another party member is blocking his path, he won’t be able to attack.
Party members’ abilities can spread across multiple spaces on the battle grid, hitting enemies that are above or below your characters. If multiple enemies are lined up in a row, you’ll have the chance to knock them into each other, doing additional damage.
The developers also added new battle animations for party members’ super attacks. Similar to the over-the-top super moves in NetherRealm Studios’ “Injustice” series, your super attacks will see your characters call in hamsters to charge enemies or fly into the clouds to launch a volley of laser blasts.
Then there are good old fashioned summonses, which let you call in special help from characters to take on enemies.
Who are the evil doers in “The Fractured But Whole”? Sixth graders, ninjas, chaos minions, pedophile priests, kids dresses as Hooters-style waitresses, strippers and a slew of others. Nothing is sacred in “South Park,” and that’s just the way fans like it.
Over time, you’ll gain special abilities that you can use in and outside of battle, helping you to access different areas of the game’s world and snag out of reach objects and upgrades.
My one gripe with the game’s combat is that, like “The Stick of Truth,” it’s a bit too easy. Sure, there were some battles that had me sweating, but for the most part, I never felt like I was in danger of losing. Even when I bumped up the combat to the Mastermind setting, I was still able to largely blast through fights. That’s not to say they weren’t fun, but I’d appreciate something a bit more of a challenge.
Should you get it?
I loved “South Park: The Stick of Truth” and am a huge fan of the show, so I was fully prepared to at least enjoy “The Fractured But Whole.” But the developers managed to surpass my expectations by improving on the previous game’s flaws and creating a deeper experience.
And while combat and puzzles are still too easy compared to other RPGs, playing through “The Fractured But Whole” is well worth the time. If you’re a fan of the series, casual RPGs or just great games in general, you’ll want “The Fractured But Whole.”
Reviewed on the Xbox One
What’s hot: Like playing through a jumbo-sized episode of “South Park,” improved combat system, deeper character customizations
What’s not: Combat is still too easy for most seasoned gamers, puzzles could be more challenging
More from Dan:
Email Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.