It’s been over three and a half years since South Park: The Stick of Truth graced last generation consoles with a funny but flawed adventure. After several delays, its successor is finally upon us. We liked Stick of Truth, blemishes and all, but there was much to improve on. Luckily, South Park: The Fractured But Whole manages to elevate the core of the original in nearly every conceivable way. The final product is a fun, funny, polished, gross, and ultimately rewarding adventure that creatively ties into its predecessor from beginning to end.
A Fart in Time
The Fractured But Whole picks up almost exactly where The Stick of Truth left off. In the midst of the first game’s climactic, fantasy-based battle, Cartman decides to create a time machine that will allow him to go back to the very beginning of the first game. His goal: to find Scrambles the missing cat and collect a $100 reward. But in keeping with recent events of the show, he aims to achieve this by gathering kids in the neighborhood and have each of their superhero personas become part of an elaborate franchise, a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Naturally, not everyone agrees with the direction their franchise should take, so a schism ( a fracture perhaps?) occurs. Cartman leads Coon and Friends, the group the player’s character (The New Kid) sides with. Timmy (Dr. Timmothy, a near perfect facsimile of Professor Xavier), on the other hand, becomes the leader of The Freedom Pals.
South Park writers and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone easily could have beaten this superhero premise to death. After a decade of movies and games practically everywhere, just about every comment has been made about the genre’s ubiquity. Fortunately, the set-up is mostly to facilitate character classes and serve as a mild backdrop for the game’s premise.
The Fractured But Whole, like all of the best South Park Episodes, has a strong focus on the kids’ point of view. Here, the New Kid is dropped into increasingly far fetched scenarios as the game progresses. His powers of fart (seriously), bestowed upon him by Morgan Freeman via Mexican cuisine, manage to bend the fabric of time in progressively ridiculous ways. By the game’s end, the plot revolves imperatively around his gaseous prowess.
The humor of the game finds a great balance amongst the various styles of comedy the show has employed in the past, specifically random and shock. For instance, an early fight pits The New Kid against two Catholic Priests that ambush him in the back of a church.
But the more pointed social criticisms present in recent seasons are here as well. The cops in the town systematically arrest all of the black citizens for no apparent reason. In line with this, if you’re in the presence of corrupt police officers, and there’s more than one black character in your party, they’ll shout out “Oh no, there’s two black kids here – it’s a riot!” But for all the touchy subjects the game addresses, it manages to balance any negativity with some earnest attempt at understanding both sides. There’s always an opposing voice. Something to remind the kids that most priests aren’t predators. Not all cops are racist. Not all fish are gay.
Strategic Turn-Based Irreverence
This humor carries into the game’s revamped battle system. Instead of being purely turn-based like its predecessor, it incorporates a dynamic grid that changes size and shape according to each story scenario. The bottom of the screen displays the turn queue of both allies and enemies, similar to Final Fantasy X‘s conditional turn-based system. It also takes inspiration from games like Paper Mario, where timed button prompts appear during battle to either enhance attacks or mitigate damage.
But what’s truly special about the battle system is how fluidly it adapts to the story. Typical battle grids consist of 4×6 panels in dimension. But when the kids are running from an obese stripper named Spontaneous Bootay, things are considerably different. The grid starts narrow and long and slowly gets cut down as the battle progresses and Bootay crushes panels in her wake. New rules can appear completely at random. During a surprise boss battle, a parent grounds every kid on the battlefield besides The New Kid. In order to unfreeze them from this grounding, the New Kid has to systematically tell them they’re not grounded anymore. It’s silly, but it’s fun.
The Fractured But Whole shares a lot of DNA with other games, but has its own original mechanics that make it stand out. Every little thing you collect can help gain experience. Taking as many selfies as you can with other characters helps you level up as well. Instead of simply gaining status boosts, each new level gives you an additional “artifact” slot. The artifacts can be crafted from found items, granted after defeating bosses, or given as awards for finishing side quests. Basic ones mostly just increase stats, but more advanced ones can do things like increase your attack power based on how many followers you have on social media. The class system even becomes more complex. Your starting class determines your move set, but you’ll eventually be able to dual- and tri-class, mixing and maxing abilities to your heart’s content.
There’s been some debate about the potentially racist nature of the skin tone slider that also acts as a “difficulty slider” in the character creation menu, which claims to make the game harder if you choose darker skin. It’s a clear social critique of how much harder real life can be based on your race or ethnicity. In actuality, there’s a basic difficulty option in the main menu that makes battles harder. The slider mostly just effects how characters react to and treat your character.
You can start the game with a middling skin tone and notice little to no reaction from NPC’s. But later in the game, the PC Principal asks you what race and nationality you belong to. Then, you can freely choose from a myriad of options. For instance, if you end up choosing to be Native American, the tone of your skin changes accordingly, parents included, with no one questioning it. These little touches keep the game consistently funny and dynamic. However, they might put some players just a little on edge as a result.
Similarly, you can go to the school counselor Mr. Mackey, and he’ll proceed to awkwardly ask you about your gender identity and sexual orientation. If you pick anything out of the norm, rednecks will immediately battle you after you leave the school. But, in typical South Park fashion, most characters are actually quite supportive and accepting of nontraditional identities. It’s a balance that sheds light on touchy topics. It’s rare for the game to completely attack an idea without other characters holding opposing opinions.
Running Low on Gas
Even though many of the mechanics and jokes in The Fractured But Whole work together in harmony, the game isn’t without its faults. Though the game looks nearly identical to the last generation The Stick of Truth, there are almost always load times when moving from one small area of the town to another. Though Ubisoft’s Snowdrop engine is powerful enough to handle The Division, it struggles to run this graphically simple game seamlessly.
Battles, while typically engaging and entertaining, are often cake walks. Even on a harder difficulty, players won’t have trouble keeping the kids alive from fight to fight. Costuming is similarly slight. Though there are hundreds of hats, gloves, eyewear and more your character can wear, they do nothing to your stats. You gain new pieces of equipment constantly, but the only incentive to change them is purely aesthetic.
Although the game is rife with side quests and optional plot lines to explore, the post-game is nearly nonexistent. After the credits roll, there’s no real acknowledgement of your accomplishment. You can finish side quests and find previously missed collectables. That’s it. And when compared to the considerably shorter The Stick of Truth, the kids rarely ventured out of the town.
There’s upcoming DLC to look forward to, which the game cheekily addresses by plastering the acronym on the bus stop. And though it will eventually take the player to places like the magical Casa Bonita, the small town itself is almost entirely where the game takes place. However, the game’s surprising fifth act offsets the issue a bit. It goes in so many crazy places, you’ll forget that 90% of the game was just in a quiet mountain town.
None of these issues have a critical impact on the game’s quality – it’s still entertaining from beginning to end. But what does permeate the fabric of The Fracture But Whole is, naturally, fart jokes. It’s The New Kid’s super power. It’s what facilitates the “buddy abilities.” The system uses The New Kid’s farts in conjunction with other party members’ abilities to remove obstacles or gain access to previously blocked areas across town in a Metroidvania fashion. There’s even a pooping mini-game that’s available at the dozens of toilets across South Park…. but it gets old after about three goes. The game found a few ways to make me genuinely laugh at this literal potty humor. Unfortunately, these jokes are so constant, it begins to grate far more than it adds levity to the experience.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a success, warts and all. Both as a game, and as an extension of the South Park universe, it shines. It mostly nails both low-brow humor and fairly insightful social critique seamlessly. It clocks in at 20+ hours, and while short for an RPG, it’s the perfect length for South Park, feeling like a high quality extended episode of the show itself. All while improving on the foundation by The Stick of Truth. If you’ve never liked South Park’s humor or turn-based games, The Fractured But Whole might not be for you. But if you’re a fan of the series and lighthearted RPG’s, it’s pure crass and crude entertainment from start to finish.