I was three years old when the first episode of South Park aired. This means that I was pooping my pants from the moment that creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, began their journey of satirizing popular culture and making endless jokes about people pooping their pants. Now, 21 years later, I poop my pants far less than I did in 1997, and Stone and Parker still churn out, week after week, some of the most cutting-edge comedy on network television. While South Park might be an old show, it’s still a series with fresh and constantly evolving subject matter that challenge what is and isn’t an appropriate for TV.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is right in line with what you might come to expect from Stone and Parker’s twisted minds. Following up 2014’s excellent The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole builds upon almost all of the elements that made the first game great. From its combat, to its surprisingly deep RPG systems, on a gameplay level, The Fractured But Whole is far and away an improvement on the previous game. When it’s comes to the writing however, the game’s sense of humor features a lot more ups and downs when compared to its predecessor.
Taking place directly after the finale of The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole sees the gang move away from playing around as wizards and knights and into the world of superheroes. Cloaks and crowns are replaced by makeshift superhero costumes, as the boys set out to establish their respective cinematic universes. You’re drafted into the ranks of Eric Cartman’s Coon and Friends, on a quest to find a missing cat, while also promoting your superhero brand against the rival Freedom Pals. This Marvel vs. DC gimmick is both fantastically delivered, (as Cartman and Kyle Broflovski fight over whose Netflix series should be greenlit first) and employs great gameplay mechanics that do a solid job of drawing upon the story for inspiration.
Like a traditional RPG, you’re given a class from the start of the game to choose what type of superhero your character will be playing as. Classes are distinct, each with powers and modifiers in line with traditional RPG tropes, but with a little South Park twist. From the long range fire thrower to the heavy brute, classes and subclasses have more variation between what abilities than they allow for than in The Stick of Truth, all of which bring a much more complex RPG system into the South Park universe.
The setting, whose layout was mapped out for the first time ever in The Stick of Truth, hasn’t seen any major updates, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just wandering around the snowy town and venturing into Stan and Kenny’s rooms is still just as packed with in-jokes as the previous installment. Hidden areas grant access to new costumes, and items are accessible through a number of party specific moves, most notably the art of Fartcour (which sees your character scale buildings with the aid of his legendary flatulence). This isn’t the only use of your character’s gas, however. Another central mechanic sees a special character (who I won’t reveal) allow you to harness and train your wind breaking prowess and turn your trouser coughs into time manipulating powers.
The biggest change in from The Stick of Truth is of course, the switch from a traditional turn based battle system to the new grid based combat. This system allows you to move the kids of South Park around the battleground to set up their turn based actions, a la Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. It also allows for the game’s combat and systems to become more tactical than in The Stick of Truth. Maneuvering the children around the battlefield and combining everyone’s directional attacks provide a level of depth that was missing from the first game.
Finally, there’s also an additional layer of depth to boss fights. Multiple times, during high-stakes encounters, significant portions of the grid can be overrun, or blocked off, creating more obstacles and adding a level of strategy when it comes to your allies’ placement. Dialogue in these battle sequences can get a little repetitive, especially after all of the main characters have been introduced, but this is a small complaint in what’s otherwise a fantastic portion of the game.
With how mechanically sound The Fractured But Whole is, one would expect the writing duo of Stone and Parker to be more than capable enough to deliver a great story. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t always manage to hit the mark. Most of the best gags from the show deal with incredibly topical and timely subject matter that is ripe for satire. No matter what social issue or political divide the series chooses to tackle head on, the fact that they’re joking about it, literally sometimes days after it happens, is part of what makes the show so special. However, translating this type of humor into a video game with a multi-year development process is a bit of an uphill battle. While the joke writing in South Park isn’t all a wash, there were a number of instances were jokes just don’t land, or lack the bite and wit that they might have on a regular episode of the show.
The shining example of this is a sequence in which you, the player character, team up with the South Park PD to try to catch a number of “reported drug dealers.” Simple and straightforward enough I thought. This gag might be Stone and Parker’s take on the way that drug crime is handled in the U.S. Instead, underneath this set up, was a weak and thoughtless joke about the over policing people of color. It’s not that the joke isn’t timely or relatable in 2017. It’s the fact that despite its larger message, I feel like I’ve heard this joke copied and pasted over and over again for the past 15 years.
In every Family Guy and American Dad sketch, I’ve seen the same lackluster setups and punchlines that draw the same conclusion. The thing that I’ve always felt sets South Park apart from these type of shows is its timeliness and unrelenting nature. But, with that removed, some of the jokes are boiled down to their lowest common denominator, which reduces both their impact and whatever message they’re trying to send.
This isn’t to say however, that South Park: The Fractured But Whole humor always falls flat. When it’s at its best, it touches on aspects of gaming and superhero culture that make for more evergreen content; poking fun at gaming’s silent protagonist trope or Marvel and DC’s ridiculous 10 year movie franchise plans. All of these instances go over much better than a lot of the more serious, faux topical, subject matter. While Stone and Parker might not be at the top of their game on The Fractured But Whole, their script is more than serviceable enough to deliver an experience that’s still more laugh out loud funny than just about every other game that’s come out since the last one.
While in my head, the jury might still be out on the idea of turning the South Park brand into a long standing RPG series, The Fractured But Whole does enough right to keep the franchise moving. From its gameplay improvements, to its parodying of superhero culture, it’s a worthy successor to The Stick of Truth in nearly every way. Though some of its writing might not live up to the high points from its predecessor, The Fractured But Whole is another example of how to successfully adapt a franchise into a video game. If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the developers have a great respect for the source material.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Ubisoft.
From its gameplay improvements to its parodying of superhero culture, The Fractured But Whole is a worthy successor to The Stick of Truth in nearly every way.