Three years have passed since The Stick of Truth’s release. In this time we’ve had three more seasons of South Park, the Xbox One and PS4 have established themselves and reached their mid-life cycle, certain social media platforms have flourished while others have floundered, and numerous fads have come and gone.
The Fractured But Whole embraces all these things and more. The battle system is more befitting of current-gen tech, being grid-based and rather than timing-based. Recent events from the show have made the jump, with Kenny’s house located in the crumbling remains of SoDoSoPa, and Yaoi pictures of Craig and Tweek acting as the main collectable. PC Principle makes an appearance, likewise, helping to put an amusing twist on the combat system much later on.
Also keeping with the times, the faux Facebook-style social media platform has been replaced with the Instagram alike Coonstagram, requiring you to take ‘selfies’ with South Park’s citizens to gain a follow, their approval depending.
Yet despite all these changes, the first 2-3 hours of play bare an overwhelming sense of familiarity. You play as the new kid in town – a silent but deadly type, in the sense that they never utter a word and have been blessed with a rocket-powered rectum. Motivated by a $100 reward to find a lost cat, Cartman assembles his superhero school pals. But before allowing you to become a member of his colourful crew, a few local errands must be run and the rungs of the social ladder climbed. The first opening hour is then spent rummaging around the homes of South Park’s citizens and trying to gain Cartman’s approval by improving your social standing, a la The Stick of Truth.
Once let loose to explore the full town, things improve substantially. The town’s main shopping area hasn’t vastly changed, but there are a few new additions – including the thrift store Sloppy Seconds – and it isn’t long until you’re ushered into other larger, newer, locations including the Spearmint Hippo strip club, SoDoSoPa, and the Hooters parody restaurant Raisins.
During this time you’re forced tackle the town’s mysterious crime wave with South Park’s B-listers, including The Mosquito (Craig) and Captain Diabetes (Scott Malkinson). The chance to team up with the more desirable, and recognisable, likes of Toolshed (Stan) and Professor Chaos (Butters) is reserved for around the halfway mark. Again, for those who played TSoT it’s a set-up that’ll prove familiar.
It’s the battle system that’s had the biggest overhaul, setting this sequel apart from TSoT and helping it to feel more like a bona fide RPG than a mere cartoon adventure. The turn-based battles take place on a grid, and each character has their own unique attacks that deal damage in horizontal, vertical or diagonal patterns. Some characters can only harm nearby enemies, while others have attacks with a long reach. Knocking a foe into another superhero causes ‘knockback damage’ and all the usual RPG tropes are present, including summons, various potions, and the ability to deal long-lasting elemental damage.
New enemy gangs show up at the start of each chapter – each connected to the plot or a mission – and many battles have scripted moments or unique elements, helping things fresh. A good example is a battle against Randy Marsh, who staggers around the battlefield in an unpredictable, drunken, state.
The battle system links into a much deeper upgrade and ability system, designed around a faux phone app. Artifacts can be found and crafted, boosting the new kid’s strength and improving critical damage and such. Over time new character classes are unlocked too, and with only three attacks – and a slowly charging ‘Ultimate’ – in your arsenal, it’s wise to carefully pick and choose a varied pool from each available class.
There’s even a tough boss battle around 10 hours in during which it’s a good idea to shuffle attack types so those with a ‘knockback’ ability are at your disposal. Instances such as this are isolated, however, as for the most part bosses go down easily, requiring just one or two attempts to beat.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all isn’t just how refined the combat is, but rather how ‘grounded’ the game feels as a whole. Ignoring the inclusion of an on-going toilet conquering mini-game, the humour is much more subtle. Using a macaroni glue picture to summon the almighty prophet Moses, for instance, or the fact that Kyle’s superhero persona is called the Human Kite. We also love the context-sensitive dialogue, which goes a long way to making the world feel alive. Teammates bicker and praise one another during combat, with certain character combos prompting amusing results, while NPCs react to your actions and acknowledge your existence as your popularity grows.
The boss battles, at least during the game’s first half, are less outlandish too. Without giving too much away, many of the early fights involve characters that have been around since the show’s first series. There’s nothing quite as absurd as Nazi zombies or suicide bomber cows here, and it’s a better – and dare we say smarter – experience for it.
Just two minor things hold The Fractured But Whole back from greatness – the slow and overfamiliar start, and the drawn-out finale. We spent approximately 20 hours exploring South Park’s exceedingly colourful streets but would have been perfectly content with a figure nearer 15 hours. The final 2-3 hours really drag. By this point the summon and ‘Ultimate’ animations had grown tedious, the music was starting to grate, and a few sections felt lazily thrown in for the sake of padding.
Still, this is a decent sequel that’s worthy of praise – it genuinely gives the impression of playing through an episode of the show. Or to be more exact, playing through a new South Park movie. We’re pretty sure Trey and Matt couldn’t resist a superhero spin if South Park was to ever grace the silver screen again.