Hardly silent, always deadly...
While I've been a fan of South Park since its initial release 20 years ago, I haven't watched much during the last few years. I've caught the odd episode here and there and recently watched the newest episode leading up to the release of The Fractured But Whole, which had its moments but failed to be consistently funny, and that's the problem with this game as well. While this sequel to The Stick of Truth is a much better game mechanically, mostly due to its much-improved battle system, it feels far too safe in its satire and doesn't push the envelope on much of its jokes as often as it has before.
That being said, The Fractured But Whole is still a laugh out loud game that will have you chuckle quite often during its 15-hour campaign, but nothing here feels as extreme or as out-there as what we experienced in The Stick of Truth. There are a few jokes like the attack that ex-Subway icon Jared uses during his boss battle, or when you and Captain Diabetes pretend to be girls at a strip club and grind away at patrons to get information on another stripper, that feel as though they are about to cross the line, but then don't. While The Fractured But Whole still takes chances that the show could never get away with, it fails to capitalize on the extremes that the series has been known for.
Once again you are playing as the new kid in South Park, in fact, it is the same kid you played as during the Stick of Truth. What is different here; however is that you can finally set the gender of your character and each choice will insult a group of rednecks that will 'not take too kindly' to your choice and then lead to a battle with the group of drunks. The game opens during the end of The Stick of Truth where the various kids from the show are taking part in an epic fantasy battle while Cartman, dressed up as The Coon, his raccoon take on Batman, is set to shift the roleplaying to that of superheroes, and once again, you start from the bottom and have to work your way back up to the popularity you had at the end of the prior game.
The story and the presentation of the game feel more so like a 15-hour long episode than The Stick of Truth did, and that is for better and for worse. The game makes major shifts in its story and often feels like two or three different campaigns stitched together yet never feeling as one cohesive narrative. There is a moment around the ten-hour mark where you feel as though the story is about to end and it merely opens up another chapter in the story and the focus then shifts to this and it feels almost like another campaign has started instead of the current one progressing.
The story is centered around the kids fighting over which superhero gets their own movie or Netflix series and when the group of kids can't agree on the franchise potential of each hero, they splinter off into The Coon and Friends and The Freedom Pals, creating a parody of Marvel's own Civil War. There are certain characters who become villains during the story, as well as a few fan favorites that return, but as they could easily be considered spoilers, or shock moments, I'll refrain from spoiling these surprises. As is the case with heroes fighting heroes, it isn't long before each group must set aside their differences and work together to stop the big bad of the story.
When you join The Coon and Friends, you'll be given a choice between three superpowers to choose from, and then be given a backstory by Cartman as to how you gained such powers. You will be given more choices later on and eventually be granted the ability to choose from any power offered in the game. Each power set has a special move that can really help in battle and many of them range from a bit too plain to fairly entertaining and one that I sighed and rolled my eyes to each time I would use it to heal my party. You can bring three other kids with you and circumstances will always dictate which kids you can choose from and many of them are not available until a few hours into the game, which is typical of party-based games anyway.
The battle system is easily the strongest asset of the gameplay here in The Fractured But Whole as it feels far more polished than the simple turned based JRPG format of The Stick of Truth. Here, you are set into a grid format where each attack can only occupy a certain amount of squares. If your character can only attack in front of them then you need to ensure that the enemy is to their left or right and not above or below their lane. I found it necessary to equip attacks that could attack close range, all around me, and a long-range distance shot so that I was prepared for any setup that would present itself. This method of strategically thinking about how to attack the enemy will also dictate which allies to bring with you as each has set attacks that work the grid in different ways. Often you will need to ensure you have party members that have certain skills like knocking back and healing as they become super useful, and almost needed at certain points in the game.
You'll take your turn via the timeline at the bottom right of the screen and you can use it to attack or use an item; such as food items for healing or resurrecting a fallen comrade. You can also summon a few characters that will either heal your team, drive over enemies in a car, drop bombs on them, or shower them in bullets. When your turn comes up and attacking is the only way to go, most attacks have button prompts that require you to press a button in a timely matter or to slam down the button to fill an attack circle on screen. Should you execute these perfectly, your attack will do more damage, and the same format works when taking damage as a well-timed reaction can grant you some health back.
This system is far more rewarding and requires more thought than The Stick of Truth. I actually found myself seeking out fights instead of avoiding them as the combat was just a lot of fun. As you find enemies in town you can punch them or fart on them to get the first strike bonus to give you that much-needed edge in combat. The combat itself isn't that difficult and should you prepare your team with a set of kids that have wildly different attack patterns, then you can set yourself up for success.
As the kids are acting out this fantasy of playing superheroes, and this is especially true during the battles with all the superpowers active, it becomes this wonderment if this is, in fact, make-believe and the kids are just acting this stuff out, or if their powers and the world they have created is real. As you fight anything from sixth graders to evil crab people, the enemies often remark about how the hell a kid is firing lasers from their hands and eventually you have to wonder if everyone is just simply in on the act. The game never explains this and frankly, I wouldn't want it to, and it becomes one of the best aspects of the game by far.
As the title would suggest, your butt-hole is a key factor not only in combat but in the story and its humor as well. You learn various time-fart techniques that can pause time, rewind an action, or fast forward time itself. If you freeze time you have a few precious seconds to get a few cheap hits in and rewinding time allows you to cancel out an enemies attack like it never happened. You can use these attacks every few rounds as there is a cooldown timer until you can use it again. These special attacks are taught to you by a special character who was actually in the game far more often than I was thinking they would be, and you can even battle them in what may be the most difficult encounter the game can offer.
As you unlock more companions to join your party, you will be granted buddy assist moves that help you clear lego-brick lava pools away, unlock electronically locked doors, push away obstacles, or reach out of the way locations in the environment. These are fun for the few first times you use them but eventually become such an annoyance having to sit through the exact same dialogue and animation each time you need to use them. Each buddy assist has certain controls that are unique to each action and while they don't take a tremendous amount of time to do, there are areas in the game where you need to use them back to back and their charm is lost almost immediately. There is a single room in one of the later levels that have you tackle each one of these obstacles right after one another.
Being a superhero game where fashion is everything, The Fractured But Whole offers more than 50 different superhero outfits that you can find, purchase in-game, or craft. These involve head items, clothes, gloves, and various makeup and hairstyles. All costume pieces can be colored, mixed, and matched with any others to create some very interesting combinations. Several outfits obviously play on existing superheroes but with a child-like design quality to them. There are also some Ubisoft costumes that can be purchased via their Ubisoft Club service as well, such as the main costume from Assassin's Creed.
The skill system is very lightweight here as it doesn't involve a whole ton of different systems to add any complexity or depth to it. You have item slots that open up that allow you to equip artifacts that have various stats attached to them and an overall power level rating called Might. This rating is how difficult a quest or an enemy will be as they too have this rating attached to them. You will earn more item slots the more you level up and artifacts can be bought from vendors, crafted, or given as rewards for completing certain tasks. You also unlock another slot for a DNA item that essentially, works the same way as an artifact, and it too unlocks more items to fill this slot as the game progresses.
The Fractured But Whole also brings with it a simplified crafting system where you can craft healing items, artifacts, mission items, and the dozens of costumes you can obtain. You can craft these items at any time and won't need a crafting bench or the use of such system. While you can use vendors to find most of these items, you'll earn crafting items from opening various chests, backpacks, and containers that you'll discover nearly everywhere in the game. The only downside to this system is that should you need three items to craft something, you will always have max amounts of two of the items but hardly any of the third and this imbalance lessens the impact of this system greatly.
During your exploration of the town, you will do various side quests for a large number of people. You'll track down Tweek and Craig inspired Yuri artwork, Big Gay Al's cats, and even a lost wallet at the strip club. These quests will grant you rewards as well as the ability to take selfies with each of the quest givers. This system of getting selfies will become an obsession early on but eventually, you'll forget all about it.
The teams at both Ubisoft San Francisco and South Park Digital Studios have painstaking recreated the very look of the show yet again and have packed in so much visual detail that even the most obsessed South Park fan will need days, if not weeks, to address each and every single nod to the show. There are moments where you simply feel you are watching an episode of the show and after one long cutscene had ended, I had to remind myself that yeah, I had been playing a game all along. Characters, environments and all the flashy superhero attacks all look great and nothing ever feels out of place here.
Audio has always been the forefront to South Park as the very voices, Cartman, in particular, have always been the go-to when referencing the show. Each and every voice here is exactly what you'd expect from a game based on the show, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone still providing the mass amount of voice work in the game. There are other voice actors that do an ok job, but South Park has always been about the main cast and I don't see that ever changing. Various television sets around the town feature audio from various points in the show and that content is everywhere here. I found that despite the wonderful voice-over work here that the music featured in the game is lacking and there just isn't that much of it. The one bit of music that was present that had me laughing out loud was during the battle with Kyle's mom, and yes, THAT song does play in the background.
While party banter is usually found only in Bioware games, the cast of characters here consistently talk to one another, referenc the current narrative, or mention things from prior battles. What is even more impressive is that enemies will do this as well and this is especially true when taking on mixtures of the various foes in the game. During one such battle, the drunk rednecks were talking battle tactics with the city ninja clan, and these exchanges had me in stitches. It is these nice touches that made me feel far more immersed in the game and felt very natural to the world this game was building.
The Fractured But Whole feels generally safe in regards to what South Park has done before with The Stick of Truth. It doesn't hurt the game in any real way, but it does lessen the impact of what you'd expect from a mature rated game that doesn't have to hold back due to how TV works. The story is a bit inconsistent in its narrative pacing and while some of the humor doesn't quite hit, the large majority of it does and if you combine that with the fantastic battle system, then you have the best South Park game yet. Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly love video games and it most definitely shows, and I can't wait to see what genre they tackle next.