There are no limits to your imagination, and maybe that’s why video games can always go the extra mile. But there are still restrictions put in place, and that’s what is most important sometimes. In South Park: The Fractured but Whole, the kids of South Park find themselves reimagining 2014’s The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy setting into a modern-day superhero narrative. With that also comes a more complex combat system and ambitious story that provides less shocking moments than it does interesting combat scenarios.
What made The Stick of Truth such a compelling game to me was its central concept – a town all working within the idea that kids are live-action role-playing. You’d receive quests from adults that often felt like they were willing to engage with the childrens’ imaginations, even if it meant doing some insane (and probably disgusting) task. It felt encouraging. With South Park: The Fractured But Whole, you’re subservient to almost everyone. Adults don’t even really engage with your superhero motif, and almost everyone is concerned with your follower count on Coonstagram (South Park‘s version of Instagram) than with any powers you might have.
Of course, this all comes from the laziness which The Coon writes you, The New Kid, into his superhero franchise plan. That’s what is at stake this time around though, as The Coon (Cartman) discovers that the town of South Park has a missing cat problem and he intends to use his team, Coon and Friends, to find the missing cats and collect the reward for their retrieval to kickstart their franchise. But while everyone on the team is given great backstories, no matter how many times you gain powers and are made to redo your origin story, it always ends the same preposterous way. I’m not going to spoil it because it is still funny, but it matches the naivety of children that has let South Park push boundaries while still being one of the smartest shows on air.
Those coming to The Fractured But Whole because of their love for South Park will find nothing to dislike here. It’s not as funny as its predecessor, in my opinion, but I think it stretches its main plot in a more ambitious and interesting way. There are very few moments that feel like some of the great surprises from The Stick of Truth – yet when I think of those great moments, I think of how out-of-left-field they were because they didn’t instantly connect with the central plot. The Fractured But Whole is more concerned with everything connecting, but having some pervasive mysteries like who is orchestrating the kidnapping of cats, and why?
While the absurdity of Coon and Friends’ plan to start a franchise seems silly enough to begin with, it never comes close to how the storyline proceeds. A major component is the use of time manipulation through the players’ farting superpowers (that are learned with the help of Morgan Freeman who runs Freeman’s Tacos in South Park), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for where the story goes. What is most important is how it all weaves into the gameplay and that’s where The Stick of Truth always fell shy. The turn-based combat was simply explained as the way people fight and it was never subverted like many other video game tropes were in the story, or even poked fun at much. Because of this, the gameplay always existed because there was some perception that it had to be there every now and then to give some interactivity in what would otherwise be a season-arc of crazy things happening in the town of South Park.
The Fractured but Whole is like playing through a movie, and the gameplay matters significantly to the plot of the film. Now more than ever does it feel like strategy is required to win a fight, even with a much bigger arsenal (pun intended) of moves at your disposal. While supersize bosses tend to act as endurance tests, there are plenty of wrinkles added to combat scenarios to keep players on their toes and force tactics to change. Maybe it involves taking out one enemy before worrying about the rest, or it’s a special objective involving staying out of the way of an enemy while still defeating other enemies. These seem difficult at first, but once you get your head around strategies, they’re rewarding both gameplay-wise and for the plot. You feel like you actually made an impact in the story because of your actions, as opposed to the previous game where your actions tended to feel detached.
The combat’s complexity increases with the inclusion of Timefart Glitches, which adds to The Fractured but Whole‘s combat moves and potential for performance issues. With so many systems in place that feel random, on top of Timefarts which allow for you to just stop an opponents turn with your fart and either skip it, punch someone during it, and a couple other abilities you gain as the story requires them. I found that using Timefarts during boss fights was when I ran into the most problems because the game would have me perpetually farting due to the poor timing of when I interrupted an enemy’s animation. It works most of the time, but it’s the only time I had any performance issues with the game.
Most issues I ran into with South Park: The Fractured but Whole were miniscule in comparison to just how unfunny I found a decent amount of the game to be. From a lack of a run button to barely any differences between the first game’s map and this game’s, I could overlook most of these things. South Park is a show that I have loved in the past, and I still enjoy watching episodes every now and then, but it’s clear that the games have more of an uphill climb since they lack the almost-immediate reactions that the show can provide. The jokes that work, really work, and a lot of jokes do still land but they barely got more than a snicker from myself. Maybe it’s the trade-off for having a much more interesting combat system, but it’s unfortunate because South Park episodes that aren’t funny are not worth even revisiting and usually make me stop watching the rest of the season.
Which makes The Fractured But Whole feel like it could be my last South Park game. It’s very well-made and the gameplay is an exceptional improvement over its predecessor. Like most current Ubisoft games though, it feels flat upon inspection. I was just sort of moving through the story (which is a better story than The Stick of Truth, too). I can wholeheartedly recommend South Park: The Fractured but Whole for anyone who loves South Park and still watches it. If you’ve fallen off, the main incentive here is its combat system which does plenty of interesting things and tacks on a randomness that feels so in line with the show’s child protagonists. You can’t help but smile when someone randomly appears in combat and then asks for a status effect to be ignored, or combat stops suddenly because a car needs to drive by during your fight on the road. But when your game is dependent on comedy, just smiling isn’t always enough.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
- Complex and strategic combat system
- More ambitious and engrossing story
- Gameplay matters more to the narrative
- Still some great moments in the story
- Feels like a less funny feature-length South Park episode
- Adults seem less "in" on the kids' shenanigans.
- Some minor technical issues