Chances are you already know whether you’re going to enjoy South Park: The Fractured But Whole.
If you played 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth — a solid role-playing game spin on Comedy Central’s long-running animated series — then you know. Or if you’ve watched much of the cartoon the game is based on, then I assure you, you know. Forgive the cliche, but I’ve never reviewed a game that better deserves it: The Fractured But Whole is a game made for existing South Park fans. Those fans are going to eat it up, and those predisposed to hating the show aren’t going to be convinced by Ubisoft’s take on things.
The more challenging place is the one I occupy: those who are entirely indifferent to South Park. Sure, I watched some of the show when I was in high school, rattling off catchphrases with my friends and giggling when my mom got upset with me. But I’ve long since grown out of it; I probably haven’t watched a full episode in a decade or more.
If you’re a fan, or a devoted anti-fan, this review isn’t for you. Instead, let’s do as South Park so often does and take the middle path. Is there something to enjoy in The Fractured But Whole if you can’t be bothered to give a shit about the show one way or another?
Well … sort of?
Like The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole puts you in the role of The New Kid, a character whose appearance, race, gender identity and even socioeconomic standing you’re able to determine for yourself throughout the course of the game. It’s a clever choice that gives players creativity to define their own character, while also giving them control over which characters from the show they spend time with in their party — rather than forcing them to play as, say, a loud asshole like Cartman.
That’s not the only thing that The Fractured But Whole borrows from The Stick of Truth. Despite swapping developers from Obsidian Entertainment to Ubisoft San Francisco, the new game uses the same core exploration gameplay of walking around a 2.5D representation of the town of South Park and solving light puzzles using your powers. Even the town map is nearly identical; I was able to navigate around the city based off my memory of playing the previous game almost three years ago.
What’s changed is the genre of the children’s town-spanning playtime. Cartman, Stan, Kyle and the gang have traded in the wooden swords and garbage can lid shields of last game’s Dungeons & Dragons parody, and turned their attention toward superheroes. As they attempt to solve the mystery of who’s abducting South Park’s cats, the kids have each adopted their own crime-fighting persona: Cartman is the Wolverine-meets-Batman mashup The Coon, while Jimmy becomes Fastpass, a lightning-quick speedster with a chest symbol reminiscent of The Flash, etc.
As the game progresses, you unlock a total of 12 possible companions who can fight alongside you — up to three of those allies can join you in most battles — as well as nine possible power types for yourself. The imaginative powers on display run the comic book gamut, from cyborgs to raging muscled monsters. There isn’t a single popular superhero archetype missing that I can think of.
Well, except for girls. There’s only one, and her superhero persona is Call Girl. See, she uses her hacking powers to bust into electronics through her phone and wreak havoc, but “call girl” is also a euphemism for “prostitute.” Get it? I’ll talk more about the humor later.
These super skills are put to use in two ways. First off, there’s combat. As in The Stick of Truth, battles are turn-based, but this time Ubisoft has built in a grid system that calls for slightly more strategic thinking. Each power hits a certain number of squares on the grid from a specific range; some will knock back enemies that are hit, or change the position in which your character ends their turn. To play optimally, you’ll need to think a few turns ahead, planning out how to get enemies lined up to hit the most possible foes with your most powerful abilities.
The best of these abilities — the ones you really want to plan for — are your ultimate powers. As a fight progresses, a bar builds up at the top of the screen, inching forward for every piece of damage your team inflicts or takes. When it’s full, you can use the ultimate ability of any character on screen. These special attacks cut away into full-screen cinematics, slamming enemies with a flurry of funny special effects, just as epic as any Final Fantasy summon.
The Coon’s ultimate ability is my favorite. Rather than focusing on Cartman being a dick generally, The Fractured But Whole centers on his character’s outsize ego and ambitions. This is expressed through his desire to see Coon and Friends, his superhero team, become a major cinematic franchise. All of this scheming comes to a head in his ultimate ability, where we get to see The Coon on the cover of major magazines and being interviewed in an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, before he performs a full-screen assault that slashes down every enemy. It’s a clever little scene that I never minded rewatching every time I used Cartman’s ultimate.
Outside of ultimate abilities, The Fractured But Whole’s combat system is relatively fun but maybe a little too easy. This is not a regular complaint for me; I’m generally very comfortable with games that aren’t focused on difficulty. But there’s just enough depth here that I found myself wishing for more chances to show off some strategy, rather than yet another fight against half a dozen jerk sixth-graders.
The only times I felt challenged were when South Park: The Fractured But Whole broke its own rules. In a couple of boss battles, the game messes with its turn-based system by putting you up against bosses with powerful timed attacks. For these special abilities, the timer keeps ticking down even as you’re taking your turn. These moments certainly up the intensity of these fights, but I found them really frustrating in practice. A few wrong moves, or turns that take too long, and your whole team can get wiped out.
Beyond combat, you can also use powers in the aforementioned exploration. Certain segments of South Park are initially closed off due to “lava” spills (i.e., red Legos piled everywhere), heavy boxes blocking your path and other obstacles. But as you make your way through the game and make more friends, you’ll be able to call on them and use their powers (modified by your own) in order to clear a path.
The Fractured But Whole tracks progress of how many of these little navigation “puzzles” you’ve solved around town, but even using the term puzzle feels a bit like an overstatement. Within the first few hours of the game, I was familiar with the four or five different methods for solving any given puzzle — stopping time, gliding with help from The Human Kite, getting extra muscle from Captain Diabetes and so on — and the game never really throws any twists out there. You have a small handful of powers, and those powers solve every puzzle in the game in a fairly straightforward manner.
Much like the combat, I found the puzzles enjoyable enough. I just wanted them to go a little further, to push me to think a little harder. But no, pretty much every obstacle in the game can be solved with help from one of four friends and/or your farts.
Oh, did I mention that the main character’s primary superpower is farting? Whatever power set you choose to give yourself — and they can be swapped out at will throughout the game — you’ll always have a subset of, uh, fart powers to fall back on. Your farts are, in fact, powerful enough to bend the fabric of time itself. With training from a burrito-selling Morgan Freeman (I don’t know, don’t ask), you’ll gain the ability to rewind time, pause time and even cause a break in the space-time continuum, summoning a clone of yourself from the past.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole’s obsession with farts isn’t anything new — it was present in The Stick of Truth as well — but it provides all the insight you need into the game’s approach to comedy. When it’s not spouting fart and shit jokes, The Fractured But Whole lets loose a torrent of lightly racist and sexist stereotypes for laughs. Some of the game’s cutting-edge attempts at jokes include such hilarious observational humor as “Mexicans will work for very little money” and “strippers are catty.”
Being offended isn’t really my issue with The Fractured But Whole’s humor. Rather, the problem is that so many of these attempts at comedy are astoundingly banal. The game’s winking, nudging “minorities, am I right?!” jokes follow a thread of humor from the show that barely made me laugh when I was 16 in the late ’90s. In 2017, it just bores me. I couldn’t care enough to be offended by it because I can’t fathom who would find it amusing.
Those dull edgelord moments come across even worse because The Fractured But Whole does occasionally hint at greater depths. There’s a subtle, really likable sweetness to the game and its embrace of kids being kids and using their imaginations. Battles in the street will occasionally be interrupted by a scream of “car!” followed by everyone rushing to the sidewalk to wait for the vehicle to pass. One particularly smart fight against an angry parent featured the adult attempting to ground the kids; only the main character had the power to unground his friends and allow them to act.
The children of South Park may be foul-mouthed, but there’s a surprising wholesomeness to these moments. Moreover, many of the game’s side quests reveal more about the kids’ difficult personal battles. Stan is struggling to deal with his dad’s alcoholism; Craig is having problems communicating with the ex-boyfriend he’s still in love with; Kyle is trying to avoid his annoying cousin until he realizes that maybe he should make time for family. The superhero antics provide an escape for the kids, but also a means of working through each of these issues.
At the beginning of this review, I outed myself as someone who’s not a huge South Park fan, but I’ve watched enough of the show to understand that this is its modus operandi. It foregrounds loud, over-the-top, “edgy” humor, and it backgrounds surprisingly thoughtful character arcs. South Park: The Fractured But Whole matches the show’s strange mix of intentions; it is totally aligned in that way. And in that way, it provided the perfect reminder for why the show (and, to a lesser extent, this game) aren’t for me.
The Fractured But Whole’s breezy combat and puzzles provided a few days of entertainment, and the best moments of the game had me either laughing or, against all expectations, emotionally touched. I don’t particularly regret my time with the game, but it mostly made me think about how much better the creators of both South Park and The Fractured But Whole could do if they were given the opportunity and space to grow up a little.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.