I went back down to South Park to have myself a time. It’s a shame that very little had changed from my last visit. I liked The Stick of Truth, it was a hilarious romp through the mean streets of everyone’s favourite white-bred redneck mountain town. It also was held back somewhat by leaning too far into the RPG tropes it was attempting to subvert.
It stumbled as an adventure, and ended up as more-or-less a series of juvenile jokes, social commentary, and some on-point satire separated by some functional but uninspired turn-based combat. It felt like a lot of disjointed parts held together by fart jokes. It is interesting then that the new game’s title is not only a genius level pun, but also sadly ironic. The Fractured But Whole is pretty much the same as The Stick, but with a higher faecal content.
Taking over development from Obsidian, Ubisoft San Francisco seems like an odd choice. The Rock Band developer has no experience making RPGs, and that maybe at the core of the issues I have with the game. At best, they’ve stuck some new construction paper over what Obsidian built with The Stick of Truth, and given us more of the same with little to distinguish it from what came before.
We pick up right where The Stick ended. You are the New Kid, and having just wrested absolute control of the lands, you sit unopposed as the ruler of all you survey. Then Cartman decides that fantasy is lame, and changes the game to superheroes. Congratulations – you’re a level one nothing again. As far as sequel power-scaling goes, it certainly beats the memory loss or divine intervention bollocks we normally have to deal with.
After a completing a quick-time defecation mini-game, you will – with Cartman’s assistance – build your new hero, replete with tragic back-story. A traumatic event that wakes you at night in a cold sweat, an inescapable nightmare that shaped you into the damaged vigilante you’ve become: a dark night where you witnessed your dad bang your mom!
Much like of The Stick before it, the powers and abilities in The Fractured But Whole remain true to their inspiration. All of the comic super-powers are here, but with a South Park off-kilter reinterpretation. For every Gigavolt Globe, Dragon Punch, and Plasma Beam, there is also a vomit attack, or the New Kid's powerful fart abilities. Initially you will choose one of three classes, but as you level up, you will unlock more, allowing you to build out your character. With 10 classes, each with their own specialist skills and abilities, you have a great deal of freedom to build your ultimate three-foot-tall superhero.
Which brings us to combat. Here you will be able to utilise all of those accumulated powers. Ubi San Fran has modified and upgraded the JRPG inspired turn-based system in The Stick of Truth, adding in a new grid system. Aiming, positioning of your characters, and timing all become far more important.
Powers have ranges, or affect specific grids depending on your position. There are delayed effects that require repositioning, or which can be used to your advantage by blocking foes in. This adds new depth and strategy to the combat, and along with some hilarious interplays and effects, becomes the highlight in the game. Sadly, things become very easy in the latter stages.
Once you’ve levelled up your companions, unlocked the ultimate abilities, and established the best core strategy, the combat loses a lot of its lustre. It’s fun getting there, and is easily an improvement on The Stick’s very limited system, but it is one area where I feel more developer experience with the genre could have paid even bigger dividends. That being said, I was never bored with the combat. There is something rather charming with how it is presented. Kids pretending – or not-quite pretending – to beat each other up hits me right in my aged nostalgia places.
Which is thing I appreciate most about the game – the reverence given to just being a kid. When you scrape aside the swearing, dick jokes, and various subversive elements, The Fractured But Whole stays true to the experience of being young and playing a superhero. It is perhaps the only pure part of the South Park universe, where a kid’s imagination is their reality, and its delivered perfectly here.
I especially enjoyed the parts where fights needed to be paused so the kids could clear the street to let a car pass, before reassembling the battleground and continuing completely immersed in their imaginary world. Perhaps it’s my advancing years, but this representation of kids being kids never lost its charm, despite the literal shit-flinging and racial stereotyping that surrounded it.
The shit-flinging, and racial humour though – these I am less interested in. South Park used to be the height of social satire, but here it never quite hits. Maybe they’re soft-balling, but there is no hard edge to the jokes, and for the most part they feel like little more than "insert sexist comment here" or "mildly racist observation" for the sake of it. Even the skin tone difficulty slider ends up being over-hyped and undercooked. Nothing is really done with the concept, except that some characters might say something mildly racist when you meet them, at which point I had to ask; why include it, if you’re not going to do anything interesting with it?
The story also falls flat. Not once did I care about building The Coon and Friends into a tentpole franchise as Cartman desires. Nor did I buy into the conflict with the Freedom Pals. The game itself doesn’t seem to embrace that idea either. There is a lot of filler, large sections of pointless wandering and simplistic "environmental puzzles" (moving boxes or other objects) that do nothing to build the world or move the story forward.
Instead we have a series of battles, and encounters with occasional course corrections where Cartman gives us our next mission. Don’t get me started on the god-awful need to take selfies to gain followers to unlock the ability to take a selfie with people who don’t yet deem you selfie-worthy due to you lack of followers. I get the attempted commentary, it’s just not funny and even worse, it’s not fun. Even the funny-at-first shitting mini-game is so overdone that it drowns any long-term enjoyment in its own toilet water.
The final gripe I have is with the superhero franchise building meta-narrative. Because let’s be honest here, riffing on super-hero clichés is at least three years out of date by now. Where fantasy RPGs and many of their fans are known for being far too self-serious, the superhero genre (DC aside) knows how inherently silly it is, and has embraced it. As a result, we have game where a lot of the intended humour comes across like the awkward kid in school attempting to repeat a joke he heard his dad tell a couple of weeks earlier. Which is basically how I feel about the game as a whole.
The Fractured But Whole never feels like a new experience, just more of the same presented in a slightly less entertaining way. The need to adhere to the visual identity of the South Park world, and the fact we are literally revisiting the exact same locations and talking to the exact same characters from the first game certainly does it no favours. If the jokes hit more often, or the satire was on point, maybe I could be more open to its charms. But even at a little over a dozen hours, it still overstayed its welcome.