In 2014, Obsidian made probably one of the all-time great licensed games (admittedly a low bar) with South Park: The Stick of Truth. Twisting genre tropes to fit the tone of the TV show, Stick of Truth reimagined a typical fantasy RPG as a child’s game—one where magic came from farts, elves wore glued-on Spock ears, and a backyard became a vast woodland realm.
Sequel South Park: The Fractured But Whole ($60 on Amazon or Steam) takes the same tack, but this time satirizing superheroes. The kids of South Park have ditched their wooden swords and garbage can shields for towel-capes and jokes about The Avengers.
And you know what? It works pretty damn well—at least when you're not battling software bugs.
With great poop-wer
The Fractured But Whole picks up right after the first game. Like, right after. You’re still dressed as king actually, enjoying your last few minutes as the most powerful person in the realm. Then Cartman decides fantasy is gauche, superheroes are the new game of the hour, and you’re booted down to “New Kid” status again.
The ever-silent New Kid soon gets a new name though: Buttlord. Or sometimes Butthole. Both are used pretty interchangeably, as you join Cartman’s “Coon and Friends” superhero franchise, develop a tragic backstory (you walked in on your dad having sex with your mom), and use your infamous fart-based powers to fight crime in South Park.
That paragraph should really tell you all you need to know about whether you’ll enjoy this game’s humor, I think—provided 20 years of South Park weren’t already enough. If you think South Park’s humor is boring and trite, or (gasp!) offensive? Fractured But Whole won’t sway you. Hell, it might be even worse than usual. This is South Park unbound by FCC regulations or time constraints, which mostly means an abundance of uncensored swearing.
Swearing aside, much of Fractured But Whole is taken straight from the show. Like Stick of Truth, references abound. Member Berries, PC Principal—all the most notable gags from the last few seasons make an appearance.
Fractured But Whole is admittedly better about telling a story around its references, though. One of my biggest complaints with Stick of Truth was that at times it felt like just a parade of disconnected sight gags. “Now you fight the penis mouse! Now you meet Al Gore! Collect Chinpokomon!” It was fan service sans context.
Those bits still exist in Fractured But Whole, but no longer feel like the be-all-end-all. The main story revolves around Cartman’s Coon and Friends and the rival superhero franchise Freedom Pals as they hunt for Scrambles, a missing cat with a $100 reward. And as you might guess, the kids inadvertently stumble upon real corruption while trying to save some dumb cat.
It’s a fun little story. An award winner? An all-time South Park classic? Nah. That usually relies on some combination of “Perfect Topic” and “Timeliness,” neither of which a game three years in development can rely on. But it’s a solid framework for its best jokes, with some excellent send-ups of Marvel and DC comics along the way.
Side note: I have to wonder how much of the plot coalesced in the past year or so. Remember: Fractured But Whole was supposed to release in December of 2016, then was surprise-delayed until this October. Given that the game releasing on Tuesday has obvious references to Donald Trump, Member Berries, and other fairly recent South Park fodder...well, just how much was rewritten in the past ten months?
On the grid
Of course, Stick of Truth’s appeal laid in the fact that underneath the South Park veneer was an RPG that was actually competent. A lightweight one, sure, but Stick of Truth still had satisfying turn-based combat, an excellent feel for exploration, and so on.
South Park: Fractured But Whole improves on that foundation, for the most part. I don’t think it’s quite as successful at marrying its meta-satire with its game elements—Stick of Truth was a send-up of fantasy RPGs, and Fractured But Whole doesn’t work on that level. There aren’t many turn-based superhero RPGs out there.
But the combat itself is better than ever. Where Stick of Truth played out like a traditional JRPG, with characters arrayed on each side of the screen trading blows, Fractured But Whole is a bit more tactical. Combat now plays out on a grid, and positioning is vital—some attacks might affect only the square directly in front of you, while another might devastate half the enemy army. There's an XCOM-lite feel to proceedings that's incredibly satisfying.
I also criticized Stick of Truth for allowing me to fall into patterns. You’d get an idea of the best moves for any situation, then do those moves until the end of the game. Fractured But Whole features ten different classes, all based on existing superheroes and villains—the “Speedster” for The Flash, “Plantmancer” for Poison Ivy, and so on. Classes are drip-fed for the first half of the game, so you’re always gaining new powers and coming up with new strategies.
And on top of that, South Park: The Fractured But Whole is better about changing it up for certain battles. You may be forced to bring along a companion you haven’t used much, for instance, or be saddled with a special objective. One mission, I was trapped in a retirement home and pitted against an ever-growing horde of senior citizens. There, the goal wasn’t to defeat everyone but simply to get all my surviving superheroes to the exit as fast as possible. An interesting wrinkle.
It’s a lot deeper and a lot more flexible than Stick of Truth’s system, and that helps it stay fresh even though Fractured But Whole is a longer game. Even after 15-plus hours I was still devising new strategies and experimenting with team compositions to try and beat Fractured But Whole’s stronger enemies.
As for exploration, it’s pretty similar to the first game. You can enter pretty much any building in South Park, loot any container that has a golden handle or lid or whatever. Half the fun is still reading the descriptions of the trash items, but like Stick of Truth there are also plenty of costumes, makeup and hair options, and so on to uncover.
It’s breezy but addictive. I spent nearly 40 minutes the other night just hunting down a toilet, because if I defecated in one more I would get an achievement. Not every location gets equal treatment, and there are some that are bafflingly empty, but I guess that’s the price of adhering to canon.
So what’s the biggest problem facing South Park: The Fractured But Whole? Surprisingly, it’s bugs. I would’ve thought almost a year’s delay would’ve resulted in an extra layer of polish—after all, Stick of Truth came out of bug-prone Obsidian and still managed to be relatively bug-free.
Fractured But Whole has some nasty ones though, and I’m docking a half-star for it. I might retroactively dock more, if forthcoming Steam reviews end up confirming the worst of my problems. Some of the ones I encountered are supposed to be fixed for launch—one, in particular, cost me 40 minutes of progress because a ladder was glitched. It would’ve cost me more, but luckily I had a fortuitous hard save I’d made when we recorded the video above.
But the game is just littered with problems. I’ve had my controller start rumbling and never stop in basically every battle (fixed by pausing and then unpausing the game), had my left analog stick stop responding, had the game skip lines of dialogue, had battles freeze halfway through and force me to reload. The latter happened a few times, but the worst was a climactic battle towards the end of the game that caused me to reload maybe a dozen times, then magically resolved when I mashed a bunch of buttons at random.
You’ll also notice I referenced using a controller. That’s because the keyboard and mouse controls are asinine. There are a ton of actions in Fractured But Whole that rely on pushing the analog sticks in precise patterns—for instance, rotating one clockwise and the other counter-clockwise. On a keyboard, this translates to the most complicated game of finger-DDR across both WASD and the arrow keys, and after half an hour I just couldn’t take it anymore. A controller is highly recommended for this one.
Bugs aside, The Fractured But Whole is another successful translation of South Park to video games. Conceptually I still think Stick of Truth was stronger—it managed to mock fantasy video games as much as the fantasy genre itself. Fractured But Whole is undoubtedly a better experience though, with deeper combat, the same engaging exploration, and a more cogent story.
Also, you can manipulate time with your farts. That’s pretty great.