Game review – South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a superhero send-up that plays well but often fumbles the humour
Cartman and co return in a sequel to 2014’s The Stick of Truth that takes direct aim at the convoluted film and TV franchises of the Marvel and DC universes. While technically it is a better game, its humour might only suit adoring fans
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
At some point in South Park: The Fractured But Whole, your character, the New Kid, will walk by a movie theatre. As a member of Cartman’s Coon & Friends superhero team, he’ll be wearing a DIY costume of your choice. And when the ticket taker sees you, he’ll quip: “Aren’t superheroes kind of played out?”
The Justice League and Avengers movies that are creating that franchise fatigue motivate the role-playing action of Ubisoft’s The Fractured But Whole. Stan and Kenny’s Freedom Pals are the DC to Coon & Friends’ Marvel. However, the winner of the fourth-graders’ playtime won’t be who wields the better superpowers, but who maps the better shared cinematic universe.
The game – the sequel to 2014’s The Stick of Truth – avoids the sameness of its blockbuster subjects by introducing improved battle and character systems. So it’s a much better video game. But The Fractured But Whole not only finds less novelty as fan service, it often fumbles the humour driving its story by oversampling characters and concepts from the even-more-reactionary recent years of the series. So it’s a slightly worse South Park episode. But it’s still one that any fan of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Comedy Central show will adore.
The New Kid, the first game’s silent and customisable protagonist, trades his medieval get-up for visors and utility belts alongside the rest of the boys when Cartman rallies them to find some missing cats. As he’s initiated into Coon & Friends, you learn that Cartman wants to use the reward money to bankroll the franchise’s convoluted schedule of movies, streaming series and more for his Coon, Kyle’s Human Kite, Scott Malkinson’s Captain Diabetes and the rest of the roster.
In scenes with Cartman that structure what turns out to be a well-plotted arc, you select your New Kid’s own class-based super abilities. You also learn his origin story – which, like many of the best jokes in the game, punctures the boys’ superhero playtime conceit and hints at their very human vulnerabilities, in this case Cartman’s. The Fractured But Whole is similarly funny when the boys have to suspend battles because a car is crossing the street, or when one fussily changes the rules of battle on the fly.
Less funny are the scenes where you select the New Kid’s sex, gender, ethnicity and race. The first two take place with guidance counsellor Mr Mackey, the second two with newer character PC Principal. Laudable as it is for any video game to allow you to mirror your own identity in your character so articulately, this is South Park – so Parker delivers Mackey’s dialogue with a restrained frivolity that almost sounds sarcastic. It’s as if he’s saying, “This is stupid, but I have to do it.”
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The rest of the humour in The Fractured But Whole (for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC) is hit or miss. Its main superhero send-up has little oomph, but it lands a good shot once in awhile.
And for every Sober Towelie or Red Wine Drunk Randy boss fight, there’s one with women you can “pimp slap” into fighting on your side, or bumbling Catholic priests who want to rape you. The latter, plus a few missions that see you beating up innocent black suspects at the behest of the South Park Police Department, reinforce how predictably shallow Stone and Parker’s satire has got recently. They prefer the silly and the absurd to actually saying anything, cheap laughs to ones that provoke a look at their unjust origins.
The switch from TV to games could explain that, and to the South Park creators’ credit, a few gags in The Fractured But Whole mine humour from that switch. Ubisoft San Francisco takes care of the rest, smartly redesigning what was a breeze of a battle system in Obsidian Entertainment’s The Stick of Truth. Now, your party of the New Kid and three supporting superheroes are positioned on a grid. Each of their four attacks covers different patterns of the grid, and some deal cumulative damage to enemies in the same row.
As a result, you must assemble and manoeuvre your Coon & Friends team with more care. Some battles also throw obstacles into the mix or assign you additional spatial objectives, like walls of death you have to avoid. You can’t just mindlessly spam attacks like in The Stick of Truth. But at the same time, only one highly difficult secret boss battle forced me to fully engage with these systems, carefully picking party members and attacks to eek out a win only after about 10 tries. So it might still be wise for RPG veterans to play on high difficulty.
What also improves your New Kid’s fate in battle are stat-boosting artefacts, which can often be found in the town of South Park or crafted from raw materials you find there. The snowy Denver town is mostly the same as it was in The Stick of Truth. Much of the city’s loot is walled off, though, until your New Kid fully unlocks his most powerful ability. Which, of course, is farting. Which is taught to you, of course, by Morgan Freeman.
As the game goes on, you learn farts that lift you to rooftops and clear lava, as well as ones you can use in battle. And those – namely a fart that cancels an opponent’s turn – defang the game’s battles more than any other attack. But the farts are so non-stop they also function as a sort of ambient soundtrack to The Fractured But Whole.
It’s the same wet, rumbling noise Parker and Stone once used to skewer the movies of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider for being so interchangeable. The irony, though, is that now it’s South Park that is fighting franchise fatigue.