By embracing the storytelling leaning of the RPG genre, The Fractured But Whole captures the outrageous essence of the show; by building up on the gameplay of its predecessor, it constructs the ultimate South Park gaming experience
The South Park television series has been no stranger to attempts at translating its brand of intentionally offensive and highly satirical humor to videogame consoles. Most of these endeavors, though, failed to successfully capture the aura of the cartoon and materialize it in satisfying electronic entertainment. From the 64-bit and simply titled South Park (an odd first-person shooter) to South Park: Tenorman’s Revenge (a platforming sidescroller), released in 2012, all those projects were met with critical response that ranged from poor to mediocre and, most importantly, failed to leave any sort of mark both in the gaming world and in the hearts of fans of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s popular and polemic creation.
Surely, given those titles lacked in technical terms, it is easy to claim they were negatively affected by the industry’s common tendency to quickly build games based on popular franchises with the sole goal of riding that popularity to at least decent sales and profit from the huge gap between the money invested in the project and the money spent by costumers hoping they are buying a faithful and worthy recreation of the universe they admire.
The main failure of those games, though, was found somewhere else. Regardless of gameplay hiccups, the fact of the matter was that the soul of South Park was often lost in the translation between the two medias. Using South Park assets to dress up shooters, platformers, kart racing insanity, party games, and tower defense gameplay just did not do the franchise any justice.
If the greatness of the cartoon can be pinpointed to any specific element, it can probably be attributed to how amidst all slur, profanity, madness, and violence that takes place in that little town there is just a group of relatively naive kids trying to have fun and navigate through the thickness of the adults’ lack of sense and judgment; it is in the joining of numerous ridiculously absurd storylines, and in the conflict between exaggerated childhood and adulthood, that the fun lies. And no amount of work that could squeeze all of that into a trivia game or a platformer.
And that is where the role-playing genre comes in. With its strong leaning towards plot development and character interactions, RPGs turned out to be the perfect grounds on which South Park could find a chance to heal its past gaming woes and come across an environment where it could run free while mocking conservatives and liberals alike, making poignant – yet funny in a rather dark way – statements on the police and racial profiling, and possibly arguing about the pointlessness of science, among others. It may be odd to think of Cartman, Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and their various friends as the main characters of a gameplay style often reserved to medieval or futuristic settings; however, since EarthBound blazed the trail of contemporary kids starring in an RPG and going against the lunacy of society back in 1994, South Park is happy to follow in its footsteps and tackle small-town America head-on.
Where in EarthBound the leading kids were willing adventurers ready to rid the world of the personification of evil; in The Fractured But Whole, the kids are – as it is bound to happen in the television show – accidentally dragged into a very odd and ugly reality. After playing the role of traditional medieval-fantasy characters, such as mages, kings, and princesses, in The Stick of Truth, the beginning of this second installment of South Park’s venture into RPGs sees the children drop those costumes, embrace the current superhero fad that has taken over the entertainment world, and create their own mightily powerful alter egos.
Divided into two groups, Coon and Friends (led by Cartman) and Freedom Pals (led by Timmy), they forge a rivalry over which of the two teams will get to build their own cinematic universe (apparently, with numerous Netflix series included). Vying for the funds to start such an ambitious project, the ex-friends (fractured amongst themselves but whole within their souls) set out to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of a neighborhood cat and grab the eye-popping one-hundred-dollar prize.
The Fractured But Whole does not, for a second, lose sight of the fact these are just a bunch energetic kids playing around in quickly put together superhero garments. Unfortunately, both for them and for those linked to the cat’s vanishing, not only do they take their role-playing extremely seriously but their dedication to the future of their cinematic universes will launch them towards a dark and dangerous conspiracy that is brewing in the back alleys of South Park. And by freely walking around town and doing battle against hired ninjas, angry sixth-graders, prostitutes, rednecks, and other sorts of memorable types, the kids will take part in an adventure that is memorable for its moments that spark genuine laughter as well as for the very solid gameplay it boasts.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole presents a very pleasant balance between actual playing and story development. Whether one is taking care of one of the sidequests that are available around town (which are not that many) or following the path of the main tread of plot, it is hard to go through long periods of time without watching a cutscene that, in terms of look and content, could easily be a part of the show. Such a strong cinematic vain is never overbearing.
Firstly, because the writing is very entertaining (at least for admirers of the show’s humor, who are, in the end, those who are most likely to play the game); secondly, because, taking advantage of the title’s twenty-hour length, the story has all the content and turns of the plot of a South Park movie. In fact, this cinematic content is so appealing that although sidequests do offer their share of interesting battles and need for exploration, it is probable many players will go after them mainly because not activating one means missing out on another wacky occurrence or flagrant satire.
In terms of gameplay, The Fractured But Whole can be broken up into two different elements: exploration and battling. The former is relatively simple, by walking around the titular town it is possible to enter all buildings and interact with pretty much all characters.
The first activity is important because opening drawers, backpacks, and other objects with either zippers or handles highlighted in yellow allows the playable character, known as The New Kid or Butthole, to collect cash and items of various importance, from artifacts that can be equipped to improve one’s stats to assets that can be used in recipes to make potions, antidotes, reviving medicines, costumes, specific artifacts, and others. The second one, meanwhile, both holds entertainment value, as it allows the uncovering of some pretty neat dialogue lies, and practical purpose, as, early in the game, The New Kid is tasked by Cartman with garnering a large number of followers on Coonstagram, which is done by taking selfies with as many people as possible.
A few hindrances, though, harm the exploration to a certain degree, even if they do not render it unpleasant. Although South Park has plenty of fast travel locations, it is only possible to access the system and ask the speedster Jimmy for quick transportation by actually standing on one of those points, which sometimes entails quite a bit of walking.
Thankfully, South Park is nicely structured and not too big, which makes distances relatively short most of the time; the problem with that necessity to move around a lot, however, stems from how absurdly frequent and somewhat long the loading times are, which can make sections of the game that are heavy on exploration be slightly annoying. Sometimes even moving in between two rooms in the same house will trigger the loading screen, which comes off as strange given the Switch is a system that can seamlessly handle long trips through the gargantuan overworld of Breath of the Wild. Finally, and as a nitpick, The New Kid receives notifications on the existence of sidequests directly into his phone, which causes those tasks to be marked on his map. Even though it is quite nice to be called by a character in need of help out of the blue, it takes away the opportunity to actively find extra activities by actually exploring the world, which would be fun given how alluring South Park and its characters are.
The main component of the exploration, which seems to have been directly borrowed from the Paper Mario games, comes in the form of puzzles that require The New Kid to either use firecrackers or his powerful fart to interact with the scenario, or call upon another superhero ally so the two can join their powers to overcome an obstacle. Truth be told, all puzzles are pretty straightforward and rarely climb above being decent, as very obvious cues indicate what needs to be done.
Nevertheless, it is undeniably fun to see how The New Kid will use his mighty gassy exuberance, be it alongside some of his friends or alone, to move forward, such as farting on Captain Diabetes’ (Clyde’s) face to make him so mad he will gain enough extra force to bring down the heaviest objects or unleashing a fart so strong (taught to the New Kid by a Taco-selling Morgan Freeman) that it rips the fabric of the universe and allows the character to manipulate time in distinct ways.
When it comes to battling, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, certainly trying not to lose the grasp on a part of the audience that loves the show but dislikes some aspects of the traditional RPG experience, simplifies and streamlines a lot of the genre’s quirks. That is not to say the game lacks in strategic depth: it is actually pretty packed with it, more so than The Stick of Truth. The Fractured But Whole employs the Mario RPG strategy of making its battles interactive, not too challenging (albeit a few conflicts will probably have some players stumped for a short while), and building them around concepts that are easy to learn and that at the same time preserve a satisfyingly big wiggle room to those who want to go crazy in the strategic department.
First of all, the game does away with random battles. In fact, all mandatory enemy encounters in The Fractured But Whole are neatly written into the storyline and happen as a consequence of some plot-related conflict, which is by a solid margin one of the game’s greatest achievements. The battles that do happen outside the storyline are not many and also easily avoidable: the few enemies that are out lurking on the streets of South Park, such as sixth-graders with a dirty mouth or Raisins girls that have it in for The New Kid, always appear on specific locations and can be ignored with the simple act of walking. Furthermore, running away from those skirmishes does not cause one to be awfully underleveled, as the scripted conflicts are more than enough for players to earn all experience points that are necessary to get to the game’s finish line.
In the field of battle, The New Kid and his partners – usually three allies that can be chosen from a roster that will have reached twelve superheroes by the game’s final stretch – take turns moving around a grid while picking from a pool of three normal attacks and a special move that can be triggered once a party-shared power bar is full. In contrast with the battle system of The Stick of Truth – as well as those from most RPGs – characters get to move around a grid that encompasses the whole battlefield, a fact that adds stunning strategic value to the combats. With the exception of The New Kid’s time-altering farting powers (which can be activated every three rounds or so), all attacks, status-inducing moves, healing skills, or items (from potions to objects that summon hilarious assist characters) only have effects over a specific area of the arena, which can vary widely.
Physical moves, for example, are bound to only hit enemies standing on squares that are adjacent to the one the hero is on; psychic powers, meanwhile, tend to have far longer range; additionally, some attacks are able to knock rivals back onto hazards or other foes (hence causing extra damage) while some moves have downright odd hit patterns, which can go from diagonal lines to squares, arrows, and hammer-like shapes. Therefore, players need to be aware of their position and that of their enemies all the time to both avoid dangers and maximize attack opportunities. Characters placed too close to one another, for instance, are an excellent opportunity for the other side to strike them down simultaneously or temporarily alter their status by freezing them, making them bleed or sick, confusing their minds, charming them, among others.
The Fractured But Whole is absolutely bursting with options. Even though some of the children belong to the same class, their deck of attacks is always completely unique, because all their moves are directly and creatively related to the superhero persona they chose to embrace. Wonder Tweek and The Human Kite (Kyle), for example, are both elementalists; but while the former uses his hyperactive mind as the source of his attacks, Kyle employs the badassery of the kite he has humorously strapped to his back. In a way, The New Kid is the perfect example of that variety. When the game starts, players are forced to assign a single class to their character.
However, as the adventure progresses, it is possible to mix a whopping three classes (picked out of a pool of twelve) and build a four-attack deck out of the choices available, which makes up for an astounding level of customization and invites a whole lot of experimentation. In addition, for every level he gains, The New Kid earns a new slot (maxing out at nine) into which players can equip an artifact that will increase not only his individual stats (such as physical power and movement) but also a variety of abilities of the entire party (like the damage done by induced stats or by knocking back enemies onto others).
Battles also have a certain interactive value, because pretty much all attacks can be nicely powered up by pressing the A-button at the correct moment and, likewise, all incoming blows can have their produced damage reduced through the same mean. It is by doing so that the bar that allows the unleashing of a special attack by one of the members of the party is filled up; and even though other more mundane actions also fill it up to a certain degree, landing those quick time events with precision is by far the most effective way of doing so, which makes it quite important that players get the timing of attacking and defending down.
Together, all those elements make up for a battle system that is incredibly enjoyable, not only because it is a blast to watch the South Park kids take on the role of fearless and slightly clumsy heroes but also due to how enemies can be brought down in a number of fun and equally effective ways, letting players roam free with their strategic planning.
The Fractured But Whole, therefore, astonishingly demolishes all hurdles that were on the way of the creation of a South Park game that would perfectly capture the spirit of the franchise and translate it to a language spoken by glorious gaming machines. By building on top of the ground laid down by The Stick of Truth, it assembles an RPG experience that topples it, especially regarding the notable enhancements implemented into the battle system. While The Fractured But Whole does suffer from a few issues regarding its exploration element plus a few annoying bugs that haunt the Switch version, it thrives when combat takes place or when the sheer insanity of the universe of South Park is unleashed onto the screen.
As a good representation of the South Park franchise, The Fractured But Whole does nothing to please an audience that is disgusted or unmoved by the show’s humor, as it obviously prefers to make use of its precious time to either ignore those folks or keep on making them sick. For everyone else, though, The Fractured But Whole is the ultimate South Park gaming experience, for it dresses up the kids they have grown to love in a fantastic theme, catapults the children onto bizarre situations that go out of their way to point the finger at or bother as many people as possible, and throws them into delightful battles against the madness of society, drunk parents, and satanic creatures alike. Nobody escapes a good beating, and absolutely no one is free from the alluring tastelessness of the South Park canon of offenses and criticisms.