After a few delays, South Park – The Fractured but Whole finally arrives just in time for the holiday season. Does it live up to the standard set by The Stick of Truth?
The South Park TV series have been with us for a long time now, and the first games based on the franchise were released even before we started reviewing videogames back in 2002. They weren’t any good though, even by 1998/1999 standards, and the Nintendo 64 titles South Park and South Park: Chef’s Luv Shack are good examples of this. South Park Rally was a Mario Kart clone, but even that relatively simple formula didn’t result in a game worth playing. The Stick of Truth defied expectations when it came out in 2014, for the simple reason that it was both an excellent videogame and a great representation of South Park. The bar was re-set.
The key ingredient for any South Park production has to, of course, be the quality of the satirical writing behind it. This is where the early games failed and The Stick of Truth succeeded. Like that game, The Fractured but Whole is an RPG-like title – which works well with the emphasis on writing that a game like this requires. I could see South Park succeeding in a traditional adventure game as well, but that would probably alienate a lot of console gamers.
Who won’t be alienated are South Park fans. Ubisoft’s latest uses a lot of the actual assets from the TV show, making The Fractured but Whole look even more like the series than before. The opening portion of the game also takes you across nearly all of South Park and sees you running into a wide array of familiar characters, which is a great way of immersing you in the game world. Progress during this part of the game is relatively slow though, and it can take a few hours before you feel like you’ve properly started with the main quest.
The Fractured but Whole leaves the fantasy-inspired setting of its predecessor behind and instead focuses on superhero archetypes for its narrative. What unfolds beyond that isn’t radically different from a narrative perspective though, as the game plays out like an ultra-long South Park episode with a lot of the familiar kind of humor you’ve come to expect. There are crude bits here and there, but the best parts are the sections where the game is steeped in social commentary – including very current themes like racial tension and gender equality. Of course, as was the case in The Stick of Truth, it helps to be in touch with current US news – especially if you’re not living there.
Where combat in The Stick of Truth was JRPG-inspired with its turn-based mechanics, The Fractured but Whole adds a grid-based system to its confrontations – although they are still turn-based. I felt this was a welcome change, seeing as how a grid-based system allows for a layer of tactical depth that wasn’t previously there. Don’t expect XCOM or even Disgaea though – South Park delivers a “light” version of that kind of tactical combat.
As was expected – and as it should be – the main draw in the game is the quality of its writing. I think that any South Park game with gameplay dynamics that are good enough to not detract from the writing could potentially be a success, and The Fractured but Whole fits that formula – and then some. The gameplay isn’t just there to push the story forward, it’s also well-designed and fun – although the South Park flavor definitely adds to that as well (think of banter between characters during combat, for instance). If you don’t care about South Park then you’re better off ignoring this game, but if you enjoy its unique brand of humor then you owe it to yourself to pick this up. Playing as the “new kid in town”, this is the best option you have for being in an interactive episode of South Park – with a game that is slightly better and more polished than The Stick of Truth.