South Park: The Stick of Truth was a breath of fresh air when it came to video game adaptations of South Park. Before Stick of Truth, South Park games were seen as a write-off, the exact kind of cash-in title that gamers should avoid due to shallow gameplay and little appeal, but Stick of Truth changed things by being incredibly faithful to the show and enjoyable for its own mechanics and situations. When a sequel was announced, there was reason to be excited, but when South Park: The Fractured But Whole came out, it was clear things weren’t quite the same. Stick of Truth threw in every thing it could get away with in regards to references to the show and had a variety of insane scenarios that lampooned video games and stood as hilarious moments in their own right. Fractured But Whole had a tough act to follow, but strangely, the direction the designers chose to go meant you’d get a longer game but with a smaller scope.
The story begins coming right off the end of South Park: The Stick of Truth. You play as the new kid in town after his exploits in the previous game, but rather than playing the same high fantasy adventure of last time, the fourth grade boys decide its time to change the game their playing to superheroes, essentially resetting things and wiping the slate clean of the previous title’s elements. Taking a cue from the Marvel cinematic universe, the boys want to turn their game of superheroes into a multi-million dollar media franchise, but the group is split on how to go about doing this, forming two opposing superhero teams that come into conflict over the course of the game. Their superhero game begins with the simple goal of trying to find a lost cat for the reward money, but over time the story spirals off into them getting involved in the affairs of crime bosses and unusual villains. The climb to absurdity is surprisingly slow, and thus some of the humor drags along as well. The trademark brand of South Park humor is in tact, with heavy leanings towards satire, toilet humor, deliberate offensiveness, and outlandish situations, but the game gets caught up on some running jokes that don’t really carry well across a potentially 15 hour experience. The player’s character, no matter what superhero path they go down, ultimately still has the superpower of farting, so if that kind of humor doesn’t do it for you at the start, don’t expect it to grow on you through repeated exposure. Also, over the course of the game there’s an all too real side story about your parents fighting that isn’t really presented in a humorous way and just makes that part legitimately uncomfortable for a game that otherwise wants you to giggle at juvenile humor. References to the show are abundant but often subtle to prevent some alienation, with a trend towards stuff from the newer episodes while still pulling out some surprises from the early seasons as well. None of them ruin the experience if you don’t get the callback, but one part does have some villains from the show just walk on the screen and fight, the context not given for those who don’t know why these characters would be here at all or why we should even be worried about them.
What might have worked in a single episode of South Park gets strained from the need to be carried out so long here, and in some ways it does feel like a really long T.V. episode in both good and bad ways. The game is certainly faithful, many stills of the game’s action looking like they could be from an actual episode, and all the voice actors and places in the town are present, even if they’ll seem a bit too familiar if you’ve played Stick of Truth. There are, however, a few audio glitches that can yank a player out of the otherwise interesting cutscenes, such as playing a scene’s dialog again before it’s finished.
The scope is surprisingly small for a game that is over thirty times longer than a episode of the show, and while it has plenty of hilarious and insane moments, it also has a lot of side quests that don’t really have much of a narrative to them. Rather than being a good vehicle for a joke, they’re often just tasks to complete with minimal rewards, although some like the cell phone store quest do make for a fun diversion. This does mostly relate to how the game has you navigate the town of South Park though and the rewards waiting for you if you choose to explore outside of the main story. As this is a superhero story, your costume is given a big focus despite not effecting gameplay at all, but getting more pieces for your wardrobe is often related to the optional tasks you can complete. Very rarely do these involve interesting battles or exploring new areas, as most of them are just doing the right thing when you have the right quest available or partner to help you explore. These feel more like diversions than truly interesting side quests, but at least they don’t wear out their welcome and they can give you something to do as you roam about. Almost every area will have something small for you to do, whether its looting objects for the game’s crafting system, playing a toilet minigame, or collecting things to help complete one of the many meters that pop up on your screen that track progress.
For the battles though, Fractured But Whole builds up a rather interesting system, even if it feels a bit underexplored. Battles take place on a grid divided into squares, characters usually only filling a single box unless they’re gargantuan boss characters. A huge emphasis is placed on the positioning and movement of your band of heroes, their skills having varying ranges and ways to knock enemies about. There’s plenty of afflictions to give your foes, moves to send them smacking into an ally for a combo attack, and skills that make them lose a turn or even fight on your side, so the variety in your skill set is certainly there. Each of your allies has fairly unique capabilities, and while some are certainly better than others, very few ever feel like useless burdens if the story necessitates their presence in a fight. The kids, despite picking some unusual superhero alter egos like The Human Kite and a girl who has a utility belt full of cell phones, have some creative skills that don’t sacrifice usefulness for being interesting and quirky. As the main character, you get to customize your appearance as well as your own set of powers, selecting classes that change your abilities and gradually unlocking more over time. There are timed button presses to make your attacks do more damage or have your characters heal a bit after they are hurt, but none of it is required so your attacks are guaranteed to work, they just might not be as effective as they could be. It is also pretty charming to see the ways the fact this is just a game in the kid’s heads take effect in battle such as red LEGO being treated as lava and having to stop fighting in the street to let cars pass, although the game does ignore that concept as you fight people who aren’t in on the illusion. It’s likely you’ll settle into a comfortable set of powers and partners over time, but as long as your bases are covered, the game doesn’t really punish you for this, as you level up the combined strength of your full team instead of having to boost certain allies. In fact, the game is quite open to you adjusting its combat, with an option in the start menu that can change its difficulty at any time.
However, combat in general really isn’t too hard on any setting. Save a few bosses with incredible skills, battles are heavily tipped towards the player as long as their might rating is at the level the game warns you about to keep you from entering battles unprepared. You can tinker with the combat setting to make things tougher, but enemy skills are often limited and your skills are abundant and varied, with multiple small advantages given to the player as the game progresses. For the most part, this doesn’t mean battles are bad though, they can still be enjoyable to figure out as the battlefield has new obstacles to avoid or enemies keep joining the battle. There are even battles that introduce elements that aren’t restricted to the turn-based limitations of the normal combat, meaning you’ll have to act fast or face the consequences. The main issue is that it makes most optional battles not worth your time. The rewards for fighting foes you don’t need to face are minimal, and the turn-based tactical approach the game encourages means battles feel long even when they might not be. Basically, battles in the script give you unique challenges and up the ante where appropriate, but the basic optional battles the game tries to spring on you are not worth the time or effort and just slow down the game.
THE VERDICT: The shadow of Stick of Truth looms large over South Park: The Fractured But Whole. While the superhero direction is handled well, with silly moments parodying superhero media and plenty of callbacks to the show, some of it might not work well without proper knowledge of certain movies or episodes of South Park. The combat is solid and interesting, just not strong enough to support optional engagement in it, and the plot feels too long likely because of the long battles and lesser scope than Stick of Truth. A South Park fan is likely to like it, someone who doesn’t care for the show’s humor isn’t likely to be converted, but ultimately, while it’s not as good as its predecessor, it does at least carry on the important parts of what made it good and faithful and does enough new that it doesn’t feel like a complete retread.
And so, I give South Park: The Fractured But Whole for Xbox One…
A GOOD rating. Hit and miss humor is likely to be found in any game that tries to be funny, but Fractured But Whole is a lasts quite a while and that means the misses have a little too long to sink in. Condensing the start would have really allowed the sillier and more fun moments from later in the game to shine, the kind of moments where the humor doesn’t need to work as the tone of absurdity can carry it even if you aren’t laughing. While enjoyment of South Park’s brand of humor will be the deal breaker for many, if you are willing to give it a try, the core game mechanics are strong and interesting to engage with even if they don’t go as far as they could have. Unfortunately, a lot of the optional content involves simple tasks with simple rewards, but the core story is a bit more intelligent in keeping things varied and giving the player new abilities and unique tasks to complete.
While it was a step down compared to the previous title, South Park: The Fractured But Whole still does not sink into the mire of older adaptations. It’s a good game for a South Park fan, it still stands as one of the most faithful adaptations of anything into a video game, and it tells a unique story that has the elements that make the show its based on enjoyable, they’re just a little too spread out to pack the punch South Park is famed for.