South Park: The Stick of Truth saw the famously vulgar TV show move into the world of video games yet again with an RPG that went down a storm with both fans of the series and gamers in general, mixing engaging combat with the typical South Park flair that we've come to know and love, and that's why South Park: The Fractured but Whole has been so highly anticipated. This time, though, the gang aren't playing around in a fantasy setting anymore, but instead, are moving into the realm of superheroes, and we got to see exactly what that meant when we played the game for an extended session in London recently.
When we first jumped in, it didn't take long for us to see just how true Ubisoft is being to the South Park tradition of throwing out offensive, un-PC humour, and believe it or not this was in the character creation. Once you'd selected your character and made them look the way you want, you're presented with a difficulty slider, and the harder you make the game the darker your character's skin got. Trust us, this was just the beginning, but it had us all in stitches, which is a great start.
All jokes aside (not for long), we were under the impression that the character customisation was a bit limited at first glance, with a selection of basic clothing and appearance options to select, but it turns out this is just a starting point, as you'll be finding more gear and customisation options as you go on your heroic journey, so it's just a case of being patient.
After we kitted out our character with the attire we wanted, we headed out as the king of the realm (those who played The Stick of Truth will be familiar with this), with incredible powers to match, and got a quick taste of the new grid-based combat before we enter Cartman's back yard. At this point, Cartman enters as The Coon and informs us of a terrible crime wave of cats going missing, at which point the theme switches to superheroes, the gang go into the Coon Lair, and we're left at the bottom rung again. That's life.
How does the nameless and still mute 'new kid' get up the pecking order of South Park heroes though? By Coonstagram of course. But before you do that, you have to listen to Cartman narrate your background story, which we won't spoil here, but it's incredibly funny. It also offers a quick tutorial for combat, including some big changes, one of which is that combat isn't split between two sides this time. Instead, a grid system means enemies can get either side of you, and attacks are dependent on that grid as well, making it much easier to plan your tactics and coordinate what you want to do.
Later on in the session, we got to experience more combat alongside three allies, and this showed us just how much it balances fun with accessibility. Each character has four skills, ranging from attacks to defensive abilities like shielding teammates, and experimenting with how to combine these to the best effect is not just satisfying, but also rewarding, as you can hit three enemies with a fart attack to gross them out (damage over time), before enraging one to direct attention to you, and knocking one back into another, for example. Considering there were plenty of characters in the menus that were greyed out, we can see there being a lot of variety in this department too, and choosing your 'superhero' team won't be easy.
Going back to Coonstagram, as you may have guessed this is based on Instagram, and replaces Facebook in the previous game. Your first job before you can take on anything big is to get out there and take selfies with people to gain followers for the collective cause, an objective that persists throughout the game, and you can pull funny faces while doing so. This got pretty old pretty quick, though, and we didn't pick it up again after the compulsory mission, especially since some won't even take pictures with you until you reach a certain number of followers.
Once we got past that pretty dull section, we headed out into the big wide world, as we received three missions at the church, school, and Raisins. The school one was pretty unremarkable, as all we got to do was choose which sex we identify as, and if you choose 'other' like we did, you get attacked outside by some locals - again a very sensitive topic considering the current era, but if anything can pull off risky jokes (because all of this is extremely over-the-top and ridiculous) it's South Park.
The Raisins mission sees you trying to find Mosquito, a fellow 'superhero', who has been enticed and charmed by the girls who work there (for those who don't know, it's a parody of Hooters). This then leads to a combat section where you and your allies fight against the Raisins girls, only to realise that their Charm ability can turn friends temporarily against you.
Then came the highlight of our session which took place in the church. We won't spoil it here, but we will say that if you can imagine that you're a young boy going into a Catholic church, you can imagine where a South Park game would take that scenario. And it's so much worse than you imagine.
Another aspect of the game we were introduced to - by Morgan Freeman at his taco place - was crafting, as you not only craft your own food items by combining two together, but you can also craft useful items as well, such as those to use in battle. You find components throughout South Park, whether they be in bags or in items you have to punch open, so it's worth exploring and looting everything just to give you the healthiest inventory.
What impressed us most about the game, though, was the scope and scale. The world map of South Park gives you a huge number of areas to explore, some of which are tactically locked off until you acquire certain skills, and secrets are abundant as well. This map can be traversed either on foot, or by the strategic fast-travel checkpoints dotted around, and combat can be initiated at various points within the world as well, whether that's with 'ninjas', locals, or Raisins girls.
Couple this with the fact that everything and everywhere we saw offered fresh jokes and natural dialogue, and there seems to be a lot of promise and depth on offer. This doesn't just count for cutscenes either, as there's also a back-and-forth between characters in combat that offers comedy throughout, and in our three hours of time with the game, we didn't notice any repetition in the lines thrown out by any of the characters.
All in all, we came away from our time with The Fractured but Whole entertained and surprised, as even when you know what to expect in terms of content, South Park still manages to shock you and make you laugh. The ESRB rating seems to suggest there's more where that came from, and with a revamped combat system and a big wide world to explore, it looks like this may be another hit for fans of the series.
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