Cats are missing, farts smell worse than ever, and there's a new Kingpin tearing up South Park.
The new kid is back in town, or well, he picks things up right where we left them in The Stick of Truth, but Cartman has a new idea. No longer interested in playing kings, wizards, he tells kids of South Park that they need to play as superheroes again. Afterall, Scrambles the cat is missing and there's a big superhero franchise to build with movies, spin-offs, Netflix series, etc.
There is certainly something magical about walking around South Park, interacting with the various inhabitants, much like in The Stick of Truth. While The Coon and his superhero friends were seen in the 13th and 14th seasons of South Park (aired in 2009 and 2010), the game certainly stands on its own. It borrows much from X-Men and in particularly Days of Future Past with its time travelling theme. Of course, the original shows also had Mint-Berry Crunch who was kind of the New Kid, but sadly he was nowhere to be seen in the game; maybe there's a cereal-flavoured easter egg we've missed.
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The various superheroes (and villains) the kids dress up as are hilarious, and it's delightful to interact with Wendy as Call-Girl, Butters as Professor Chaos, Kenny as Mysterion, Kyle as Human Kite, Scott Malkinson as Captain Diabetes, and all the rest of them. At the end of the game, you will have unlocked the kids as playable characters, some of the as puzzle-solving tools, and a tremendous amount of the enjoyment comes from switching out the characters in combat and making use of all of them. The new kid will eventually learn to harness the time-bending qualities of his farts (thanks in part to burritos and Morgan Freeman).
Overall, the narrative feels very current, and while it is still silly, it feels fairly focused on a few key subjects including the current state of America, police and racial profiling, gender, and as always South Park points out problematic areas while making us laugh. One such example is the difficulty slider at the start that lets you pick skin colour. Now, while this doesn't affect your actual level of difficulty in the game, there is an achievement for playing the game on the highest difficulty with the darkest tone of skin, and the main storyline sees you taking down "drug dealers" on orders from the police chief. On a less serious note, the game tackles our fascination with social media and you'll be collecting followers on Coonstagram by taking selfies with various individuals in town (often you'll have to complete specific tasks to unlock the option). It all ties very neatly together and the various strands all fit into the greater narrative, and the finale wraps it up very nicely in a time-twisting bow.
One of the big changes compared to The Stick of Truth is the added layer of strategy that moving freely around the grind offers. Before you decide what to do you can move around the grid to position yourself for maximum effect. Pushing enemies into each other or your fellow superheroes and causing status effects are also important ingredients (fart on an enemy before the encounter and they'll start it "grossed out" and vomiting). Overall, the combat is enjoyable and surprisingly deep, but it's not as varied as we first thought and the grunt encounters will feel a bit meaningless after a while, just like in most role-playing games. You'll enjoy it more if you constantly switch the three heroes you bring into combat and you're always free to do so before a standard encounter.
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While you level up and earn XP in the game, the key way in which you power your character is in the artifact slots you unlock as you level up. Here you can place various artifacts (different types and variants are given as quest rewards, found, crafted, or bought at vendors) boosting your might (base stats), but also granting you various perks (more knockback damage, boosting ally health, etc). It's a simple system; you can simply focus on just placing the artifacts that boost your might the most, but to really get the most out of your team you should also have perks that boost their abilities. If you use powers with lots of pushing it may be cool to increase the knockback damage, or if you tend to inflict a lot of status effects maybe boosting the effectiveness of those is the way to go, certain boss encounters will require specific approaches though.
As longtime viewers, we came to appreciate the many Easter eggs and references in town. You'll be collecting Member Berries and yaoi paintings of Tweek and Craig, you can go see the wall keeping you out of Canada, and PC Principal is there to lay down the law as the most hands-on Social Justice Warrior you can think of. In fact, PC Principal will teach you a mechanic that allows you to stamp out micro-aggressions in the middle of combat (it's a silly little mechanic, but it made us laugh every time it happened). There is an artifact that references one of our favourite recent episodes (Cock Magic), and well, that's probably our main concern about the story here. There's just not enough Randy Marsh. But then again we can never have enough Randy Marsh. Another favourite of ours, Mr. Mackey, has a somewhat bigger part to play as he lets you delve into your gender and sexual orientation, he also leads an extremely entertaining counselling session with Tweek and Craig.
The Fractured but Whole is fan service at its best. There's such a tremendous attention to detail, from the songs you'll remember that are played over loudspeakers in stores, to the tons of collectibles and items referencing various episodes, and the wardrobes of the kids or family garages. A tremendous amount of work has been put into animations and characters, and it looks just like an episode of the TV show. If you strip all that off though, what you're left with is a fairly basic if enjoyable RPG. There's not as much depth or variation here as you'd see in a major AAA RPG and walking around town with numerous loading screens (albeit brief ones) feels a bit archaic. We experienced a couple of instances where the game locked up while loading an encounter (playing on PS4 Pro), but from a technical perspective, the game feels polished.
It took us about 20 hours to play through The Fractured but Whole as we tried to complete most of the content including collectibles, there is more for those looking to claim all the achievements and trophies, but the main bulk of the content is in story missions and in side quests. There are lots of special encounters and boss fights, sometimes with weird alternative objectives, sometimes there's cheating, but this fourth wall breaking stuff (at times encounters in the street will pause as a car needs to pass) is where the game really excels. It's all very serious to the kids (and to the town's people), yet red Lego bricks are lava (and you'll burn if you touch them) and you'll need to team up with Tool-Shed and his sandblaster to clear these obstructions.
In fact, for the most part, the game feels so bespoke that you're always a bit disappointed when lines repeat in the open-world or during combat. It feels as if maybe we don't need to hear the guy at the bus stop complain that he's waited on the bus for three years a dozen times. And there are a couple of girls you'll walk by complaining about the lack of female heroes in town over and over. The latter is rather clever and perfectly in line with the themes, but still, when the game does such a great job making you feel like you're playing the TV series these repeating lines kind of break that immersion.
South Park: The Fractured but Whole ties together the storylines of the two games neatly. And in many ways, this is what a video game adaptation of a popular franchise should look like. This has been a true collaboration and you can really tell how much effort has gone into the various elements. The attention to detail is commendable. We suspect fans of South Park will really enjoy this one, unless you're Kanye West that is...
8 / 10
Great fan service, Tackles contemporary subjects in typical South Park fashion, Lots of collectibles and plenty to do, Superb writing, Great boss encounters.
At its core a fairly basic RPG, Some repeating lines and grunt encounters, Not enough Randy Marsh.