Early in South Park: The Fractured But Whole, you go up against an enemy kid who cheats. He complains that your last attack shouldn’t count, which heals him to full strength. Then, whining that you didn’t listen when he called “time out,” he steals your turn.
It’s an enjoyable reminder of the game’s stakes. Despite its constant flirtations with hot-button national issues, The Fractured But Whole is about a bunch of kids cracking jokes and playing make-believe.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole, like 2014’s The Stick of Truth before it, is set in a world where the battle system is imaginary. It’s a turn-based RPG with some tactical elements. You walk around town, talk to your favorite characters from the shows, and get into lots of fights. This time around, the kids have cynically ditched their swords and spells in favor of a more lucrative genre: superheroes. You, playing as a customizable hero with your very own class and origin story, team up with Cartman (The Coon), Kyle (Human Kite), Craig (Super Craig), and a bunch of other kids who go to school by day and fight crime by night.
But they’re playing pretend. Whether the children of South Park are waging war against malevolent sixth graders or crooked cops, they are governed by rules that they all agreed upon, with powers they invented. Kyle can soar into the sky and shoot laser beams. Craig can enrage enemies by flipping them off. And you, selecting between classes like Elementalist and Assassin, can use abilities ranging from the mundane (punching people in the face) to the outlandish (summoning a giant drone) and the supernatural (conjuring a prison of ice).
It’s never really clear how much of this superhero game is fact and how much is fiction, but that’s the point. The Fractured But Whole’s best jokes take advantage of its ambiguous reality. You can’t cross those red Lego bricks, because the kids declared that they’re lava. If your character walks on them, you’ll actually combust into flames. You can only move a certain number of spots during combat, unless a car is coming, and everyone has to quickly relocate. And if Kyle’s whiny cousin decides that an attack doesn’t count, then it doesn’t count.
In 2014, developer Obsidian broke new ground with South Park: The Stick of Truth, the first South Park game designed to be an authentic recreation of the show, complete with writing and voice acting by show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Publisher Ubisoft switched to its internal San Francisco studio for The Fractured But Whole, and there are some structural and mechanical differences, but for the most part, this is more of the same. More fart jokes, more video game meta gags, more shock humor, more fan service, and more ridiculous premises. Like Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole is full of beautiful animation, technical issues, and silly banter. It’s slicker overall, and with more interesting combat. But it’s also less surprising. Nothing in Fractured But Whole lives up to dodging your dad’s massive balls or catching that first glimpse of 8-bit Canada.
Like the show that inspired it, South Park: The Fractured But Whole is full of contradictions. It is at times poignant and hilarious, and at times tries a bit too hard to be provocative. Critics have slammed the show over the years for using satire not to illuminate issues but to declare that everything sucks. The Fractured But Whole occasionally makes those same stumbles. Yet its charms, as when it riffs on the idea of overly imaginative kids run amok, are impossible to deny.
The youth of South Park haven’t donned superhero capes and masks out of a desire to make the world a better place. They’re in it for the money, and their goal is to build up a franchise, through films, TV shows, and a Netflix series. (As Cartman explains early in the game: “With great power comes great chicks and money.”) Before the events of Fractured But Whole, however, their superhero group splintered. Some of the kids left Cartman’s gang, Coon and Friends, to start their own organization, Freedom Pals, because they disagreed over who should get the first film. Others stayed by Cartman’s side, which is where you start the game.
Fractured But Whole is set amidst this Marvel-style Civil War, as the two squads of heroes compete to track down a missing cat and eventually unravel an elaborate plot involving racist cops, illicit drugs, adults behaving badly, mafia dons, time traveling farts, and the return of a mysterious villain from South Park’s past. What makes the story work, as usual, is the contrast between the naivety of the children and the horror of the events happening around them.
To build up your franchise, you’ll wander around the town of South Park, engaging in menial tasks that feel like they would’ve been a punchline on the show. The Fractured But Whole, like many other Ubisoft games, barrages you with notifications about all the things you have to do and collect. You’re asked to go collect yaoi drawings of Tweek and Craig, hunt down cats for Big Gay Al, and do a number of other sidequests with no real reward other than the joy of exploring South Park. That may be reward enough for many fans, though it’s less fresh the second time around. At least the dialogue, written by Parker and Stone, stays entertaining throughout the game.
When you’re not exploring the town or watching cutscenes, you’ll be fighting. Fractured But Whole’s combat system takes the turn-based battles of Stick of Truth and adds a dash of strategy games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. Rather than stand in one place and attack, you and your party will now fight enemies on a grid-based battlefield. Positioning is important. Some characters’ abilities can only damage enemies who are standing on neighboring tiles; other abilities will knock enemies back and forth across the battlefield. In addition to attacking and healing, you’ll always have to be thinking about where you’re standing.
It’s consistently fun, if easy (even on the highest of the game’s three difficulty modes). The small battlefields and limited ability options don’t leave you with many interesting decisions in combat, but the writing and animation make up for any mechanical shallowness. Every battle is full of banter and what appears to be customized dialogue, based on the situation and your party makeup. Wendy, who steals the show as the whiz hacker superhero Call Girl, is full of compliments for her sometimes-boyfriend Stan (aka Toolshed). Team her up with Cartman, though, and the two will fire back and forth like the old rivals they are. Even lesser-known characters like Clyde (aka The Mosquito) have amusing exchanges with enemies. (“I didn’t know mosquitos could be so tough,” says one. “Yeah,” Clyde fires back. “Ever heard of the Zika virus?”)
All of these characters have special combat animations for each attack, as does your main character. I started to treat the game’s many little flourishes almost like collectibles, hoping I could see them all. (One favorite: when Token, as the superhero Tupperware, gets the “grossed out” status effect and vomits into his plastic helmet.)
The other wrinkle in battle relates to your character’s butthole. I did not think I’d ever write those words on Kotaku.com, but here we are. By acquiring and eating special Mexican food, your main character can use his farts to change the course of time, both in and out of combat. While fighting, you can hold down the triggers to disrupt an enemy’s moves, freezing time to take away one of their turns or pause combat so you can punch them for a little while.
Some of these moves can lead to annoying glitches, unfortunately. Over the course of my playthrough I ran into one major crash and a handful of bugs including lipsynching errors and one boss battle where the music would stop every time a character started talking. Time-farts can lead to some weird technical bugs in combat. I also got to see Ms. Cartman duplicate, for some reason:
Even with those battle innovations, The Fractured But Whole can feel a bit conservative, which seems bizarre to say about a game that can be so deliberately depraved. It is a well-crafted game, and like its predecessor, it feels like an authentic recreation of South Park the show. It is full of shocking, outrageous moments. But it can also feel sanitized, like a Disney-fied rendition of a cartoon that won many early fans over with how crappy and explicitly un-Disney it was. It’s all just a little bit shiny, with quest popups and helpful hints everywhere you look, as if the developers were a bit too concerned with making sure nobody would get stuck, lost, or frustrated in any way.
While you’re exploring, you’ll find obstacles that can’t be surpassed until you’ve unlocked the right party member. To move heavy objects, for example, you need to call upon Scott Malkinson (aka: Captain Diabetes), who can enter a fit of diabetic rage when your character farts on his face. Problem is, every time you find a heavy object, the game all but gives you a big flashing sign saying “call Captain Diabetes!” You’re never actually making decisions. You just have to go through the motions.
In a recent episode of the podcast Still Processing, critics Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris talked about Dave Chappelle’s recent return to comedy and his use of shock humor to target vulnerable people. While reflecting on The Chappelle Show, they discussed the classic “Racial Draft” sketch, in which multiracial celebrities are divvied among races in a ranked sports draft that uses stereotypes to take aim at the coopting of identities. “The brilliance comes out of it because everyone gets to laugh,” said Wortham. “No one feels like they’re being laughed at.”
I wish all of South Park: The Fractured But Whole felt that way. There are some brilliant send-ups, like a level that takes you deep within a police station to learn why South Park’s cops are so racist. (The explanation is absurd.) There are moments when the game feels like it’s punching down, albeit charmingly, if that’s possible. And then there are a couple of scenes that made me wonder just what Trey Parker and Matt Stone were trying to say or accomplish, like a sidequest in which you have to smack prostitutes in order to charm them into turning on their pimp. There is no larger point, and the story doesn’t develop any further—you just slap some sex workers and move on. Ha, ha.
Of course, Parker and Stone have always been happy to indiscriminately hurl shock humor grenades, less concerned with what they’re hitting than with simply blowing up as much as possible. The Fractured But Whole is a good game, one that I’d recommend to anyone who likes South Park. It’s better than its predecessor but also not quite as revolutionary, and I hope that if Parker and Stone decide to make a third game, they take a more radical approach. I also hope they keep throwing grenades, even if I wish they were more selective about the targets.
In an old interview, Parker and Stone once claimed that their primary creative driving force has always been to make one another laugh, whether that’s through clever satire of video game tropes or just making dumb fart jokes. I’ve always found that to be admirable. However sprawling the South Park media empire has become, we’re still just watching two overgrown kids playing in their backyard, cracking jokes and pretending to be superheroes.