Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
Much like The Simpsons Game before it, 2014's South Park: The Stick of Truth was a spot-on adaptation of the titular cartoon in video game form. Even more so, in fact, for perfectly recreating the look of the 'toon, something most animation-inspired games don't get right.
Now we have the sequel, South Park: The Fractured but Whole, which once again brings the ribald cartoon to consoles and computers. While it does expand the combat in some interesting ways, and swaps the Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy motif for a Marvel Comics-style superhero aesthetic, this is still rather similar to the previous game. Not in a redundant kind of way, mind you. More like how last week's South Park episode "Franchise Prequel" had a different feel than season 18's "Freemium Isn't Free," but was still very much the same show.
For this review, I played through the game's main story while also doing many of the side quests and exploring as much of the town as I could. I wandered around. A lot. So much so that I lost track of time and almost missed the new episode that aired last week.
South Park: The Fractured but Whole will be released October 17.
Disclousure: Two of the writers on this game, Demian Linn and Crispin Boyer, are former game journalists and ex-coworkers of mine. I worked with them about fifteen years ago.
A direct sequel to South Park: The Stick of Truth, South Park: The Fractured but Whole once again has the kids playing pretend. This time, instead of dressing like wizards and warriors they're playing superhero. While this does mean they fight crime in this game, they're also fighting other kids, some parents, as well as each other, though mostly to see who'll get their own movie, and who'll just get a Netflix series.
SP:TFBW is inspired by the South Park episodes "The Coon" (from season 13) and the trilogy of "Coon 2," "Mysterion Rises," and "Coon Vs. Coon & Friends" (season 14). It is also connected to "Franchise Prequel," which aired the Wednesday before this game came out. SP:TFBW starts when Cartman realizes they need money if The Coon, Mysterion, and the rest of Coon & Friends are ever going to get their own Marvel Comics-esque franchise. To do this, they have to find a missing cat and collect the $100 reward.
What follows is, in typical South Park fashion, a rather free-form adventure that's as much about finding the cat as, well, Fallout 3 was about finding Liam Neeson (he's always in the last place you look). Which is to say you don't spend a lot of time looking for that darn cat.
Like the show, South Park: The Fractured but Whole has ribald jokes, outlandish situations, as well as social commentary that will undoubtedly rub some people the wrong way. When you're creating your character, for instance, the darkness of their skin is directly tied to the game's difficulty (save for combat, which has its own setting).
Suffice it to say, SP:TFBW will be offensive to anyone who's offended by the show. Maybe even more so since this doesn't bleep the f-word. So many uses of the f-word.
SP:TFBW also, of course, includes tons of references to the show. They range from the moo-ing aliens in "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe" to the memberberries from last season (member them?).
All of this makes SP:TFBW feel like a long, recent episode of the show. It’s not like an episode from the early days, when the show was less topical but more surreal and, well, funnier. Which isn't to say this isn't funny, just that it's more like last season's "Skank Hunt" than the first season's classic "Mecha-Streisand."
For the most part, SP:TFBW plays a lot like South Park: The Stick of Truth. That is to say that it's a role-playing game with turn-based combat. As you'd expect, it has all the usual RPG mechanics: leveling up, finding supplies, random fights, crafting system, and so on. Like in many fantasy RPGs, you have artifact slots where you can slot in augments that will improve your health recovery time, your critical strike damage, and other aspects of your physicality. All of these have a decidedly South Park-ian flavor about them. Sure, you can craft helpful pick-me-ups, but they're not potions, they're burritos.
There are even times in SP:TFBW when you have to complete loyalty missions like you did in Mass Effect 2. Well, not exactly the same. I don't remember having to toss firecrackers and fart so Tali'Zorah vas Neema could get her guinea pig back.
As for your general mobility, SP:TFBW is similar to that of an old school, 2D, side-scrolling adventure game, or a Telltale adventure if you prefer. You can usually move up and down as well as left to right as you click on everything yellow, hoping it'll reward you with some helpful loot. You can also ask other kids to help you explore, though only in certain situations. If you need to get up onto the roof of a building, for instance, you can ask Kyle to swing by so the two of you can do something you call "fartkour."
While SP:TFBW is very similar to SP:TSOT, there are some key differences. Most differences are connected to how the kids have stopped LAPRing The Lord of the Rings and are instead playing Superfriends.
First, and most obviously, your choice of character classes has changed, though not by a lot. Speedsters are quick like The Flash or Quicksilver, the Brutalist are the melee class, and the Blasters are ranged fighters. Later, you add a second discipline and have more variety to choose from here, especially since you don't have to combine an old one with a new if you don't want to.
While the general gameplay of SP:TFBW is as solid as its predecessor, it's not without its problems.
While you can mark mission objectives on the map, it doesn't activate an on-screen indicator as you walk around. This means you constantly have to flip between the map and the normal gameplay screen, especially when you're going somewhere that isn't just to the left or the right of your current position.
There are fast travel points around town, but they're few and far between. They're also the kind that only take from point to point; you can't fast travel from wherever you are to a fast travel point, nor can you go from a fast travel point to just anywhere in South Park. It forces you to grind since when you're walking around you get into random fights, but it's also annoying since it takes a while to walk across town.
While SP:TFBW employs turn-based combat, it doesn't work the same as it does in similar games. It's kind of a mix of turn-based and real-time combat.
Like some turn-based games, SP:TFBW has you teaming up with other characters to battle it out. Every character has their own special attacks, including some defensive moves and health regenerative options. Before a battle starts, you can even decide who you'd like as your associates.
Along with your choice of attacks, SP:TFBW also allows you to enjoy food and other items that can restore your health or clear up the infection you just got from that redneck. There are special items that you'll get by playing, such a macaroni picture of a Jewish star that can call forth the almighty Moses. You even have a rechargeable special attack that's not only strong, but so elaborate in their presentation that they're equally cinematic to special attacks in Injustice 2 and Marvel Vs. Capcom Infinite.
While you have to wait your turn before you can smack someone, the actual smacking often lets you strengthen your attack by hitting a button in real-time. You don't have to, of course, but it could mean the difference between life and death. Or, rather, life and having to start over from the last checkpoint.
The big change in SP:TFBW is that instead of standing in a line like you're playing Red Rover, and you're waiting for Cartman to come over, battles are now fought on small grids. You have to move into the right spot to attack whomever you want to attack. The grid indicates where your attacks will land, and you can even, with the right attack, strike multiple enemies. This also applies to when your allies do a healing or shielding move. Though there are also times when you won't have anyone in striking distance, and will have to forfeit your turn.
The grid also allows you to avoid certain attacks by getting out of the way if you plan ahead. If you don't plan well you can be knocked into a different square, as can your enemies. More importantly, you can now surround someone on both sides and then do extra damage when you treat your enemy like a tennis ball. Watch out though, your enemies can do this to you as well.
There are even times when part of the grid may be partially blocked, such as when you battle in the VIP area of a strip club and there's a table in the middle of the room. These battles have some variety added in as well. Like the battle where you must move from one end of the grid to the other to catch someone, while being chased. These kinds of battles are more outliers than the norm.
What the grid doesn't really add is any sense of strategy; not beyond having to make sure your teammates are healthy, and correcting this when need be. That’s okay though. The appeal of the combat in SP:TFBW is how it's faster and less passive than other turn-based games.
Along with the grid, SP:TFBW adds the ability for your character to do a bunch of farting attacks. So much so that I really think you should see a gastroenterologist, or at least stop eating so many cruciferous vegetables. Just don’t stop until after you finish the game, since you can use your farts to attack people...and alter time.
It should come as no surprise that SP:TFBW looks and sounds just like the show, right down to how the characters move through the world. Matt Stone and Trey Parker voice the characters for the game (just like the show), as do their co-stars Mina Marshall (Sheila Broflovksi), April Stewart (Wendy Testaburger), and others. Stone and Parker also co-wrote the script, just as they do with the show. All of this builds the experience of making SP:TFBW feel like an episode of the show, though it would take a lot of editing to turn this game into an episode.
Unfortunately, SP:TFBW has a presentation problem that's so common these days that you could actually cut and paste a version of this paragraph into most reviews: some of the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your television — y'know, like your mama told you to — you'll have trouble reading your mission objectives, the inventory messages, your Coonstagram™ messages, the buttons on the keypad to The Coon's lair, and so on. There's even times when the captions are unreadable because the text is purple or dark blue and the background is dark gray.