The latest, Marvel-riffing South Park game is a filthy fun RPG
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the follow-up to a pleasant surprise: a South Park game that actually felt like it belonged in Matt Stone and Trey Parker's disturbing universe. 2014's South Park: The Stick of Truth was a tie-in treat, hoisting the long-running show's scatological gags and grotesque populace without leaving behind its wide-reaching satire and surprisingly tender moments. It looked and felt like an interactive extension of what you'd see on TV, built around a turn-based RPG system that, if not groundbreaking, was a worthwhile frame for the game's madcap story.
More than this, the whole concept was a knowing, diegetic reason for gameplay in the first place. It started with the idea of children playing in the street; live-action roleplaying around a platter of fantasy tropes. This clever approach is continued in the titter-titled sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole – swapping Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones for Marvel and DC comics.
The South Park “Coon and Friends” episodes form the backbone of the opening story, with Cartman deciding to start dressing up as his “Coon” alter ego under the guise of rescuing a missing cat. The palette may have shifted towards superhero films and comic books, but the underlying approach is more or less consistent with its predecessor. The broad strokes of combat, for example, are the same as Stick of Truth, with players and enemies taking turns to wallop each other with a handful of moves – many of which will put the victim in a “grossed out” state, where they'll vomit on themselves and eventually pass out. The Fractured But Whole broadens the amount of playable characters in each battle to four, giving a sizeable amount of scope for strategy, and hopefully avoiding some of the later-game repetition that afflicted Stick of Truth.
Ubisoft's latest foray into South Park territory starts much like any RPG, with character creation. From there you hit the opportunity to pick specific superhero powers, swiftly tested against gender-furious rednecks, paedophile priests and a lot of strangers' toilets. The Fractured But Whole carries on directly from its predecessor, with you reprising your role of New Kid. After a brief intro sequence in Stick of Truth's world of dragons and wizards, things pivot towards rival gangs of superheroes and villains. From there, you're swiftly given a chance to choose between three starting classes; the nippy Speedster, the tank-like Brutalist, and the long-range Blaster.
The game's associate producer, Kimberly Weigend, told me that developing the combat involved a lot of back and forth with South Park's creators – Matt Stone and Trey Parker: “We pitch things back to South Park and say 'here [are] the powers we're thinking of for the characters, what do you think?' Matt and Trey are big gamers. Trey is really into board games. They think there's a lot of value in making an interactive medium for South Park. It can't just be the South Park wrapper around any old game.” It sounds like a considered approach; I'm not sure the same can be said for 2000's South Park Rally.
The real joy in The Fractured But Whole doesn't come from the RPG dressings themselves, but the way they've been built around the universe of the TV show. For example, one of the first tasks you're given is to add followers to your Instagram-like Coonstagram account. This involves pestering people to have a selfie taken with you, and results in a feed of characters' posts and comments on each other's pictures. It simultaneously provides an impulse for exploring and “collecting” various people in the town; serves as a communication hub for quests; and is a funny pisstake of the social capital given to Likes and follows.
The player is free to wander into almost everyone's home, and much of my hands-on time was spent poking around for environmental jokes in people's drawers and bathrooms. You're also able to use their toilet via a thumb-pad-twiddling mini-game, which is diverting but gets old quickly. There also isn't a great deal of variety in the homes, at least in those opening hours, so it will be interesting to see how The Fractured But Whole mixes up its environments later on.
A crafting mechanic, a Batman-style detective-vision mode and the use of “artifacts” to boost stats all add a bit more depth to the moment-to-moment gameplay of The Fractured But Whole, which tumbles from one outrageous set piece to another. One particularly offensive section saw me fighting off two priests in a locked room, one of them trying to hit me with rosary-style anal beads. Not a game to play with your parents, then.
A broadening of Stick of Truth's combat system is appreciated, but ultimately it's Trey Parker and Matt Stone's involvement as writers and voice actors that makes the game so enjoyable. Whether the overarching conceit of Ubisoft's approach, of kids play-acting on South Park's streets, holds up for a third outing remains to be seen, but on the evidence of its first few hours, The Fractured But Whole is a disgusting riot.