South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker learned the hard way that the overwhelming majority of licensed games are off-brand garbage. Five scathingly disappointing efforts marred the initial SP license, spanning from 1998 to 2012, and included attempts at a tower defense game, a kart racer and, most confusingly, a trivia game hosted by Chef. To inject the soul of a narrative across contrasting media, the creators needed to dive into the digital trenches with a development studio, sweating the scripts, dialogue trees and testing. And even more so than 2014’s Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole is a cat-piss-potent distillation of Stone and Parker’s irreverence.
Take the first challenging boss battle—and arguably the most difficult in the game, which occurs roughly a fourth into the 20 hours required to complete the main campaign. Your nameless avatar and two supporting characters of your choice storm the local strip club, The Peppermint Hippo. As part of the makeshift superhero group Coon and Friends, you pursue a dancer named Classi who has private knowledge about the town’s missing cats, linked to larger machinations and bacchanal parties that litter the neighborhood’s lawns with your passed-out parents. After spiking the DJ’s cocktail with semen and farts, your trio of 4th graders slink backstage to fight an endless parade of strippers who scratch and fling tampons. One dancer threatens to put you in her ass. Eventually, the formal boss emerges, the unstoppable, morbidly obese Spontaneous Bootay, who threatens to “crush you in my booty cheeks.” After fleeing Bootay and gaining intel, your team squares off against the waitresses of Raisins, a parody of Hooters’ force-flirting waitresses and generic wings. Once more, an overweight, scantily clad boss emerges, threatening to toss her mass on your player with an insta kill. She also threatens to stick you in her ass.
Fans of Parker and Stone should recognize these beats. Their 1997 sophomore feature film, Orgazmo, also included an obese woman crushing a play-acting superhero, dubbed with over-the-top provocations by Parker. After 21 seasons, it’s probably unnecessary to describe South Park’s egalitarian political incorrectness and blue humor. You know by now whether a parade of stereotypes mocking today’s headlines will make you chuckle. The game even lampoons micro-aggressions with a feature that allows the player to interrupt battles, punching enemies who use offensive slurs like “fag” or “pussy.”
But where Stick of Truth played more with the fantastic (if still incendiary) scenarios of ass-spelunking and fighting Chloe Kardashian’s aborted fetus, Fractured isn’t afraid to nudge its sights to social and political frictions. No storyline is claustrophobically topical. Parker, Stone and the developers at Ubisoft San Francisco are well aware that blockbuster games have a longer shelf life than 20 minutes of animation, and nothing will date a game more than headlines that will be eclipsed in two months. That said, police brutality fuels one of the major mission lines of the game, and characters select the difficulty of the game by choosing their avatar’s skin color. The theme climaxes with a monster clash inspired by horror literature’s most outspoken racist. And the game’s arch-villain, running for the town’s mayor, holds more than a few parallels to the current commander in chief, whether through cultural osmosis or not. Lines like “I’m gonna pass so many laws and fuck you so hard right now” resonate all the louder the week after Trump signed an executive order to gut Obamacare subsidies.
The most memorable moments of the game contrast the world’s loud, abrasive humor against the reality of kids trying…to be kids. Before heading into the final battle, one fleeting in-game social media message reads, “Dad, if you’re seeing this I love you. I’ll say hi to Mom.” It’s a JESUS Christ moment of sobriety that sings through the parade of fart and satire, all the more potent as it’s a fleeting, secondary message that exists for a brief moment of on-screen text. One character, the tank Captain Diabetes, goes into shock after running out of insulin, leaving you without any immediate solution as a convulsing child lays in front of you. If there was ever a blanket defense for the raunchiness of the material, it filters the most hyperbolic extremes of adulthood through the eyes of babes. The kids want you to know that the Emperor is never, ever wearing any clothes, and the whistle blowers are all the more believable when they show their vulnerability. Likewise, the most charming imagery combines lo-fi tape, tinfoil and velcro, grounding the fantastic with the painfully domestic. It’s empathetic…to fault. To revive your aforementioned dying peer, Morgan Freeman instructs your character to rewind time with a physics-warping fart, because of course he does.
Woven together, the game is a purer distillation of its source material than any previous effort, to the exclusion of larger gameplay freedom. This isn’t a bad thing. Daytime cycles offer the player a chance to hunt for collectibles, load up on crafting materials and crap in every house’s toilet for a baffling mini-game that renders fecal matter mouth-wash blue. These sequences are the least interesting facet of the game, mostly because the map is nearly identical to the one found in Stick of Truth.
The nights are far more streamlined, the game ushering players down a linear path of battles intermixed with cut scenes. Compiled, the scenes at least comprise a feature-length episode, and one of the better ones at that. The story revolves around Cartman’s plans to establish his superhero concept as a winding, multi-part cinema franchise. The concept never reaches the absurdist peaks of Stick of Truth; you may chuckle, but don’t expect any oh-shit moments like watching your Dad’s testicles crush an underwear gnome or battle an archbishop in a pixelated Canada. It’s a far more local affair; save a minigame where the player aids a Kanye West-inspired gay fish in helping his Mom enter heaven via a unicorn, the twists are less surprising, the creativity tethered to a more conventional, or relatively more conventional, time travel yarn. One can only imagine what the creators could have done with a videogame slant on Imaginationland, or anywhere that lies outside the titular town’s borders.
Fortunately, the combat and exploration that connect the plot beats have gained a few more levels of depth. Instead of a two-dimensional turn-based rehash, players now duke it out on a grid à la Banner Saga, Gladius or Final Fantasy Tactics. This added feature requires players to strategize moves, selecting attacks that complement the support players. Some moves are more powerful but can only be executed on surrounding squares, while others can canvass broad areas or straight lines, but are less severe. And unlike The Stick of the Truth, Fractured eventually allows players to mix classes to their hearts’ content. In all, 10 classes offer three standard moves and an ultimate. The superhero theme affords a nice mix of visuals and powers; the Plantmancer has a “Sweet Scent” move that smacks a baddie with a thorny vine before brainwashing them to your side for a few turns. The Gadgeteer’s “Straight Shooter” lays down an automated turret and the Cyborg’s “Ganz Technique” distracts a foe after comically large speakers blare a voice-warped Cher parody.
But you can feel the company reigning back on any time-suck, hardcore RPG commitments. The two support players (picked from a pool of 12 options) aren’t customizable, and clothing choices don’t effect gameplay. Players level up only by assigning various artifacts with unique buffs, with new levels affording multiple artifacts. A DNA slot also skews the player’s attribute balance, allowing fixed boosts and penalties to brawn, brains, spunk, health or move. It’s a facile setup, created for a broader audience that can laugh at a lab full of six-assed monkeys but doesn’t want to spend hours micro-managing an inventory screen. It’s ultimately…fine. And though certain early challenges, including the stripper encounter described above, will likely require a few reloads, the game can hardly be described as difficult, especially the final battles. Even a secret, freckled ultra-boss can be bested in one go with the right load-out.
I wasn’t surprised to find that the game had little to offer after the credits rolled, and that’s fine. A South Park game doesn’t need to be Skyrim; it only needs to spout ass jokes and politically incorrect caricatures at any given frame, and in that, The Fractured But Whole succeeds wildly, with tight, coordinated scripting from Parker and Stone. If watching a near-day’s worth of an interactive adult cartoon isn’t your bag, literally any other competent RPG will fill that crack, though.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole was developed by Ubisoft San Francisco and published by Ubisoft. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It’s also available for Xbox One and PC.
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