South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review: Marvel Polish, DC Inspiration

7.5
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Xbox One
  • RPG
2017-10-17
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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is funny, but very familiar. Ubisoft

South Park’s recent episode “Franchise Prequel,” which aired Oct. 11, ended with a meeting of the Coon and Friends superhero team in Cartman’s basement. It got ugly – “Oh, you want civil war, is that what you want?” Cartman asks.

“Yeah, dude. Civil war, fuck you,” Stan answers. It’s a scene straight from Ubisoft’s South Park: The Fractured But Whole trailer that premiered at E3 in 2016 and it shows just how seamlessly South Park coexists between the TV show and the game. So that’s the first and most important consideration before picking up South Park: The Fractured But Whole how much do you like South Park’s existing take on superheroes?

As a sequel, The Fractured But Whole makes substantial mechanical improvements over South Park: The Stick of Truth. The biggest overhaul is to combat gameplay, which eliminates PP (Power Points) and mana. Rather than managing multiple resource bars, combat is about tactical positioning. Your repertoire of attacks have different positional uses, with some that punch only an enemy directly in front and others in a radius or diagonally, or across rows or columns.

It makes for a radically different play style that feels less like Paper Mario and more like a simplified Banner Saga. Knocking opponents to more vulnerable positions and staying out of the attack paths of allied superheroes creates constant engagement spamming the same attack button through a whole battle will never be an option. Fractured But Whole takes advantage of its new combat system with new environmental hazards and one-off fights that force constant movement, like the locker room gauntlet the New Kid fights through to escape the Peppermint Hippo strip club.

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There are also a slew of minigames, many toilet-based. Photo: Ubisoft

Though combat is the dominant mode, The Fractured But Whole also offers a slew of other mechanics and collectibles. Take selfies with townsfolk for Coonstagram followers. Collect yaoi for Craig’s dad and cats for Big Gay Al. Levelling is accomplished through collectible and craftable “artifacts” and power rebalancing, combat-won DNA strands. Outside of levelling, most of the other game components feel extraneous. Without equippable weapons or armor, there’s not too much micromanaging that rises above aesthetic choices or widget collecting. Sure, it’s fun to poop in every toilet and mix-and-match different outfits (which have no bearing on stats), but I rarely needed to buy or sell items or use the straightforward crafting system.

But getting bogged down in gameplay mechanics — generally an improvement on the already solid Stick of Truth — doesn’t get at the core of The Fractured But Whole experience. Because, just like Stick of Truth, what’s on offer in The Fractured But Whole is an unparalleled transposition of South Park, capturing utterly the voices, animation and world of the series.

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The Fractured But Whole is frequently indistinguishable from specific episodes. Photo: Ubisoft

This is mostly delightful. Even normal combat encounters sparkle with dialogue from familiar allies, including the superhero alter-egos of Jimmy Valmer (Fastpass), Clyde (Mosquito), Super Craig, Scott Malkinson (Captain Diabetes), Wonder Tweek, Kenny (Mysterion), Stan (Toolshed), Wendy Testaburger (Call Girl) and of course, Cartman (The Coon). Story-based fights often turn on familiar characters, like fighting a drunk Randy Marsh, empowered by red wine even with his pants down around his ankles. The Fractured But Whole is rich with fun detail and polish — bystanders make fun of the kids’ costumes, battles pause to let cars go by, and you have to let Kyle's cousin, Kyle 2, play with you.

Still, its fidelity reveals The Fractured But Whole’s weakness as well. The relentless references to specific episodes of the show are often funny, but just as often shorn of their original context. "Butters' Bottom Bitch" is funny because Butter's sexual innocence accidentally recreates prostitution on the elementary school level — there's a juxtaposition at work. But dropping that episode's characters into a mission based around pimp slapping and the satirical distance of the original conceit falls away, leaving only the meanest, laziest half of the joke intact. What's sharp writing on South Park — manipulating familiar tropes to a specific narrative end — becomes lazy stereotyping in The Fractured But Whole.

Because the theme of the game plays within South Park’s existing superhero world, there’s not a whole lot new offered narratively. By so perfectly recreating the feel of South Park, The Fractured But Whole feels inadequate for being imitative. Players will fight crab people, sixth graders, racist cops and those rednecks from “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson.” They’ll learn about microaggressions from P.C. Principal, hear inspirational messages from Morgan Freeman and find Member Berries in pantries. However, players will meet hardly anyone they haven’t met before. 

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Familiar faces, like Morgan Freeman, will inspire you along the way. Photo: Ubisoft

This was true of South Park: The Stick of Truth too, but there are subtle differences between that game’s fantasy pastiche and The Fractured But Whole’s superhero scene. High fantasy tropes have become generic enough to feel universal. How many fantasy novels are just reconfigured Tolkien types? And so Stick of Truth had its own identity, playing with fantasy to its own ends. But in The Fractured But Whole, there’s really no question we’re riffing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s funny that the kids spend their time arguing over who gets the Netflix series and what movies to push back to Phase 3, but there’s an unsatisfying cynicism to it. When Cartman mocks hackneyed and over-played superhero movie beats, it’s hard not to take it to heart — who wants to play something hackneyed? A wink isn’t always enough.

Instead of playing with and within a genre, like its predecessor, The Fractured But Whole feels closer to parody than a new synthesis. I’m still not sure how a racial slur Cartman adopted in a one-off Marvel parody back in Season 13 expanded into such a core part of the South Park mythos, but here we are. Maybe other people will find more to like in the superhero world of Coon and Friends, but I thought the joke got overplayed somewhere around “Coon 2: Hindsight.” The Fractured But Whole doesn’t do anything to change that impression.

My dislike of the South Park superhero world aside, The Fractured But Whole does pull off several fantastic story moments. There are some really awesome fights and plot twists, including an astoundingly dark character decision you’ll be forced to make that ranks just behind “Scott Tenorman Must Die” for all-time fucked up South Park moments. Still, nothing quite surprised or delighted me as much as the visit to an SNES-flavored Canada in The Stick of Truth.

It’s hard to get into specifics without spoiling major plot points, but The Fractured But Whole begins with lost cats someone is making cheese on an industrial scale (yet, somehow, you never visit the Heavy Metal world of “Major Boobage”) and soon enfolds Professor Chaos, Sopranos lookalikes, Mr. Towelie (now working behind the counter of a dispensary) and every possible variation on Cartman’s bottomless capacity for backstabbing and manipulation.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is consistently engaging, with an impressive new combat system and fun environmental puzzles to solve with your superpowered allies. As a celebration of South Park, it’s absolutely unparalleled. But The Fractured But Whole is so polished, so well-done and well-acted, so effortlessly identical to the show, that it’s a little disappointing it mostly reconfigures the hits.

REVIEW SUMMARY
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
7.5
South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review: Marvel Polish, DC Inspiration
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a polished and improved sequel to The Stick of Truth, but we're still ambivalent about the Marvel Cinematic Universe parody angle.
  • tactical combat
  • great environmental puzzles
  • seamless adaptation of South Park
  • engaging boss encounters
  • Coon and Friends parody was already stale
  • sometimes more referential than funny on its own
  • several game mechanics feel extraneous
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