There were multiple times while playing South Park: The Fractured But Whole where my eyes widened and I thought, “I can’t believe they went there.” It’s a feeling that’s authentically South Parkian and something The Stick of Truth nailed shockingly well back in 2014. But The Stick of Truth was more than a collection of shocking jokes and references; it was also a fun, simple RPG that intelligently utilized its license. Judging by the first few hours of its sequel, The Fractured But Whole, Ubisoft is closely adhering to the foundation the first game set along with expanding and improving upon it.
Combat is one aspect Ubisoft is improving upon. The Stick of Truth relied on a Pokémon-like, turn-based fight system that was engaging for some, but heavily criticized by most for being repetitive and overly simplistic. Associate producer Kim Weigend said they were well aware of those complaints and explored ways to make the combat more complex and strategic.
“We worked really hard to bring movement into combat,” explained Weigend. “And with that, it opened up a whole spectrum of ideas. We wanted to do things like knockback and also make sure that you could have more allies on your team. It adds a lot of strategy and tactics to it.”
After only a few battles in The Fractured But Whole, I noticed the added depth, especially within the newfound ability to move during combat. While seemingly a small addition, placing the fights on a grid automatically opens up a whole slew of offensive and defensive options. All moves have different ranges and good placing can set your opponent up to take more damage while poor placing can put you in more danger. Early on, my attacks were straightforward and battles took longer as a result. But as I progressed, I started thinking tactically and optimizing my moves to set up combos, thus making combat faster and more involving. Fights, at least in the early parts of the game, maintained a steady balance between depth and simplicity, something a strategy and RPG noob like myself appreciated.
The buddy system has been expanded too. Before most fights, you can pick up to three allies, each with their own distinct stats and movesets. Since it no longer locks you into one class, I picked a mix between the offensive-heavy Brutalist and element-driven, well, Elementalist and made sure to select party members that would fill out my personal weak spots. Choosing my abilities and crew was extremely liberating and opened up a ton of possibilities and I hope it continues to expand and evolve in the later hours of the game.
The buddy system was not only added for the combat, Weigend told me, but also to more aptly fit the game’s superhero motif. Trading in Game of Thrones for The Avengers, South Park has been overtaken by the infatuation of comic book films and the culture surrounding them. While Cartman sees this as a way to get his movie and TV franchises off the ground, it serves as a way to get the kids of South Park to dress up and fight as their favorite characters as they follow each other on Coonstagram to recruit people. However, like The Stick of Truth, a larger, more insidious plot was hinted at, but I’m assuming that part of the story won’t start developing until a little later on.
Same ol' South Park
The humor of the low-stakes faction wars between the kids was in line with the tone of the show, but, like its predecessor, the remarkable aspect is how it uses the video game medium to tell its jokes. Weigend explained that this collaborative process was difficult but satisfying.
“Comedic timing is really important to us and that’s something that we worked really hard with Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] on to ensure that the game mechanics and the way we design the game doesn't let the joke land flat.” explained Weigend. “They think ‘We’re not just telling them [Ubisoft] the joke. It’s what can they do that makes their own joke so we don’t have to just hand it to them. They can find it themselves.’”
That cooperative process lets the game strike the sweet spot between traditional jokes in the dialogue and jokes within the gameplay and mechanics. The latter is more special since they are often unexpected and hilariously poke fun at video game and/or societal conventions. I’d love to give an example but they’re good enough to experience for yourself. That and, well, I don’t think my editor (or my mother) would be too happy if I repeated some of the things I heard and saw. If you like South Park’s style of comedy, then you know what you’re in for and you’ll probably be pleased.
Along with the humor, I was pleased with the overall smoothness of the game. The Stick of Truth was plagued with long, frequent load times and sluggish menus that dragged down the pacing. The Fractured But Whole has no such issues. Loading was sparse and every menu was snappy and intuitive. Even the map was just a quick, single button press away; a godsend for an RPG with multiple open missions. Weigend assured me that cutting load times and streamlining the menus was a conscious effort by the team, which was made possible by Ubisoft’s proprietary Snowdrop engine.
Although I only played a fraction of The Fractured But Whole, I have confidence that the whole game will be another worthy entry in the South Park universe. Not only do I want to hear more of the jokes and explore the new-and-improved town but I also want to dig deeper into the improved combat. The Fractured But Whole doesn’t have to prove that a South Park game can be good; The Stick of Truth already did that. It just has to reassure us that it can do that twice and, given how I can’t wait to go back to South Park and have myself a time, I’m convinced it’ll do just that.