South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the end result of a troubled development process, which saw Ubisoft delaying the game multiple times as South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone put their all into making a worthy successor to 2014's The Stick of Truth. While their first crack of the whip received critical acclaim and commercial success, the sequel doesn't share the novelty of being the first South Park RPG, arguably making it a more difficult proposition from a creative perspective. Unfortunately, while The Fractured But Whole is a step up from its predecessor in terms of its combat, it doesn't feel as fresh or as funny as Ubisoft's first visit to the snowy Colorado town.
The Fractured But Whole picks up immediately where The Stick of Truth left off, with Kyle, Stan, Kenny and co. still LARPing as knock-off Lord of the Rings characters and you, the New Kid, still the leader of their Fellowship. However, it doesn't take long for the boys to grow bored with their swords and sorcery, switching to superheroes after a rallying cry from The Coon, a.k.a. Eric Cartman. Cartman's Avengers-esque superhero group Coon and Friends are locked in battle with The Freedom Pals, a rival band of heroes led by Timmy, doing his best Charles Xavier impression as Dr. Timothy. Both groups have their eyes set on a movie franchise and Netflix deal, all while their hometown is under threat from its rising crime rate and an epidemic of missing cats. It is up to the New Kid to get to the bottom of these mysteries, along with hopefully securing their own spin-off film in the process.
Aside from shifting from Gandalf to Captain America, the biggest change in The Fractured But Whole is its new combat system. The Stick of Truth's turn-based combat saw your party members and enemies remaining stationary while fighting, taking its cues from traditional JRPGs albeit with the addition of quick-time events that granted additional power to each of your moves. It was simple yet effective, but Ubisoft has completely overhauled it in The Fractured But Whole and returned with a much more engaging system.
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Now players can move around a grid while in battle, with each move having its own range that will target specific tiles. For instance, some attacks will only allow the player to attack an enemy situated on a tile next to them, while others will attack all enemies in their surrounding tiles or enemies standing in a line ahead of them. The Fractured But Whole has also upped the number of party members from 2 to 4, with players gaining access to new party members as they play through the game. There's a tremendous amount of variety in the moves on offer, though I found certain party members to be much more advantageous than others. For instance, Call Girl — Wendy's phone-obsessed superhero alter-ego — boasts a move that sees her able to target any tile on the battlefield. Her being able to stay out of the action and damage enemies from a considerable distance ensured that I never felt compelled to remove her from my party, while characters such as Token and his underwhelming turret rarely saw the light of the day.
While party members' powers aren't customizable, there's a great deal of tinkering that can be done with the New Kid's abilities. Though you'll initially be confined to just one class, as the game progresses you'll unlock many more with powers that can be mixed and matched, ranging from the close-range powerhouse the Brutalist through to the tech-savvy Gadgeteer. The power of your attacks is increased by acquiring new Artifacts — equippable items that boost your skills and provide you with additional abilities, such as more health for your allies or a higher chance of landing critical hits. The New Kid also has interchangeable DNA, with players able to equip the DNA strands of defeated enemies in order to improve their stats.
The New Kid has some tricks up his sleeve outside of combat, with a number of fart-based abilities allowing him to bend time in order to solve puzzles. The majority of these puzzles require you to use your "buddy powers," which sees the New Kid pairing up with the likes of Kyle and Stan in order move obstacles or reach high platforms, with each of these powers leading to their own simplistic mini-game. Initially these buddy powers are fun ways of opening up new areas in South Park, but the puzzles that they're required to solve are so rudimentary that they eventually become a hindrance. As the game reached its final stages these mini-games were thrown at me so thick and fast that it felt like they were being used to pad the game out, with The Fractured But Whole failing to throw up any head-scratching puzzles in favor of forcing the player to take unnecessary extra steps in order to reach their goal.
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Ubisoft listened to complaints regarding The Stick of Truth's length, with The Fractured But Whole clocking in at around 20 - 25 hours including side-quests. While this is still on the short side compared to most RPGs, considering the amount of voice acting required it's an impressive production. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have penned the equivalent of four feature-length films here, and that the game's central plot remains entertaining up until its end credits is an achievement in and of itself. However, while the various ridiculous twists and turns of it plot ensured that I wanted to keep uncovering the suitably convoluted explanations behind its mysteries, it's a shame that The Fractured But Whole isn't as funny as its predecessor.
So many of The Fractured But Whole's jokes revolve around farts that I'd imagine even fourth graders would fail to muster a giggle after the fifth hour of them. With the New Kid's special power being his ability to conjure up a stink, the end result is a game that relies far too heavily on its players finding the passing of gas funny for twenty hours. Though there are some great lines stuffed in the game, it's a lot more hit-and-miss than The Stick of Truth and unfortunately shares more in common with the show's recent, inconsistent seasons. It's still entertaining, but I rarely found myself belly laughing like I did with the first game.
However, South Park fans will be pleased to hear that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are as outrageous as ever, with them continuing to push boundaries in The Fractured But Whole. In recent seasons the show has tackled "social justice," and Parker and Stone continue that trend here from the get-go. With the New Kid required to complete their character sheet in order to become a true superhero, players must therefore decide upon their class, race, religion and gender. The latter sees an uncomfortable Mr. Mackey attempting to avoid offending you if you opt for "other," but it's a much less vitriolic response than you'd expect from Parker and Stone, two comedy writers notable for their reluctance to accept change. With that being said, race isn't approached as sensitively — Mexicans are portrayed as sleepy-eyed, poor henchmen, while a Lovecraftian boss in the second-half of the game has a name that incited a genuine "I can't believe they went there" response out of me. South Park is no longer sitting on the bleeding edge of controversy, but there are more than a few jokes tucked in here that are sure to shock and offend in equal measure.
While The Fractured But Whole may not be as funny as The Stick of Truth, its cast of characters are as memorable as ever. I was pleased to find that the show's various underutilized characters are more prominent fixtures here, with Scott "Diabetes Kid" Malkinson and his "diabetic rage" being a particular favorite, while Cousin Kyle makes a long overdue return. Randy Marsh has a limited but excellent role in the early stages of the game, while Stephen Stoch (Butters' dad) is also a highlight. Some of the game's best jokes are found in its side-quests, and while there aren't exactly a surplus of them compared to other RPGs, they're a fun deviation from the central plot.
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Unfortunately, where The Fractured But Whole really disappoints is in its setting. The Stick of Truth had already introduced us to an open-world South Park, so revisiting the likes of Cartman's house or Stark's Pond is no longer a novelty. It's a shame, then, that Ubisoft has decided to set the entirety of The Fractured But Whole in the town, which means that those who played The Stick of Truth are exploring almost exactly the same map. There are a few new additions, such as the ruins of SoDoSoPa, but it's not enough variety unless you didn't play the original game. Even The Stick of Truth sent the player away to Canada at one point. While there's a selection of new interiors to explore, with quests taking place in the likes of the police station and in one old South Park favorite that I won't spoil here, you'll mostly be plodding through the same town and journeying to the same locations you did three years ago. Though I didn't expect a South Park game to move too far away from South Park, I didn't quite expect it to stick to The Stick of Truth's map so heavily.
The game also suffers from a few performance issues. I found that the frame rate would occasionally dip in crowded areas, while certain bugs from the first game reappeared. In a few cutscenes New Kid would momentarily disappear, while occasionally the audio would fail to sync up with the on-screen action. I experienced one hard crash (checkpointing is very forgiving so this wasn't too much of an issue), while certain moves during combat cause a notable delay. For instance, the game constantly struggled with Token's ultimate move, which sees him swooping in on a giant mech. Every time I attempted to initiate this move, the game would struggle to catch up, meaning that I'd have to wait for an extra few seconds before pulling it off. These problems weren't debilitating, but they happened often enough that they're worth mentioning.
Ultimately, South Park: The Fractured But Whole is still a polished RPG that die-hard fans of the animated series will love. However, while its combat system has been greatly improved, its failure to provide the same belly laughs as The Stick of Truth, the lack of variety in its locations and its mundane puzzle-solving make for a disappointing follow-up. I enjoyed my time with The Fractured But Whole, and it's clear that a great deal of effort went into its development, but after this I'm not so sure that I'd want to revisit South Park a third time.
Review based upon PS4 version of the game. Copy provided by publisher.