After over 15 years of bad South Park games, fans of the show were understandably skeptical when The Stick of Truth was released. We had heard about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s involvement throughout the development process, but we’d been burned too many times to get optimistic. To the surprise of many, it turned out to be a great, lighthearted RPG that served as one of the best uses of a license in video games.
With a change in developers and the novelty value of playing through the world of the show gone, I was skeptical if a sequel would live up to the experience of the original. For the first couple of hours of South Park: The Fractured But Whole, I had serious doubts. The kids have abandoned the fantasy motif of the last game and adopted superhero alter egos as they search for a missing cat. These personas are taken from the 2009 multi-episode arc around Cartman's alter ego, the Coon. As someone who didn’t find that story interesting or funny enough for one episode (let alone a trilogy), I wasn’t exactly looking forward to inhabiting those characters for an entire game.
The first thing the game had me do was complete a quicktime event to poop in a toilet. My first load screen featured a “never fart on someone’s balls” tooltip. While cheap toilet humor was certainly omnipresent in the early seasons of the show (and in The Stick of Truth, if we're being honest), my favorite years were the ones that leaned heavier into satire and social commentary. Farts may be objectively hilarious, but I was worried that they would be the core source of attempted humor throughout the story.
Once the game opened up a bit, I started exploring the town and getting more concerned. I walked through a neighbor’s house and heard the Lemmiwinks theme song playing from the television. I found some Memberberries and listened to them wax nostalgic about Star Wars and You Can't Do That on Television. I saw references to Medicinal Fried Chicken and people getting high off of cat urine. Even poop jokes seem more inspired than simply recycling bits of the show for easy fan service.
Thankfully, the game manages to hit its stride a few hours in. What starts as a quest for a missing cat takes players on a tour of South Park involving Catholic priests, strippers, ninjas, the elderly, and the constant threat of sixth graders. Its humor can at times be quantity over quality, as the poop jokes and callbacks never really die down. Despite that, there are numerous unexpected events, character appearances, and boss fights that I found funnier than most jokes I’ve seen in the show in recent seasons.
If you haven't kept up with the show in recent years, not much has changed about the way South Park presents the world. It still takes the hot button issues of the day and does its best to make them cartoonish and ridiculous. In 2017 terms, this means scenarios involving gender identity, political correctness, and racist cops, among others. Yet in casting their net wide, Parker and Stone never really dwell too long on any one issue or make any meaningful statements. Rednecks in pickup trucks attack you after you state your sexual identity, and PC Principal takes great offense at microaggressions, teaching you how to physically retaliate against them in battle. One mission has you working for the cops and arresting a clearly unarmed black man while he's on his exercise bike. Major issues are reflected in the game, but it doesn't seem terribly interested in saying anything about them. It feels like they wanted to check those boxes and get back to the superhero story, which, for better or for worse, is certainly a very South Park way of handling this kind of subject matter.
While the writing does occasionally acknowledge current events, much of the game’s heart and attention lies in the “kids being kids” framing. Red LEGO bricks serve as lava that gates off areas. Moses is summoned by putting together an elbow macaroni art piece. Stan heals allies with one of those mist fans that they sell at amusement parks. Most items are crafted with components like glue, duct tape, empty sports drink bottles, and items from a taco stand. For a game with “butthole” in its title, there’s a surprising amount of wholesome charm to be found.
That concept was also present in The Stick of Truth’s combat, with its dodgeballs and suction cup arrows. In Fractured But Whole, your abilities and attacks are much more dramatic and are assumed to exist in the imaginations of its heroes and villains. Kyle shoots lasers out of his eyes, Tweek summons lightning and deadly icicles, and Token inhabits a mech suit that fires missiles onto the battlefield.
If The Stick of Truth's combat was Paper Mario Lite, then this sequel is Fire Emblem Lite. Instead of simply firing attacks back and forth across an even playing field, the battles now play out on a grid. The size of the grid varies depending on the encounter, but your heroes can move freely in an effort to secure a strategic advantage. My usual party consisted of a couple of close-range fighters, one long-range attacker, and one healer. Certain bosses took me out numerous times until I adapted to the demands of the fight. One destroyed me until I changed my party out for fighters that featured plenty of knockback attacks, which I used to shuffle enemies into position to take devastating environmental damage.
This sequel is a step up in many ways from its predecessor, but combat is where it makes the most welcome improvements. The grid system allows for so much more variety in the game’s many fights, and it continues to evolve as the story moves forward. Many of the major encounters had me taking a break during combat to assess the battlefield and move everyone into optimal positions. When I died, it was fun to sort through the list of available party members in an effort to assemble the best combination of abilities for the fight at hand.
Your character continues to add on abilities from numerous classes, which you can then swap in and out depending on what you want to bring into battle. Sometimes I'd outfit my hero with close-range melee attacks that deal high physical damage, while other situations were better met with long-range attacks that cause status effects. A special ability called TimeFart allows you to do things like pause time and rack up a bunch of free hits on frozen opponents (as well as skipping the enemy's turn). One of my most satisfying encounters involved inflicting confuse on a group of six elderly people, who then killed each other by lobbing colostomy bags like grenades.
Boss fights are some of the most clever and enjoyable parts of the game, and it’d be a disservice to reveal their nature here. Many of these introduce brand new elements to the combat system. This is welcome because for all of the clever attacks and abilities, there really isn’t much in the way of input variance. Your attacks almost always require you to either press the attack button once, hit it a few times with good timing, or mash it mindlessly. On defense, all you do is press the button after receiving damage to recover HP and build your super meter.
Following the ridiculous path of the main story is the core of Fractured But Whole, but there is a handful of side activities and collectibles to keep you busy between missions. It’s still set in the town of South Park, so most of the map’s changes revolve around things that have happened in the world of the show (SoDoSoPa towers over Kenny’s house, and Skeeter’s bar is now an upscale wine and cocktail lounge). As in the first game, almost every area features plenty of visual jokes and references to events from the show's twenty-year history. One look at any of the kids' bedroom closets yields a virtual museum of their moments from past episodes.
Plenty of areas around town are initially gated off by LEGO bricks, electric locks, and large gaps. These can eventually be passed by adding specific allies to your party that can bypass them with unique abilities, all of which involve your character’s ass in some way. Your rewards for exploration are usually in the form of a new costume piece or artifact. The latter can be slotted into your character to raise their might level. Similar to Destiny, story missions have a recommended level and this might system gives you a quick idea of how ready you are to take them on.
Costumes and artifacts are plentiful, and there are more limited collectibles such as Big Gay Al’s lost cats and anime artwork that depicts Tweek and Craig’s relationship. There are also challenges tied to your follower level on Coonstagram, which you can increase by satisfying requirements for townsfolk and taking selfies with them. These requirements range from buying a demo CD from a bartender to giving a strip club DJ a cocktail of boogers and semen. It's not the deepest system in the world, feeling more like a fun scavenger hunt than a critical component of your progress.
My early hours in South Park: The Fractured But Whole had me bracing for disappointment. As the story progressed and the combat grew deeper, however, I realized that this sequel is an improvement on The Stick of Truth in just about every way. That game gave us our first novel experience of playing through a world that’s virtually indistinguishable from the show, but this sequel is longer, deeper, and more surprising throughout. It may feel like a cavalcade of poop jokes and easy callbacks in the early hours, but the South Park humor and charm shines through more and more as the story progresses. True to the show, the storyline leading into the ridiculous conclusion of the game barely resembles the plot's conceit. It twists and turns in extraordinarily stupid ways that are unexpected and simultaneously fully expected if you're a longtime viewer. If you're in the mood for a unique, lighthearted RPG (and are at least somewhat receptive to South Park's specific sense of humor) you’ll find more than enough to like here.