South Park is a series that has endured for 20 years, an astonishingly rare feat for any medium.  Part of the reason behind this success is how the controversial cartoon cleverly weaves a social and political commentary of current events and real world issues into practically every episode, giving it a topical relevance that keeps it at the forefront of comedy television two decades after it first aired.

Keeping it relevant like this is impressive enough, but the show goes one step further by framing this commentary within genuinely funny stories involving our favourite foul-mouthed protagonists, the children (and bizarre creatures and inhabitants) of South Park, Colorado. The grueling one week production turnaround for each episode of the show allows it to be up-to-date like few other TV shows can… So how would a video-game, which takes years to make, be able to capture the contemporary satire that we all expect from South Park?

Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker answered this question with 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, a refreshingly light RPG, with a short but hilarious campaign that provided some shocking WTF moments (fighting Khloe Kardashian’s aborted Nazi-zombie fetus instantly comes to mind), while taking aim at a broad range of topics that are ever-present in our media.

Fans of the original will be happy to know that South Park: The Fractured But Whole takes the same approach as The Stick of Truth with respect to satirising a variety of modern issues (paedophilia in the Church, institutional racism in the police force, transgender tolerance etc.), but also expands on nearly every other aspect of the game-play to make it a deeper, more rewarding experience than its predecessor. Plus, it’s funny as hell.

The fact that the difficulty slider at the very start of the game is a colour gradient from white to black sets the tone for the 20 hours or so you are about to experience. “Don’t worry, this doesn’t affect combat. Just every other aspect of your whole life“, Cartman tells you as you decide. It indeed does not affect combat difficulty, but if you choose a darker skin colour,  characters will react differently to you, and you also get less money from loot drops… If this kind of thing offends you, this probably isn’t a game you want to be playing.

Anyone who played The Stick of Truth will instantly feel familiar with The Fractured But Whole. In fact, anyone who has seen an episode of the show will feel similarly familiar due to the incredibly authentic re-creation of South Park as a town. The dialogue, voice-acting, and aesthetic are so well realised, that outside of the combat sequences a bystander would mistake the game for an episode of the show. This is also emphasized by the lack of a HUD or any of the usual video-game norms like a mini-map, or destination arrows.

The story of this game moves away from the fantasy-themed Stick of Truth to a superhero theme. As the “New Kid” you join Cartman’s Coon and Friends superhero gang, whose mission is to find a missing cat called Scrambles for the $100 reward money. This money is critical for Cartman’s plan to establish the best superhero franchise in all of South Park (as a faction of Coon and Friends acrimoniously split-off to form a competing gang called Freedom Pals) and there are plenty of nods to the current Marvel vs DC Cinematic Universe rivalry. Episode 4 of the latest series of the show also serves a “prequel” to The Fractured But Whole for anyone looking for more backstory, but is not necessary to enjoy the game.

In true South Park style, the seemingly simple quest of finding a lost pet will take you on a journey that involves battling child-molesting Catholic priests, farting on a businessman while performing a lap-dance, fighting a drunken Randy Marsh multiple times, buying tacos from Morgan Freeman, and blowing up a warehouse of meth-heads harvesting cat-urine… and this is all just within the first few hours of the game. One early highlight is a boss-battle in which you have to escape a grotesquely obese stripper called “Spontaneous Bootay, who has an insta-kill ground-pound attack. It would be a disservice to anyone interested in playing to spoil any more of the absolutely ridiculous quest lines or ludicrous boss-battles, as the sheer absurdity of discovering these is half the fun. The scenarios I found myself in often had me bursting out in laughter, or staring in incredulity at how far the game takes certain things… It’s a game worth discovering for yourself just for these moments.

As with the show, the writers are not afraid to offend everyone possible in search of laughs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering The Stick of Truth was equally, if not more provocative. Levels like the infamous “abortion mini-game” in the first game were actually censored in many markets (including Europe) by the games’ own publisher, Ubisoft. Perhaps to avoid controversy about censorship again, the overall tone, set-piece events, and boss-battles are actually milder in The Fractured But Whole, and this is slightly disappointing.

However, where the game may lack in shock-value, it majorly improves in the overall mechanics. This is no more evident than in the battle-system, which is far more versatile than in The Stick of Truth. It is still turn-based-strategy combat, but this time all fights are set on a grid system which determines the range of your attacks, and where you can move. Each character has 3 normal attacks and an “Ultimate” attack; a mixture of long-range, short-range, vertical and horizontal moves are necessary, as you will find yourself being surrounded by enemies. This variety combines nicely with the fact that you now can fight with 3 other squad mates, leading to a wide array of different moves and combos available. Rotating your squad to gain abilities becomes important for the latter stages of the game, as some characters may have attacks that are tailored for specific battles. For example AOE damage (like Call Girl’s “Phone Destroyer” move) or the ability to strike from distance (like Fastpass’ “Hit and Run” move) are invaluable for a couple of mid-game boss battles.

If you get tired of your ability set, you can even go to The Coon (Cartman) to change your character class, and experiment with different combinations. Status effects have carried over from the first game, and there are some new ones such as “charmed”, which basically confuses the character into attacking a random target. An “Ultimate” attack can be unleashed when the charge-bar has filled, and are unique to each character- my favourite being Captain Diabetes’ “High-Fructose Death Wave”, in which he loads up on sweets and candy to send himself into a sugar fueled rage with an attack that can knock-back a whole row of enemies. The animations for each Ultimate are entertaining to watch at first, but after seeing them dozens of times, I really bemoaned the lack of a “skip” button.

The fact that the combat is greatly improved is significant, as you will be doing a lot of it. From taking on 6th grade bullies, defeating Butters’ minion of chaos, and fighting the Raisin girls (a parody of Hooters with child waitresses), there are a lot of battles. The slightly repetitive nature of these fights is exacerbated by one of my main criticisms of the game- it is far too easy. Even on “Mastermind”, the highest difficulty level, rarely was I ever close to losing a fight until near the end. There is a slight ramp up in difficulty towards the end of the game but still I would’ve preferred another setting to make it more challenging.

Objectives outside of the main story mostly revolve around collectibles. There are a LOT of things to gather, and much of the greatest fan service for the show shines through these tasks. Finding “Yaoi art” of Tweek and Craig, rounding up Big Gay Al’s pet cats, clogging toilets, and listening to “Memberberries” reminisce are just a few of the several side-quests available. In fact, pretty much whenever you do anything in The Fractured But Whole, a bar will pop up informing you that you have make progress towards some objective or another, which in turn will give you XP when completed. Each time you fill up the XP bar, your character will level up, meaning that you can equip an additional “artifact”.

These are items that can be found around town, crafted, or earned through battle. Each artifact has its own stats and bonuses: for example, the “Bedazzling Orb” artifact (found at the strip club) will boost recovery time and knockback combo damage when equipped. Other artifacts will affect health recovery, status effects, critical strikes and damage dealt. There are Minor, Major, and Epic level artifacts that when applied, all have various buffs and advantages for your squad. The combination of artifacts equipped will add up to your overall “Might” value- similar to how “Light” works in Destiny. Even though The Fractured But Whole cannot be considered as a complex RPG, these elements add up to a tangible sense of progression for your character that goes beyond what is expected of the game.

The game has a pleasantly surprising depth to it. Like its predecessor, it perfectly captures the spirit of children playing dress-up. There are several things throughout the world reminding you not to take it too seriously; occasionally a car will interrupt an intense battle on the street, causing the kids to pause and wait patiently on the pavement for it to pass by. There are areas blocked off by “lava”, which is really just a pile of red Lego bricks. It constantly mocks the standard RPG role-playing mechanics which it employees. If you stand idle for a second, all the kids pull out their mobile phones until you move again. It is utterly charming, and all serves to further endear the world and characters to a player who will most likely already have an affinity for South Park through the show.

The Fractured But Whole takes everything that worked so well in The Stick of Truth and expands upon it, and the result is a polished RPG with an engaging combat system, wrapped in some of the funniest missions and lines of dialogue ever written for a video-game. While battles can get repetitive, there are enough collectibles and side-quests to keep you occupied should you want a break, and the incredible amount of callbacks and references to the show will delight both the hardcore and more casual fans alike.

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