South Park: The Fractured But Whole – Review
PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Eschewing the epic fantasy trappings of its predecessor to instead take cues from the DC/Marvel tentpole film fad, South Park: The Fractured But Whole holds true to the formula established by Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Digital Studios in 2014’s The Stick of Truth. While devotees of the series will find an absurd amount of content sure to please, casual or lapsed South Park fans may be left occasionally wondering what all the fuss is about.
Taking place immediately after the conclusion of The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole introduces yet another ‘New Kid’ as the main protagonist, enlisted by Cartman’s superhero alter ego The Coon to ensure that his plans for the ‘Coon and Friends’ superhero multimedia franchise are realized whilst simultaneously destroying any chance Timmy’s competing ‘Freedom Pals’ have of succeeding in the same endeavor. As expected, this setup ensures creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have plenty of material to work with given the saturation levels that Superhero related media has reached in the past decade. However, while this scenario is used in broad strokes across the narrative and design of characters and elements of the world, at its core The Fractured But Whole is simply another South Park game absolutely oozing fan-service, callbacks and inside jokes.
As a lapsed fan who hasn’t watched the TV series for almost 10 years, I went into The Fractured But Whole with some trepidation, worried it would feel too much like a rehash of The Stick of Truth or lean too heavily on callbacks. While I feel confident saying that much of the game felt fresh, I fear that stems more from my ignorance of the past 10 seasons of the show. Throughout the 16 hours I played before rolling credits, there were multiple instances in which I was given the impression I should have been more excited about a certain character appearing or situation unfolding than I was, all of which I put down to my unfamiliarity with the reference points. Make no mistake; the ideal audience for The Fractured But Whole is the South Park tragic, someone who has managed to maintain a steady level of dedication over two decades. However, much like the setlist of an ageing rock band, the writers have spread enough ‘Greatest Hits’ throughout the experience to keep someone like myself engaged. That said, it does feel embarrassing to admit that the few times the game broke the fourth wall to acknowledge an obscure early season pull, I was fully aware of the reference while newer material went over my head. This might come off as critical, but there were, in fact, plenty of moments in The Fractured But Whole that had me laughing out loud or shaking my head at the audacity of some of the material. In typical South Park fashion, the storyline in The Fractured But Whole starts off fairly innocuously before spiralling into realms of the absurd and the offensive via numerous and sometimes niche references to the source material.
One of the most glowing things I can say about The Fractured But Whole is how authentic a representation it is of South Park, from aesthetics to narrative. Both the exacting art style and adherence to the ‘rules’ of the series ensure that it is one of the most faithful video game adaptations of a television show ever produced. Taking place across four days and nights, the structure of The Fractured But Whole leads me to recommend enjoying it across multiple sittings rather than one or two lengthy sessions. This is largely due to what I would consider the weakest element of the title; the pacing. While Stone and Parker have shown their ability to produce engaging multi-episode arcs of television, 90 minutes of passive engagement differs greatly from 15+ hours of active engagement. With little variety in terms of the gameplay on offer, playing for more than two hours began to feel extremely repetitive as both main and side missions involve going to a location in the town to collect an item, battle an enemy or a combination of both. A number of partner abilities are rolled out slowly over the course of the plot to allow access to previously blocked areas of the town, an element which smacks slightly of padding rather than any real need to gate said content.
Mechanically, The Fractured But Whole is more robust than its predecessor but still stands firmly under the banner of ‘RPG-lite’. The class and equipment systems are extremely easy to understand and the game is forgiving enough that there were only two later bosses that forced me to carefully overhaul my abilities and accessories to prevail. Ditching the turn-based combat found in The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole adopts an SRPG-esque grid system, with different attacks able to reach different areas. For example, an extremely powerful attack may only be directed one square adjacent to the player, while a weaker attack could spread out in an X pattern and target multiple enemies at once. This emphasis on movement and placement in battle makes for a more compelling combat experience overall and a richer gameplay experience than that offered by The Stick of Truth.
For dedicated fans of the series, The Fractured But Whole is an essential purchase. It greatly rewards those who have an extensive working knowledge of the past twenty years of the television show. Fortunately, it is also finely crafted enough that casual and lapsed fans who might have left the show behind but still have a fondness for it will find plenty to enjoy about it.
Stephen del Prado