Sequels are tough to nail, especially when their predecessors are beloved. Finding the keen balance between changing too much and not enough is a Sisyphean task, as the slightest adjustment dramatically alters the audience reception. A change in developer, late stage delays and half of the creative force behind South Park, Matt Stone, leaving the writing team entirely led to a lot of speculation prior to the game’s release. What we got was a South Park title with a shift in both perspective and focus from The Stick of Truth, and a lesser product as a result.
Players still take the role of the New Kid and their magical butt, picking up the story just before the conclusion of The Stick of Truth. Cartman appears dressed as his superhero alter-ego, The Coon, and convinces the neighborhood kids to stop playing fantasy games and move back to playing Superheroes in order to save a lost cat, collect a reward and use it to launch the Coon Cinematic Universe.
What follows is a relatively mundane South Park plot. As the player is tasked with exploring the Colorado city of South Park and completing various missions, the plot expands and contracts wildly, leading the player down surprising paths. It’s a decidedly longer playable campaign this time around, close to 20 hours as compared to the 12 or so of the Stick of Truth. Unfortunately, it never reaches the highs that the prior game packed in so tightly to its running time. There’s no big exciting gameplay changes, or third act revelations. Instead, you get a serviceable, if slightly generic story from beginning to end.
The primary, city-exploring gameplay has stayed relatively similar, but combat has received a huge overhaul. Battles now take place on a pseudo-Fire Emblem style grid, with each attack striking a certain variety of spaces around the board. For instance, while a simple punch might only hit the square directly in front of a character, a flurry of throwing knives might shoot out in a cross shape until it hits the edges of the map. Certain attacks will stun, or damage enemies over time. Enemies that collide into one another or into playable characters will take extra damage as well, leading to some quite satisfying combos.
There’s a lot of character and charm to the attacks of the various kids, and over the course of the game you will get access to about a dozen different diminutive superheroes. Each has a unique finishing move, executed when a super bar fully charges. Choosing what kids with what abilities to take into a fight helps vary the strategy up and tries to keep the fights relatively fresh. Unfortunately, there’s simply not all that much to do in the battles, and you do so many of them by the end of the game that they become laborious. Moving around the battlefield feels imprecise, and the player isn’t given all that much to do when it’s the enemies turn. Hitting the X button negates a small amount of damage when an enemy makes contact, but there’s no skill to the action, or timing component – you just hit the button. It’s just a chore.
There’s a number of boss encounters strewn throughout the game that try and shake things up, but they’re simply too few and far between. By the time I’d finished I had only died twice in combat (both against a relatively imaginative boss) and I was actively avoiding getting into fights. There’s also very little in terms of progression or growth. The player equips various badges and doohickeys to increase their overall power output, but it does nothing to impact the way the fights are carried out. At two or three times throughout the story the player unlocks access to a number of different abilities, but it all feels so similar that the differences aren’t so exciting. It’s not the difference between being a mage and a swordsman, it’s the difference between being a bowman or a crossbowman.
It’s still very novel to explore the town of South Park, and wander in and out of the various locations from the show. The town is littered with references, but I wasn’t picking up on a lot of the jokes. I’ve been a lapsed fan since the end of season 15, and most of this game felt like it fell outside of my wheelhouse. There’s also a decidedly smaller scope in this title compared to Stick of Truth, with a major location from that game no longer being accessible. All things being equal, I had a better time exploring the town of the Stick of Truth than I did here – without the humor hitting as hard, you spend a lot of time aimlessly walking from one scene to another.
I recognize that comedy and humor is subjective. I’m sure there will be plenty of people that find the humor of The Fractured but Whole completely hilarious. I’m not one of them. Like modern day South Park, there’s a sort of disconnect that haunts the game and prevents it from saying anything with meaning behind it. Jokes are set up and ideas are spoofed, but they’re not capitalized on. The Coon has a huge plan for movies like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, isn’t that funny? PC Culture exists, isn’t that hilarious? Some arrests against black people are unwarranted, isn’t that a jawbreaker? The goofs consistently don’t go beyond the initial setup, and it’s maddeningly unfunny. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are intelligent, well-spoken individuals and have a clear grasp on the issues of the day, but fail to turn it into anything important. Rather than just hitting one group or subset of society, they punch at everything, making everything an attempt at a joke without a punchline. It’s not just unfunny, it’s not mean-spirited or empowering, it’s just lame.
As a result of nothing mattering and everything being up for attack, there’s no follow-through or attempt at a growth of any characters. Everyone is the same blank slate that they were when you started, very much at the detriment of the story. I found one moment of genuine poignancy when I played: after returning home and witnessing my alcoholic mother and drug-addicted father fighting, my kid sits down at the dinner table and eats, alone. There’s a somber musical sting as the kid nibbles aimlessly before turning in for bed. It’s a quiet, simple moment that conveyed to me about their struggle fitting in at school, and dealing with a broken family. In the end though, it’s all for naught – it’s not a storytelling beat, or a nod to anything I thought it meant. The next day you do the exact same thing, in the exact same manner, with the same musical sting. It’s just a throwaway moment, meaning nothing. Nothing means anything worthwhile in The Fractured but Whole.
South Park: The Stick of Truth was a game that should have never worked. Riding along on the coattails of over a decade and a half of gaming dreck, The Stick of Truth finally embraced being both a South Park property, and a video game. At its most simplistic, the team at Obsidian cleverly focused the humor around video game tropes with a South Park wrapper rather than the inverse. By focusing on creating a great video game above a great South Park product, they succeeded at both. The Fractured but Whole ends up being like a bad summer blockbuster: bloated, overfilled with bad callbacks and quasi-jokes that elicit half a smile. The mechanical changes to battle feel superfluous, and there’s no sense of growth of character. The crafting system is inane and unnecessary, and for as fun as it is to explore South Park, I’ve done it all before. The humor of The Fractured but Whole isn’t about poking fun at being a video game anymore, it’s about being a long-form South Park episode. Just like modern South Park, The Fractured but Whole doesn’t know when to quit.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole was reviewed on PS4 with a code provided by the Publisher