The game has changed in South Park: The Fracture but Whole. No longer is this a war of fantasy wizards and warriors, it’s one of super heroes and a world altering crisis: a cat has gone missing. It’s a crisis that brings the Coon back in time to drag our greatest heroes out of the fantasy war raging across South Park and into the new game.
What stands out through all of this is South Park’s typical sense of humour. The kids are brash, foul mouthed and abusive to one another, and there’s a wonderful absurdity to this entire world and everything that happens within it. There’s elements of this being a kind of “best of” South Park story, as the teams at Ubisoft San Francisco and South Park Digital Studios pack it full of references to the long running cartoon. You’ll come up against kid touching priests, yaoi, pooping mini-games, fight against hillbillies that dislike your choice of gender when you visit Mr. Makey, and more.
Yet underneath all of that and the absurdist way that the game lampoons the real world, they also manage to nail the fact that this is still just kids playing, from the bickering about what the rules are, to the use of Lego bricks to make a barrier of “lava”. During a number of key battles and dramatic moments, someone will shout out “Car!” and everyone shuffles off to the side of the road to let traffic past. It’s only a few seconds before you get back to unleashing fireballs, psychic powers and explosive flatulence, but it always put a smile on my face.
While it might have been a lost cat (and the $100 reward) that sparked the story into motion, it’s the bickering between the Coon and Friends and the Freedom Pals over the movie franchising that looks to be at the heart of the game’s plot. Once again, you’re the outsider, playing as The New Kid and creating your own character. That begins with the Coon begrudgingly inducting you into his gang, before you create your backstory around your first chosen superhero class – a choice of Brutalist, Blaster and Speedster.
The character customisation in the game is truly fantastic, and something that you can dip in and out of practically whenever you want. How you’re dressed will initially depend on the backstory and class that you pick, but you soon start to earn and find other costumes in the world. Alternatively, you can simply go and purchase new costumes from Cartman’s basement.
What’s particularly liberating is that you can change the colours in so many ways, letting me take what would otherwise be an overly dour goth outfit and make it all bright pinks and yellows, to match a floppy blonde haircut and some Ziggy Stardust-esque eye shadow. Better than that, after unlocking the church onesie, I made it a fleshy cream colour, switched my hairstyle to an afro and recoloured it to match, and then slapped a thin moustache on my face. Seeing him pop up in the game’s cutscenes never ceased to amuse me – can you pick him out in the image below?
Alongside the shift from fantasy to super heroes, there’s also a wholesale reinvention of the combat in the game. Where Stick of Truth had a fairly traditional turn-based combat system that was spiced up with timing button presses to boost your attack power, The Fractured But Whole reinvents it in the mould of a tactical RPG, albeit simplified to keep the battles fast and snappy. You still have to be on your toes with most attacks having their damage boosted if you can time button presses just right, and tapping a button just after getting hit fills up your ultimate attack.
Your party of three line up against your opponents on a grid of squares, and each turn lets you move a character and then unleash one of their various super powered attacks. Each character has three different attacks, but what’s interesting here is that while they often have wide areas of effect, the battles and the focus is on going from side to side, which makes your positioning during combat so important. On a number of occasions, I found that my lack of forward thinking meant that I couldn’t use a particular attack that hurt all enemies in a particular row, because I’d rushed in with another character the previous turn and they were now in the way.
While most characters you meet and recruit have got set abilities, The New Kid is unique in that they can earn additional classes from the game’s twelve that are eventually made available to you, and then mix and match those attacks and abilities. It’s a great system, allowing you to mix, for example, the fire attacks of the Blaster with the Elementalist and its ice, electrical and sand attacks. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you still have a range of abilities, and maybe take into consideration the characters joining you in the party.
It might have taken almost a year longer to get here than was originally planned – Trey Parker and Matt Stone were so confident back at E3 2016 that it would be out in December of last year – but much like the first game, South Park: The Fractured but Whole looks like a wonderfully inventive dive into the cartoon world, capturing the crude sense of humour perfectly and mixing it with some almost engaging and easy to pick up tactical role playing.
And then there’s the difficulty slider…