Release Date: October 17, 2017Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Ubisoft San Francisco, South Park Digital StudiosPublisher: UbisoftGenre: RPG
To most, Ubisoft’s fantasy RPG satire/homage South Park: The Stick of Truth is widely regarded as the best South Park game ever made. It’s one of those rare franchise tie-ins that’s actually, you know, really, really good. So good, in fact, that I’d argue that it was actually a far more groundbreaking game than it gets credit for.
Until The Stick of Truth, tie-in games almost exclusively presented us with unique approximations or interpretations of characters from their respective source materials. Kevin Conroy voices Batman in the Arkham series, but Rocksteady’s version of the Caped Crusader is unique to their games and can’t be seen in any other medium. Even (the now-defunct) Terminal Reality’s 2009 Ghostbusters game – which was written by Harold Ramis and Dan Akroyd and saw all four of the original films’ actors reprise their roles via voiceover – gave us polygonal representations of the beloved characters from the film.
These games are great, and there’s nothing wrong with the fact that they offer up their own versions of these characters; it’s simply the nature of cross-media adaptation and reinterpretation. You can’t expect Rocksteady’s Batman to look exactly like he does on TV, or in the movies, and it would obviously be absurd to expect Bill Murray to play Dr. Peter Venkman in a video game, in the flesh.
But that’s what makes The Stick of Truth so special: the game’s versions of Cartman, Kenny, Kyle, Stan and the gang are virtually indistinguishable from their TV counterparts. They’re voiced by show creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone (who also wrote the game’s story and dialogue alongside the game’s developers, Obsidian Entertainment), and anyone who’s played or seen the game in action can tell you just how easy it is to mistake gameplay footage for actual clips from South Park. The Stick of Truth wasn’t just a good game based on a TV show, it was a playable version of a TV show.
Ubisoft’s follow-up to The Stick of Truth, South Park: The Fractured but Whole (the fact that a game with that title will be sitting on store shelves across the country is such a joy…), developed this time by Ubisoft San Francisco with help from South Park Digital Studios, is just as astonishingly identical-looking to the show. Plus, it’s an even richer gaming experience, boasting a 20-plus hour campaign that opens up the entire town of South Park for you to explore, features an expanded, grid-based combat system, and sees a shift in theme from fantasy-adventure to superhero-showdown.
The original game’s core formula isn’t tampered with all that much here, which is a good thing. Again, you play as the new kid in town and, after a short recap of the events of The Stick of Truth, you dive headfirst into a brand new plot, which sees The Coon (Cartman) reluctantly recruit you into his superhero team, Coon & Friends, whose grand mission is to find a missing cat, claim the $100 reward, and use the money to fund a Coon & Friends entertainment empire, replete with crossover movies and Netflix spinoffs.
Kenny, Stan, and some of the other kids have formed a rival group, the Freedom Pals, and as you progress through the game, tensions between the rival superhero factions rise, resulting in some of the funniest superhero satire and spoofery you’ll see anywhere, mostly aimed at Marvel and DC’s respective big-screen endeavors.
The humor is as smart, irreverent, outlandish, and vomit-inducing as anything you’ll see on the TV show, if not more so. The raunchiness and foul language is blissfully out of control here, and Parker and Stone cook up material that’s up to the show’s standard of quality, without question. The game’s difficulty slider, for example, changes your character’s skin tone. Choose whiter skin for “easy” and darker skin for “very difficult.” It’s a biting stroke of social commentary genius and a clever reframing of a classic video game convention.
Almost everything you see and hear in The Fractured but Whole –from the dialogue, to the character designs, to the names of the loot items – is bound to elicit a laugh. In my experience, the in-game exploration was mostly fueled by my desire to dig up every last hidden joke the game had to offer. I chuckled when I found an “evidence bag full of evidence bags” stored away at the town police station, and I laughed in disbelief for five minutes straight when I found opened “Gladiator” condoms lying on the floor of an inconspicuous back room at the local church. There are some fun jabs at gaming tropes as well, like when one character blames his unnatural, herky-jerky pattern of speech on the fact that he’s essentially listing off the player’s dialogue-tree decisions.
The game isn’t all sizzle and no steak, however. The combat system is much more engaging this time around, with a focus on out-positioning and out-maneuvering groups of enemies on grid-based battlefields of varying sizes. Each character has a different range of movement, and attacks have unique areas of effect, rewarding players who play smart and think ahead. Attacks are timing based (á la Paper Mario), prompting you to hit a button at specific intervals to inflict extra damage, and some character abilities allow you to manipulate enemies’ positions on the board, from whalopping knockback attacks to powers that allow you to swap spots with both friend and foe. Flanking baddies and ping-ponging them back and forth across the field while keeping your party alive is a lot of fun, and mastering the combat system is rewarding, if not all that challenging. (I played on all difficulty levels and never found myself dying all that often.) Powerful summons and the new kid’s ability to use his/her extraordinary flatulence to affect the flow of time (yes, after all this time, fart jokes are still funny as hell) further texture the combat system.
While there’s nothing revolutionary going on here as far as the actual game mechanics are concerned, and in-combat movement can feel wonky and inconveniently imprecise at times, the kids’ perpetual jabbering – both to their enemies and amongst themselves – keeps the combat from going stale over the course of the campaign. From The Coon’s spluttering smack talk (“You won’t know what hit you…but it was definitely The Coooon,”) to Call Girl’s (Wendy) inadvertent sexual intimations (“Did somebody call for a…Call Girl?!”), the game hits you with an endless barrage of priceless one-liners.
The only time the game’s incessant chatter feels unwelcome is during the more challenging battles near the end of the story. Most of the giant boss encounters are lots of fun, but when you’re fighting tooth and nail, and the fights sometimes wear on for upwards of ten minutes, the kids’ big mouths can start to feel a little grating, especially when you have to sit through the same quips and animations for each and every attack you and the enemy makes.
Minor issues like this are easy to forgive, however, when you take into account just how well the game flows overall. There are always main and side missions for you to tackle, and there are enough hidden goodies and mini-puzzles littered throughout the town map to keep you preoccupied for hours on end. The developers did a fine job of balancing narrative, combat, and exploration, looping you in and out these three main elements seamlessly and organically. There are some minor features put in place (character class options, simple crafting, and perk systems) to help lubricate the overall experience as well.
It’s hard to imagine how The Fractured but Whole could look or sound any better because, well, its style is taken straight from the TV show, which means it’s intrinsically iconic. What is uniquely extraordinary about the game’s presentation is how inextricably linked the cutscenes are with the actual gameplay. In most narrative games, you sit through cutscenes and you’re engaged in the same way you would be if you were, say, watching a movie or TV show. Then, a load screen. And then, the gameplay starts abruptly and it’s a completely different form of engagement. It’s like you’re constantly oscillating between two disparate experiences, which can make the overall game feel a bit disjointed.
The Fractured but Whole does a beautiful job of blurring the line between narrative and gameplay. Some cutscenes have interactive elements, and almost all of the battles have surprise interludes or reactive dialogue exchanges that flesh out the characters and make them feel like active, observant participants rather than hollow pawns for you to push around the board. Parker, Stone, and Ubisoft should be proud of what they’ve accomplished with The Fractured but Whole, which is one of the most unique video games on the market and as essential a South Park experience as its TV counterpart.
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