South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review – IGN
A consistently funny RPG with a strong combat system to match.
By a wide margin, South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the funniest roleplaying game since South Park: The Stick of Truth came out three years ago. This one’s gags are focused more on parodying the superhero movie franchise craze than RPG mechanics, which makes it feel a little less novel, but this time its turn-based tactical combat is also deep enough to stand on its own.
Like The Stick of Truth, The Fractured But Whole looks and sounds so much like the show that at a glance it could easily be mistaken for a 20-hour episode when you’re not in combat. The emulation of the crude animation style is spot-on, the voice acting is all completely authentic, and the writing quality is up to the high expectations. Exploring its expanded map of South Park and its densely-packed references to the show is a treat for fans, even though it’s quite similar to what we saw in The Stick of Truth. And sure, there’s some significant irony in the Memberberries appearing in a game so heavily based on callbacks to South Park’s 20-year history, especially now being a reference to a year-old joke themselves, but I’m going to let that slide.
The story starts somewhat slowly, with your custom-made New Kid and the boys transitioning abruptly from the final moments of The Stick of Truth’s fantasy-themed battles to a superhero-themed quest to find a missing cat for a $100 reward. It’s a cynical take on childhood roleplaying, of course, because Cartman plans to use that cash to jumpstart the equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe based around his Batman-like Coon character and become rich off the movie and merchandising rights. But after a few hours it spirals into signature South Park absurdity, and you’re fighting everything from Professor Chaos’ minions to Crab People. Granted, The Fractured But Whole makes few new jokes of its own, preferring instead to riff off of fan-pleasing material as it’s adapted to game form, but it does it well – it even makes killing Kenny funny again.
It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s all in the kids’ collective imagination.
Especially in the opening hours, it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be real and what’s all in the kids’ collective imagination – and The Fractured But Whole delights in blurring that line. With the exception of Professor Chaos’ anime super-move intro, we always see their costumes as makeshift cosplay cobbled together from tinfoil, Tupperware, and cardboard, but their powers are shown with brightly colored energy blasts and feats of superhuman strength and speed. You’ll have kids shooting lasers out of kites and teleporting one moment, then pausing the fight to let a car go by the next. Then adults get involved, and you have to start wondering what’s really happening. This is South Park, so it’s not exactly constrained by realism, so it’s a bemusing question that’s constantly raised.
While it’s mostly absurd, the kids’ superhero fantasy is actually a little touching in places. Jimmy, who walks with crutches, has super-speed powers, and the developmentally disabled Timmy’s Professor X-like mental abilities make him so overpowered you can’t play as him in battle. It’s nice that there’s some positivity there among the obliviously racist (The Coon, The Human Kite) and sexual jokes, and much of it is genuinely hilarious. There were just a handful of times where a throwaway racial stereotype joke didn’t quite feel clever enough to justify the sensitive subject matter.
For pure shock-value firepower, nothing in The Fractured But Whole had me reeling quite as much as The Stick of Truth’s zombie Nazi fetuses. That said, it still delivers its share of the “Wow, they went there” moments that have kept South Park relevant. A scene with fourth graders in a strip club (gross for largely non-sexual reasons, surprisingly), a priest self-flagellating with a rosary made from anal beads, and some more-racist-than-racist cops stand out.
The pace of the gags only really slows down while you’re walking from place to place, chasing down the many main story and sidequest objectives. There’s a fast-travel system courtesy of super-speedster Fastpass (AKA Jimmy), but those travel points rarely seemed to be near enough to where a quest wanted me to go to make getting there less of a hassle, which led to a significant amount of hoofing it through the streets. It’s pleasant enough to stroll through this quiet mountain town and taking in the ambient dialogue and signage jokes, though I couldn’t help but notice that the frame rate takes a hit sometimes, dropping perceptively when you’re passing by a busy background like the gentlemen’s club and its flashing neon.
My big gripe is the complete lack of navigation indicators.
My big gripe, though, is the complete lack of navigation indicators. Sure, this keeps the screen clean and maintains the look of the show, but the cost is that I constantly had to pop open the map to figure out where I was supposed to go and which of the nearly identical houses contained my objective. Holding the left bumper/L1 brings up a quick map, but it’s too small to really be useful. It seems like it would’ve been much better to just pop up arrows pointing to objectives with that button instead. For that matter, a lot of the text on screen is a little small to comfortably read from the couch – I had to lean forward and squint at my 52-inch screen from about eight feet away to read all the Coonstagram (Instagram, but named after The Coon for some reason) messages that popped up after interacting with people.
Combat gets much more interesting in the second half as the scenarios become more ambitious.
Of course, this being an RPG, the primary interaction you have in The Fractured But Whole is combat. The grid-based battle scenarios start easy – even on the highest “Mastermind” difficulty, it was around 10 hours in before I had to try anything other than a boss battle twice. But unlike The Stick of Truth, which only got easier as it went on, The Fracture But Whole gets much more interesting in the second half as the scenarios become more ambitious and give us more things to deal with: telegraphed attacks, area denial, summoned-in enemies, and real-time timers that force you to move quickly or be hit, among others. There are special battles where you’re forced to keep moving or to move enemies into specific spots, others where you have to target one enemy among many, and other conditions that keep things from getting stale. That’s on top of the nuances of the basic system: because positioning matters and everybody’s ability set works differently for range, direction, knockback, and other special effects, there’s a fair amount of depth to it.
And, by the end, you have more than a dozen distinct characters to choose from. Each has three abilities and an ultimate power (which uses a charge that’s shared by the whole team), and that gives you a wide range of options for any given fight. Token is a great tank who can swap places with an endangered ally and shield himself to take the hit, while Kyle plays better by maintaining distance and healing and shielding allies. Kenny, of course, has a much more suicidal playstyle.
There are some excellent touches, like each member of the party having specific lines of banter dialogue for each other potential member of the party. That’s something you rarely see outside of a BioWare game. It also has numerous unique animations to pick up on, such as when Token fills his Tupperware helmet with vomit when he’s grossed out (aka poisoned).
In the menus, The Fractured But Whole takes an interesting approach to character development. You start with one superhero archetype but later can freely mix and match your four-power loadout with abilities from other classes. Instead of a straight level-up system, you slot in gathered artifact items to increase your power level and stats. It creates some interesting scenarios where I wanted to keep some lower-level items slotted in order to maintain a big bonus to knockback damage or ultimate ability recharge rate. More importantly, it makes the New Kid a Swiss army knife who can adapt as needed to support the other three heroes on your team. He gradually felt less like my character as Cartman grudgingly unlocked more powers, but being able to freely customize his look with gathered costume pieces helped. You can even change your gender, courtesy of Mr. Mackey’s aggressively awkward counseling sessions.
You can’t just sit back and watch the enemy’s turn play out.
Keeping the New Kid alive in a fight is a huge priority because of his unique ability to bend time with flatulence, letting you periodically steal an enemy’s turn. That adds another bit of real-time flavor to the combat – you can’t just sit back and watch the enemy’s turn play out without missing some major opportunities to turn the tide. That said, some of the other active elements get repetitive. There are only three timing minigames that are repeated across nearly all the abilities you cast: either tap the button really fast, tap it once, or tap it in a sequence as prompts flash on the screen. Then you tap to block or to recover some health after taking a hit. It’s something to keep you from putting the controller down during attack animations and enemy turns, but not much more than that.
The same goes for the ultimate ability animations, which are awesome and hilarious the first few times but long and unskippable later on. Watching Cartman fantasize about Coon movie posters and being on Inside The Actor’s Studio before shredding enemies or Kyle fire up a massive power drill takes about 10 seconds each time, which doesn’t sound like a lot but gets annoying when you’re trying to finish off some sixth graders. Getting variety here is some incentive to change out your four-person team and your character’s powers every so often.
There’s also a crafting system for some reasons, but it feels almost entirely superfluous. If you’re gathering stuff – and you will be gathering a lot of it – you’ll always have enough of the basic ingredients you’ll need to craft whatever healing items you like. For half of the campaign, I was maxed out at 999 of the basic materials. The exception is the rare key ingredients, such as tortillas for healing burritos and quesadillas, which I usually had to buy from vendors like Morgan Freeman. So why not just buy the healing items instead?
They’re full of mostly simple puzzles that are a matter of pushing a button.
Between fights you’re free to explore the South Park streets, and in addition to all the gags and easily avoided fights with gangs of roaming enemies, they’re full of mostly simple puzzles that are a matter of pushing a button once you unlock the right friend with the right tool. (Most of these involve things coming out of and/or going into your butt.) They got annoyingly repetitive, though admittedly part of that is my own fault – as soon as I unlocked a new one I’d remember all the places I saw the cue for that ability, such as scanning a pinwheel on a roof to call in the Human Kite to sail you to out-of-reach places, and sought a bunch of them out in succession. Some of them did lead me to interesting, unexpected places. But they’re at their best during sections of the main story missions where you’re using a variety of these abilities in custom-built puzzle sequences, and in those cases it takes some thought and feels more rewarding to solve them.
On the technical glitch side, I did hit several instances where the game became unresponsive after returning from suspend and I had to force-quit and restart it, but negligible progress was lost.
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