Two hours with South Park The Fractured But Whole: Anything but a bum deal
A whole lot of cheeky humour to get behind.
After thirty years of playing more or less everything that's come out, it's sad to know I can count side-splitting video game series on one hand. Major milestones in hilarity would have to include the point 'n' click collabs of Tim Schaffer and Ron Gilbert, the Saints Row franchise, the Portal duology, Octodad, and, of course, 2014's South Park: The Stick of Truth.
After years of green-lighting shoddy licensed pap, Trey Parker and Matt Stone finally transplanted the essence of their show into a game. It wasn't the best RPG out, but it was undeniably South Park, and with The Fractured But Whole (PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC) they've had a much better crack at it.
Two weeks ago, I played the opening two hours of this sequel next to a gamer critic mate of mine, and we haven't stopped messaging one-liners at each other. Good thing he was there, too, as there were things that he got which zipped over my head and vice versa. For example, I automatically play everything on the hardest option, so once I'd carefully crafted a construction paper kid (that vaguely looked like me when I was 10 years old), I quickly dialled up the difficulty and mashed "start". To my surprise, the game began with my avatar rocking the darkest complexion available in the palette. I chalked it up as a bug. My buddy, who chose "easy", and was whiter than sour cream, had to explain it to me later.
Edgy is the theme here, folks. If you're a squeamish type who doesn't like your comedy to stray too far from the respectful confines of political correctness, you're gonna have a bad time. Also, a ton of in-jokes will zip over your head if you're not an avid watcher of the TV show or you missed the last game. Case in point: the action drops us right back into the deep end of The Stick of Truth, as a town's worth of fourth graders beat the snot out of one another while wearing Lord of the Rings cosplay. This particular battle is dire for Stan and Kyle. The speechless King Douchebag (read: you) is absent, but desperately required. Where could you be?!
Doing a poop. An interactive one that truly solidifies the tone of this entire experience. Backing one out, by using your analog control sticks to manipulate your sphincter muscles, is like picking a chest in Skyrim and your success on the throne is met with much fanfare. And don't think it's a one off deal, my liege – once the prologue section wraps and the kids switch playtime to a Marvel Super Heroes theme, you can freely explore every house in the town to break-and-enter and crap in their commodes. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a trophy for bombing every single one.
Douchebag's power, after all, resides in his butt. The opening fight serves to remind us of this and to bring the player up to speed with the radical changes in the battle system. The overworld of South Park is freely explorable in real-time, but when you get into a scrap (hopefully by getting in the first punch to earn the first attack roll) everything becomes a turn-based/real-time hybrid. The battlefield is made up of a grid, a chess-like setup, where you may freely walk about in eight directions to better position yourself before you lock in an attack. Douchebag's butt-stomping fart move is great for hitting every grid around him, but can gross out allies (the game's form of poisoning). Charge attacks require you to have at least two squares of running space, but if you connect, it'll smash your target backwards a square and cause additional knockback damage if another enemy resides behind them.
I immediately preferred this new system to the limiting one found in The Stick of Truth. It's basic, fun stuff that steadily grows in complexity and nuance as you progress through the town. The overworld puzzle solving, that revolves around slapstick violence and weaponised farts, feels more complex as well. It's anybody's guess as to how deep all of this is going to get, but I've got the feeling the yuks are going to carry this experience much more than the brain-teasing and Final Fantasyesque number crunching.
And oh how hilarious it gets. The main quest revolves around a simple but endearing motif of “get the band back together”. Discovering which bizarre super hero your favourite South Park kid has adopted is half of the fun. Kyle is Kite-man, for example (a crappy costume comprised of stitching himself into an over-sized kite). Meanwhile, Jimmy – the child who speaks haltingly and is crutch-bound – is this universe's version of The Flash (and he handles the handy new fast-travel system). Eric is The Coon, an American-critter persona who's essentially a Rorschach detective out to solve a series of cat disappearances.
Considering the final adventure will likely stretch to 20+ hours, my time with South Park: The Fractured But Whole was painfully short. However, it was encouraging and highly memorable, as you'll be able to see in the accompanying video (which omits the prologue). I've done and seen a lot of things in video games, but this is definitely the first time I've ever been attacked by a squad of red necks after selecting my in-game gender. I also can't recall any mid-boss fight that locked me into a room with two amorous priests. I must say the slap-bass soundtrack was a nice touch to this bad-touch experience.
This sequel certainly won't be for every taste (and it's a minor miracle that Ubisoft Australia managed to push an uncut version through our classification system). That being the case, if you've got a high tolerance for cheeky humour, South Park: The Fractured But Whole could be right up your alley.