Anyone who’s watched South Park during its 20 years on the air knows it entertains by harmonizing offensive characters, shocker storylines and waggish writing. Interactive South Park is no different: There are moments in studio Ubisoft San Francisco’s South Park: The Fractured But Whole guaranteed to make you cringe. But the irreverent roleplaying game, out October 17 for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One, counterpunches with amusing side missions, engaging battles and a steady barrage of take-no-prisoners quips.
Remember The Coon, the Batman-esque racoon-themed superhero South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone created for season 13? He’s back, once more played by Cartman, who has to assemble a squad of do-gooders. But instead of pretending to be wizards and elves as in the last game, everyone’s roleplaying superheroes, including Kyle as The Human Kite, Craig as Super Craig, and you as your superhero alter ego. Like The Stick of Truth, you’ll start by choosing a profession and picking a class, including types like Speedster, which gives you an arsenal of fast-paced abilities, Brutalist, a close-ranged powerhouse brawler, or Blaster, which can deal fire damage.
In classic roleplaying fashion, each character brings their own strengths and weaknesses to battle based on their traits and class. Super Craig is ideal for dishing out damage, for example, while The Human Kite is a useful healer to have on board. Cartman’s gang is at odds with Butters, who plays the villainous Professor Chaos, as well as another group of heroes known as the Freedom Pals, which were originally part of Coon & Friends but split off to form their own team after a disagreement. This group includes Stan as Toolshed, Tweek as Wonder Tweek, and Token as Tupperware.
Cartman’s longterm plan for Coon & Friends is to turn it into an ultra-successful entertainment franchise, as Marvel has done with its superhero roster. But for the purposes of this game, Cartman is on a mission to find a local cat that’s gone missing. As is always the case with Cartman, there’s an ulterior motive here: he wants to snatch up the $100 reward for returning the cat to its owner before the Freedom Pals can get to it.
As the new kid in town, your first objective is to prove that you’re worthy of joining Coon & Friends by completing a few simple missions and gaining followers on the Instagram-inspired fictional social network Coonstagram. The bigger following you have on Coonstagram, the more influence you hold in South Park, which boosts your hero rank and makes you a more formidable opponent in battle.
While much of the game involves scouting the town of South Park for items and characters to complete missions, the heart of the game is its battle system. The good news is that its creators have at least partly rectified the The Stick of Truth‘s simplistic fighting sequences. Like its predecessor, The Fractured But Whole uses a turn-based battle system, but you now move your character on an isometric grid to attack, with where you are on the board determining what you can do and to whom. It’s a nice upshift that adds nuance to combat, though you wouldn’t mistake it for the depth of a tactical RPG like Fire Emblem.
The Fractured But Whole also incorporates different battle types that can make defeating enemies more difficult as the game progresses. Roughly four hours into The Fractured But Whole, for example, you’ll encounter a surprisingly tough foe and have to knock out minions, complete your turn within a certain time period, and avoid certain areas on the board to escape blows that kill with a single hit. One way to boost your strength in battle is by collecting and equipping artifacts, which are items that can give your team an edge. Artifacts offer special perks, like increasing your defense, and raise your Might, which makes your team more difficult to defeat.
Another quibble with The Stick of Truth that’s been fixed in The Fractured But Whole: the former’s irritating training sequences. You had to complete these in order to learn a new ability in The Stick of Truth, but they’re been abandoned entirely here, which is grand, because the controls were sometimes buggy and the whole process time-consuming. In The Fractured But Whole, new gameplay elements are smartly explained through onscreen prompts, which keeps the story moving.
If you enjoyed the last game’s scavenger hunt quests, like the Chinpokomon side mission, you’ll be happy to know that similar challenges exist in The Fractured But Whole. Instead of collecting those Pokémon-parody toys, you’ll be keeping an eye out for intimate portraits of Tweek and Craig drawn Yaoi-style, a callback to the sixth episode in the show’s nineteenth season. Roaming around South Park is a huge part of what’s made both of these games so fun, and The Fractured But Whole gives you even more reason to stroll around South Park Elementary or dig through the filing cabinets in Tom’s Rhinoplasty. You can craft useful tools out of the materials you gather, which range from high-level artifacts to costumes and objects you need to complete a mission. You’ll also find items that can help you in combat, like food and antidotes, but the new crafting system gives the game a bit more substance.
For all that’s improved, there are areas I expected more. The puzzles are still eye-rolling-easy to complete. Many involve finding a path around an obstacle, which can usually be done by shooting a twinkling object to reveal a new entrance or ladder. Currency doesn’t matter as much as it should: There are a few situations in which having a cash stash comes in handy, but most useful items can be had from crafting, which makes money feel pointless. And while the new crafting system incentivizes players to check out every shop and home in South Park, the setting is starting to feel awfully familiar, especially if you’re coming from The Stick of Truth.
The Fractured But Whole wouldn’t be a South Park game if didn’t occasionally disgust and poke fun at real-world issues. There’s no shortage of that in this game, and that’s evident from the moment you build your character. Choosing a darker skin color makes the game generally more difficult. Later on, you’ll get ridiculed and assaulted because of your gender, no matter how you choose to identify. At some point you’ll find yourself fending off a pair of frisky priests trying to get handsy with you in the back of the town church. It’s all in keeping with Parker and Stone’s relentless commitment to keeping observers of whatever stripe off balance.
And that more than anything is what makes the game worth a look. The new combat enhancements and crafting elements aside, it still feels like you’re playing through a hilarious episode of South Park, where nothing is sacred, and everything and everyone gets skewered.
4 out of 5
Buy now: Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One