South Park is a show that is definitely an acquired taste. From the crude animation style to the cruder jokes, the show is designed to cause offense. Sometimes that offense cuts straight to the heart of a matter and sometimes it doesn’t. And that is how I feel about this game. Mechanically, it is one of the best classic JRPG-inspired games to come out in recent years, but the story veers from unimportant filler between battles to bits that will just make many people cringe.
Let’s talk about the most controversial part of the game first – character creation. Yes, character creation in a RPG caused controversy. The process is very simple, but once you get to the “Choose Your Race” part of the character you actually set the game difficulty instead. In an attempt to comment on white privilege and the effects a darker skin have on your life, the higher the difficulty, the darker the character’s skin, and the lower the rewards in the game, be that XP or cash. Combat is not affected, just your chances for advancement and fair pay. To be fair, this is in keeping with the show’s sense of satire, but in practice it just penalises the player. The effect is so subtle that you forget about it almost immediately. You simply have no frame of reference in game to understand that you are being held back due to your choice of skin colour. The attempt to explain privilege via a game mechanic is admirable, just not implemented in a meaningful way.
Where the game shines for me is in the nuts and bolts. Battle mechanics are simple, yet deep. Battles take place on a grid with your party facing off against the bad guys. Choosing the right mix of characters is, as always, important but not just in the “tank/healer/magic user” dynamic. Each character has three primary abilities and one super ability. The primary abilities can affect the grid in front of the character, to the side, diagonally or in some other way. So mixing your team to be able to attack the whole “board” is essential as this is very much like a chess game. At first I didn’t realise that the battles could be so complex, but as I got deeper into the game and came up against “Special Objective” battles, I soon realised that using the same team over and over wasn’t going to work.
These “Special Objective” battles are tense affairs in which you are tasked with destroying an obstacle to get close to a ranged attack enemy or to advance on the battlefield grid . The most memorable was a battle with Towlie who is invincible. The only way to defeat him is to get to the four corners
of the grid and complete an objective. Another has you running away from a high damage foe as she closes on you from behind, all the while battling a wave of minions in front of you that can knock you backwards.
Adding to the impetus of battle is ensuring that you keep your main character alive. He has special “Timefart” abilities that can freeze time, allowing for free attacks, or that can turn back time to steal a turn from an enemy. If he falls in battle those abilities are lost and they can be critical in whether you survive a battle or have to replay it.
Aiding you in battle is the now-expected level-progression system, called the "Hero Rank". As you complete battles and objectives you will receive XP that unlocks artefact slots. With artefacts that you win in battle, find or craft you can unlock various modifiers to your stats; some can increase health, but may decrease movement. They will also add positive modifiers to the damage you do, like a knock back effect, but may decrease the status effects your attacks can cause. It is essential you don’t just look at the big number that indicates your power level when adding artefacts, but at the various effects it has on your stats as it may be better to accept a lower power level due to the modifiers that it grants.
Crafting is something of a curious mechanic. As you loot everything from bags and cupboards, you will collect so much bric-a-brac so that you can craft, via simple recipes, health items, artefacts and other mission-critical items. The system is simple and the amount of stuff you collect feels somewhat superfluous as you will hardly if ever have to hunt for crafting items. If you do find that you don’t have that macaroni to craft that healing item, just visit the shops as you should be able to buy it.
Visiting those shops though can be a chore. The game is spread over a relatively large map, not Witcher 3 large mind you, but one that you have to walk around quite a bit. There is a fast travel system, but this is not the kind where you open the map and just point to Cartman’s house and you are instantly transported there. No, you have to walk to the fast travel point signified by a red flag with a lightning bolt on it, press X to call Timmy who will then take you to another fast travel point. Given that they are spread out, you will still walk a fair amount.
That walking is made a little more difficult as there is no minimap on screen. That leaves you with a beautifully clean UI so that you feel as if you are watching the show, but sacrifices intuitive gameplay. You can call down a kind of minimap by pressing the left bumper, but it is so small as to be useless, even on my 50” TV. I found myself opening the main map more often than not to get my bearings.
The skill tree UI is also similarly difficult to read. The centre is your DNA strand that allows you to slot in artifacts as well as DNA boosts, however, reading the effects of each item can be tough due to the small text. Small text is a problem throughout. As you wander about the town, you’ll see Coonstagram posts pop up but the problem is that they are so small that you cannot read them without going into the menus. I just gave up.
The Fractured But Whole is typical South Park fare, a story of kids who seem, in some ways, older than they should be doing extremely childish things. The story is meant to evoke those days when we all played superhero games in the backyard, but with added satire. Sometimes the satire hits, such as the Social Justice Warrior training, and sometimes it doesn’t, such as the Catholic Priest battle. That last joke is so old as not to be funny anymore; there is nothing more to be said about those awful men and the cover-up perpetrated by the church.
Another section that falls flat - and had me considering for some time whether to continue - was a mini game in the strip club. Spoiler Alert In this sequence you and Captain Diabetes are at a strip club and to get information you have to give two drunk men a lap dance. In their drunken haze they don’t recognise you as children, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and cringe-worthy. The fact the game seeks to mine humour from underage sex work is difficult to play through as this is a very real problem. The satire, if there is any, is not very well executed and the sequence does not really have you think about the situation as good satire should. It is just another mini-game with farts in it.
Other than this section the story is decent but I found myself more often treating it as filler between battles. While funny in places, it does miss the mark at times. Your journey through South Park is interesting enough to keep you going, when the game reminds you of the story. For long stretches I forgot about why we were doing this - to find the missing cat, to get the reward, so as to be the dominant super hero group in town. Even the first mini-game/quest to collect Coonstagram followers via selfies is quickly forgotten. The story, at times, just gets you from Battle A to Battle B and that is a pity as there are some gems buried in that design.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a good game buried beneath some crassness. The mechanics are perfect for newcomers and veterans alike to the turn-based JRPG-inspired gameplay, and while the story isn’t as good as it should be it holds the space between battles together nicely. The game is definitely worth your time and money as a fan of the show, as a fan of these type of games, or as a fan of both.
Grumpy Old Man who still collects toys (THEY. ARE. NOT. DOLLS), PC Gamer lured to the Dark Side of console gaming, comic book reader and fan of all things pop culture.
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Ubisoft San Francisco
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
17 October 2017
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