I've told and re-told the old chestnut about how part of my first purchase with my first paycheque was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Let me talk about the second half of that historic purchase: Two South Park T-shirts.
In 1997, I was as much about Trey Parker and Matt Stone's foul-mouthed troupe of fourth-graders as I was about brilliant 32-bit 2D platformers. And while I'm still in love with the latter, I fell out of love with the former about a decade later.
That's not to say I grew to thoroughly dislike South Park the way I did with, say, Family Guy. In fact, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut still ranks as one of my favorite films (let's stop the lies: The Canadian government has never apologized for Bryan Adams, and no number of mea culpas will ever be enough). I just got a bit tired of the schtick and drifted away. I even took a pass on 2014's Stick of Truth, the predecessor to The Fractured but Whole, though I suspected I might enjoy it. I just never mustered the time or energy to play.
I was similarly "meh" over the announcement for The Fractured but Whole, and mulled over if I ought to bother. Then the pun behind the game's name hit me while I was standing in line at a bulk store, and I nearly had a breakdown in front of the cashier. That's when I figured, "Yeah, I guess I should check this out."
Deep in my heart, the ashes of my tasteless 17-year-old self still smoulder. I guess they just needed a good burst of gas to flare alight again.
Fortunately, The Fractured but Whole (and, I've been told, The Stick of Truth) is tailored for people like myself: People who aren't much interested in listening to South Park's kids echo the libertarian beliefs of the show's creators, but have a soft spot for the kids' make-believe games. As far as I'm concerned, "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers" (where Butters is corrupted by a porn video a la Gollum and the One Ring) and Good Times with Weapons (a blatant parody of anime and video game tropes that aired ages before making fun of that sort of thing was common in mainstream entertainment) is still some of the best TV ever written.
Similarly, The Fractured but Whole is all about fun, games, and make-believe, but with an obvious DC vs Marvel Comics flavor—and with an air of seriousness that cuts through the calls of "pew-pew!" and "laser-eye attack!" like the sharp smell of cat urine. South Park's under siege by a crime spree involving an increase in drunken brawls, petty vandalism, and a slew of missing kitties. Something foul is afoot in the quiet mountain town, but Cartman (the leader of the Coon and Friends team) is only interested in playing super hero long enough to find a particularly miserable-looking cat named Scrambles, collect the $100 reward, and use the money to kick-start Coon and Friends as a franchise.
Unsurprisingly, things quickly get out of hand. As you delve deeper into the game as the New Kid (AKA ButtLord, aka ThunderButt), you learn how to harness your unworldly farts to attack foes and unzip the fabric of time itself. You also learn more and more about your own tragic backstory. Every hero's gotta have one. That's the rules.
As you progress through The Fractured but Whole, you're allowed to call on more of your fellow heroes to help you in battle. The kids' costumes and abilities are an adorable hodge-podge of plastic, tinfoil, and Tupperware (except for the ever-cynical Super Craig, who tapes an "S" to his sweater and calls it a day), and their powers are limited only by their imagination—at least until a fellow team member calls them out for not playing fair. My go-to team is Jimmy ("Fastpass," who wields Flash-like super-speed), Kyle ("The Human Kite," who fires lasers from his eyes and has healing powers), and Scott ("Captain Diabetes," who binges on sugar to go on glucose-fueled rages. 9 out of 10 doctors recommend diabetics never do this, ever).
Combat in The Fractured but Whole is a mix of strategy, turn-based combat, and timed button presses. Players and foes take turns moving around a gridded field, and both sides' combatants can utilize strong melee attacks, weaker status-affecting long-distance attacks, and several buffs, debuffs, and heals. There's a surprising amount of strategy to the game's fights, especially if you play on a higher difficulty. Fights sometimes drag a bit, particularly fights that require you to fill a special condition.
Thankfully, it's easy to avoid non-scripted fights, and grinding battles isn't necessarily the best way to power up your party, anyway. Instead, crafting plays a major part in your party's strength. South Park is chockablock with knick-knacks and biohazards perfect for putting together accessories that make your team stronger. As you level up, you're able to equip more accessories that benefit your friends. The Fractured but Whole's over-arching power-up system means you can swap out fighters and not have to worry about someone being under-powered. It's very beneficial, since different encounters call for different abilities.
There's a surprising number of things to see, do, and collect in The Fractured but Whole. The main quest took me nearly 20 hours to compete, and I still had tons of side-quests and collectables to check off my "To Do" ledger. I didn't collect all 40 pieces of Craig x Tweek yaoi fanart littered around the town, nor did I help the troubled couple through therapy like I promised I would. Maybe I ought to.
As for the main story, it goes through a slump near the midway point, but thankfully it picks back up again for a hilarious, horrifying conclusion. I spent a lot of time trundling blearily through South Park's streets (travel is slow, even with Fastpass' checkpoints), but I spent a lot of time laughing at its one-liners and background gags, too. There's no other RPG quite like it—other than Stick of Truth, of course.
I think The Fractured but Whole wouldn't suffer if it had a few hours knocked off it, but at the same time, I'm kind of sad to be done with it, too. It made me feel a little nostalgic for the latter half of the '90s, when society's biggest scandal was a show about a bunch of kids saying "Ass." If you liked Stick of Truth, it only makes sense to start playing superheroes (elves are totally lame, you guys). If you're like me and you have a long-dormant fondness for South Park, you'll likely enjoy it, too.
If you don't like South Park at all, though, walk away. Then keep walking until you hit Canada, buddy.
The Fractured but Whole has atmospheric music worthy of a superhero movie trailer in addition to innumerable one-liners that don't repeat too often, thankfully.
South Park isn't a pretty show, but it's a visually interesting one. Same goes for The Fractured but Whole. The game is indistinguishable from the cartoon, right down to every last corner of every last cut-out character. The character's special attacks have suitable comic book flare, as do the menus, though said menus feel cluttered as a consequence.
Like Stick of Truth before it, South Park: The Fractured but Whole plays like an episode of the show. One of the good episodes, mind you, that's more about the kids interacting with each other than politics. Though it drags at times, The Fractured but Whole carries a sweet, twisted charm that makes it hard to resist if you're similarly twisted. It's still not recommended for anyone who never found the show funny to begin with, though.