Nothing quite breaks the controlled and blandly congenial veneer of a corporate video game preview event quite like a PR person showing you how to spread your character's buttcheeks so he can poop effectively.
I haven't been a regular viewer of South Park in close to a decade, but I definitely appreciated how The Fractured But Whole disrupted the socially mandated politeness of Ubisoft's recent pre-Gamescom event. Like 2014's The Stick of Truth, FBW plays out like a fairly straightforward RPG wrapped in the authentic production values of South Park. While most licensed console games—the few that currently exist, anyway—typically grab sound-alikes, or borrow just a few bored-sounding actors from the source material, Ubisoft has always taken this license seriously—well, as serious as you can get with South Park. With the interactive elements removed, FBW could essentially be an episode of the show itself: Everything from the aesthetic to the voice acting to the writing is distinctly South Park.
This time around, the South Park creators are tapping into slightly more zeitgeisty topic: superheroes. Seemingly the only subject matter that can be made into movies these days, the world of capes definitely contains more than enough spoof-worthy material. And FBW falls in line with the standard South Park approach by looking at superheroes from a particularly cynical angle: marketing. The cast of South Park kids have a falling out over how their own hero franchise should be treated, leading to a civil war of sorts, similar to that recent Marvel movie with all the avenging. This leaves the main character of The Stick of Truth—who starts in his former role of King Douchebag—to pick up the pieces and reunite his former friends.
Even though Ubi's demo only lasted for 20 minutes, the vertical slice on display felt pretty representative of the whole experience. As with The Stick of Truth, you play a fairly nondescript character (who can be female this time) engineered to not interfere with the characters players presumably want to see—in essence, the protagonist is essentially South Park's equivalent of a Mii. The first mission, which tasks you with finding a password to Cartman's basement lair, really exists as an excuse to explore his house for the sake of picking up collectables (needed for crafting, which wasn't available in the demo), and to absorb flavor text and dialogue like an old point-and-click adventure game. Even if this intro wasn't particularly interesting, South Park fans will no doubt enjoy the authenticity of the experience, including finding some particularly horrifying things in Cartman's room.
The battle system definitely stands as the highlight of my time with The Fractured But Whole. As with The Stick of Truth, it's not particularly complex, but still offers a lot to think about: Both movement and turn order (helpfully displayed on the screen) can turn the tide in battle if used to your advantage. This time around, actions are still turn-based, but characters are also locked to a grid of sorts, which determines the enemies they can attack, and vice-versa. Even the early battles presented in the demo emphasized knocking enemies into a formation to make them more susceptible to powerful AOE attacks.
What impressed me the most, though, was the sheer amount of unique dialogue packed into the two battles I played. The first one, meant to depict your character's epic backstory, has you fighting off two would-be burglars in your living room, and as the battle rolls on, the two spout an impressive amount of lines that wouldn't work anywhere else in the game. The same goes for a later battle, which has your character battling some South Park kids in the street at the beginning of their superhero schism—the characters even scatter whenever a car threatens to prematurely end their street fight. No matter how ingenious your RPG battle system is, there's always a chance things can go stale due to simple repetition, but TBW's addition of flavor to its battles could nip this common problem in the bud.
Admittedly, I'm someone who grew weary of South Park's schtick a while ago. I say this not to proclaim I'm above the source material, but instead to remark how surprised I was that sitting down with TBW didn't grate on me like I thought it would. For as much as I got sick of South Park episodes revolving around slight variations on a single joke, the humor in TBW felt a lot more inspired—most likely because the creators aren't using their standard self-imposed hellish writing schedule. That's not to say I've suddenly become a South Park fan again, but the fact that creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have to work a little harder is good news for everyone.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole will be available on December 6th for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.