I've been a fan of South Park for nearly 20 years. I've watched every episode, played every game, and at one point even dug up a copy of series co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's first movie, Cannibal: The Musical (unexpectedly good!). In other words, you'd think they wouldn't be able to keep surprising me. Yet South Park: The Fractured But Whole, which comes out this December for PS4/XB1/PC, has already pulled it off. I played a brief demo of the Ubisoft-published game during a PlayStation event in New York City this week and it was delightful, full of unexpected turns and clever gags that had me shaking my head in laughter.
At one point, in the middle of an intense three-on-three street battle between two rival gangs of superheroes, one of the kids yells, "Car!" and they all run to the footpath, temporarily pausing combat until the driver passes by. During another scene the wheelchair-bound Timmy, best known for his inability to say anything but his own name, goes full Professor X and starts sending erudite telepathic messages to the other kids. Thanks to some preposterous writing and the always-brilliant voice work of Stone and Parker, the demo (which Ubisoft should really put on YouTube) does its job spectacularly.
Like Stick of Truth before it, The Fractured But Whole takes the simple premise of children playing pretend and milks it in all the best ways, not just through puerile gags ("He fucked the shit out of my brains," Cartman wisely notes at one point) but by offering satirical takes on Marvel, video game tropes and childhood naivety. Because this is South Park, you can also use farts to propel yourself up a building.
Fractured But Whole, as Parker and Stone explained at E3, takes place directly after the last game, Stick of Truth. The kids have given up on medieval fantasy and are instead playing superhero, as they have done a few times on the show, which means adopting secret identities like Coon (Cartman), Mysterion (Kenny) and the Human Kite (Kyle). As we saw in the E3 trailer, the kids had a big argument over when each of their franchises were going to get movies, and then they entered Civil War, which is a good excuse for all the kids to beat each other up.
Your character — who can now be a boy or a girl! — has to create his or her very own superhero identity, starting with one of three base classes: Brutalist, Blaster and Speedster. In an interesting change from Stick of Truth, Fractured But Whole lets you switch classes at any time. As you progress through the game, you'll unlock new classes and even gain the ability to multi-class.
You also get to create a backstory. You may have seen part of this backstory creation process during the presentation at Ubisoft's E3 conference, in which the main character is traumatised when he sees his mum and dad have sex. That was abridged, though. Before walking in on his parents' love session, the New Kid actually has to fight off some intruding thieves in what serves as Fractured But Whole's combat tutorial.
The biggest and best surprise is the new combat system, which iterates on Stick of Truth's Paper Mario-style battling in some interesting ways. You can now have a party of up to four kids (Stick of Truth capped out at two), which allows both for more strategy and more fun dialogue pairings. Movement also plays an important role in combat; every battle takes place on a different-sized grid, and you can move each character around the battlefield before attacking. Different skills act differently depending on your positioning — one ability, for example, knocks an enemy backwards one space, doing extra damage to anyone who happens to be behind him.
The combat dialogue remains ridiculous, blending reality and fantasy in the same preposterous concoction that worked so well in Stick of Truth. "Damn, we weren't expecting a super hero to live here," one of the burglars says in the tutorial. Later, the kids exchange insults about Netflix and franchises and DC Comics.
While walking me through the demo, Ubisoft San Francisco senior producer Jason Schroeder (no relation) compared Fractured But Whole's combat system to board games like Zombicide, where different scenarios might emerge depending how players choose to act. I told him that I'd loved Stick of Truth but found that combat grew stale toward the end, as your main character got damage-stacking abilities that would let him demolish every enemy in his path. He agreed, telling me that they're aiming for more strategy this time around.
The devs at Ubisoft SF are also making some smaller tweaks to improve Fractured But Whole over its predecessor. Looting chests and enemy bodies in Stick of Truth, for example, opened up a separate menu screen where you could either snatch up items individually or press a button to take them all. It's safe to say that most people just pressed "take all", which is why in Fractured But Whole, that's all you have to do. Just walk up to a chest or drawer and you'll get a "take all" prompt — no extra menus required. It's one of those little changes that can make a huge difference in the game's minute-to-minute flow.
I hate to get too hyped over a 10-minute demo, but Stone and Parker have already proven that they can make great RPGs, and the developers are making smart decisions here. I'm pretty stoked for this one. The only question left: Is it too late to add Chinpokomon GO?