A perfect episode of South Park is born of a deft alchemy in which savage satire, compelling character development, and a deeply crude sense of humor are blended together to form something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It is a recipe that is often imitated but rarely duplicated by the animated series’ competitors, even in instances when The Simpsons did technically do it first. (In recent years in particular, South Park has just done it better.) For 20 years, South Park has been eviscerating everything in the pop cultural zeitgeist with its incisive brand of humor and criticism, and now we’re poised to receive our greatest season of the show yet. Except that this season isn’t going to be on television at all; it’s the storyline for a sprawling new role-playing game coming out this October.
Good things come to those who wait, and South Park fans have been waiting a long time to play The Fractured But Whole. Developed by Ubisoft in collaboration with South Park Digital Studios, the game was first announced by South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker during Ubisoft's 2016 E3 presentation, and slated for release on December 6, 2016. As is so often the case with game development, the title was pushed back again and again until the game's quality was up to the studios' standards. At long last, South Park: The Fractured But Whole will come to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC on October 17, and it promises to rend superhero movies and shared cinematic universes asunder. Leaving behind the swords and sorcery that they so effectively lampooned in 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, the hotly anticipated sequel is prepared to put superhero cinema through the wringer in a sprawling tactical role-playing game that feels as satisfying as a steaming hot bowl of Tenorman chili.
How do I know this? On Tuesday, I spent approximately four hours playing the game, and the production staff practically had to pry the controller out of my hands. As a ravenous RPG player and a longtime South Park fan, The Fractured But Whole has been one of my most anticipated titles since I first played an early build behind closed doors at E3. While the game was already addictive in its primordial state, now it is a wholly engrossing experience. It didn’t just feel like you were the star of an apocryphal season of South Park; it was a gripping RPG in and of itself, thanks to a robust crafting system, complex tactical combat, and writing that made me want to kiss my fingers like an Italian chef who just saw a beautiful pizza emerge from a wood-fired oven.
When Ubisoft invited me to travel to San Francisco to get hands-on time with the game, I leapt at the chance, and I did not leave disappointed. The Fractured But Whole loosely picks up where The Stick of Truth left off, but with the kids of South Park ditching their Medieval fantasy attire for homespun spandex and super heroic secret identities. Except rather than pretending to be superheroes to emulate ideals of truth, justice, and the American way, Cartman wants to gain enough notoriety for his superhero squadron--The Coon and Friends--to launch their own film franchise.
However, Cartman's grand Hollywood vision clashes with another superteam, the Freedom Pals, and the two groups find themselves embroiled in a civil war of sorts. Of course, this clash between good and slightly less good leaves an opening for the forces of evil to wreak havoc on the town of South Park... and apparently steal its cats, for some reason. It's not entirely clear based on the few hours I've played thus far, but whatever is happening to the town's feline population can't be good.
The developers are clearly gigantic fans of the source material as every little detail of South Park is lovingly rendered and is, more often than not, totally explorable. As the new kid in town—appropriately named New Kid (née Douchebag)—you explore the vast suburban sprawl of this middling mountain town, visiting familiar haunts like South Park Elementary School, Historic Sodosopa, Tweek Bros Coffee, and the Coon’s Lair (a.k.a. Cartman’s basement), battling enemies, encountering fan favorite characters, and collecting all manner of disturbing loot. Case in point: old nose clippings from the local rhinoplasty clinic. Apparently they’re crafting components, but for what disgustingly eldritch purpose I cannot imagine as I thankfully did not get to use them.
The game will have you cackling from its very first moments. During the character creation process, you're able to tweak all manner of standard categories--hairstyle, hair color, facial features, the usual--but there is also a category entitled "difficulty." As you scroll from "very easy" to "very difficult," your character's skin color goes from ghostly white to black, a brutal nod to the institutional racism and the stranglehold white privilege has over existing systems of power. "You won't actually take more damage in combat," Cartman's voice tells you in voiceover. "People will just treat you differently." It's the kind of acidly funny yet all-too-real humor that South Park has trafficked in for years and deploys so deftly to both make you laugh and squirm simultaneously. And where The Fractured But Whole is concerned, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
A seemingly small but meaningful change from The Stick of Truth is that you can now create female and non-binary avatars. The sex portion of your character sheet is filled out after a conversation with Mr. Mackey at South Park Elementary, who asks you how you identify. In my case, he went as far as to ask whether my character was assigned male at birth and if I identified as transgender. When I replied that I was a cis-gendered male, he looked at me gravely then called my parents to make sure that they knew this was how I identified and that they were okay with it. Considering that you were automatically locked into playing a male character in the previous game, this comes as a welcome change toward making South Park's wild, raunchy, engaging adventure feel inclusive to all manner of players.
The customization options are surprisingly deep and will offer a plethora of permutations for RPG fanatics looking to make a character ideally suited to their gameplay style. Not only can you unlock, purchase, or create all manner of clothing items like helmets, gloves, and superheroic outfits, but there are multiple character classes to choose from. The demo I played allowed you to choose from three character classes: the hard-hitting Brutalist, the ranged fart-slinging Blaster, and the fleet-footed Speedster. Wanting to rain butt-based terror from afar, I went with the Blaster, whose skillset included abilities that let me sling fireballs, unleash scorching beams, and knock my foes back to create distance. You'll want to choose your character class wisely as each comes with an array of different abilities you'll deploy in the game's tactical turn-based combat system.
Using a hex-based map, you'll maneuver your character around the field to position them in the ideal place to lay waste to your foes. You won't be alone though; as you progress through the game, you'll unlock multiple characters to assist you in battle. While you can only have a party of four, there appeared to be at least 10 unlockable characters to aid you in your quest in what I spied from the menus. Aspiring stand-up comedian Jimmy is Fastpass, a speedster who can zip around the map, swapping places with allies to restore their health, or pummeling opponents with faster-than-light blows; Kyle unleashes the power of the winds as the Human Kite, using his unique abilities to heal allies, grant protective barriers, and attack enemies from far away; Craig is Supercraig, a beefy bruiser who can enrage his opponents to focus their attentions on him; and Clyde is the Mosquito, a life-draining pest who can inflict poison damage on his enemies. Finding the perfect combinations will take some experimentation, but each combat encounter felt increasingly satisfying as I learned the ins and outs of game, utilizing my party's abilities to create killer combinations and exploit enemy weaknesses.
Equally satisfying was how gorgeously animated each and every move is. When the Mosquito unleashed a horde of bugs to gross out a group of enemy sixth graders, they ended their turns by violently vomiting and taking damage, a very South Park way of deploying the time-tested RPG trope of poison damage. Particularly exquisite are the ultimate abilities, which are unlocked after filling a percentage meter during the course of each battle. When it fills up, you can select a party member to unleash an ultra-powerful ability that targets multiple opponents, dealing massive amounts of damage and usually inflicting some sort of unsavory status effect too. For example, as a Blaster, my ultimate ability sent the camera soaring through my bowels like a nightmarish version of The Magic School Bus and out my unfractured butthole to assault my opponents with a concentrated blast of noxious gas that left them both poisoned and set them ablaze. If you thought the ultimate moves in Injustice 2 were over the top, just wait until you see what's waiting for you in The Fractured But Whole.
After playing the game for several hours, exploring every nook and cranny, discovering countless easter eggs and references to seasons past, and laying the smackdown on everyone from surly sixth graders to handsy priests, I can safely say that The Fractured But Whole is off to an incredibly promising start. It is a game where there are not one but two buttons to fart on command, something I never thought I would want or need. Whether you're a diehard fan of South Park or you're looking to lose yourself in a massive role-playing game, The Fractured But Whole seems like it will have a little something for everyone this fall. Especially if you're someone who loves deep, tactical combat in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics or XCOM 2.
Like any good season of South Park, this game looks as though it won't just make you laugh about the surfeit of superhero cinema that's inundating our theaters, but hopefully think about it critically too. If nothing else, it'll be a great way to figure out what's coming down the pipeline after the thrilling yet shocking finale of Coon and Friends 2: Armageddon. Who will live? Who will die? Honestly, as long as I get to play the rest of this game, who cares?