South Park: The Fractured But Whole Preview: Uncivil War

South Park: The Stick of Truth, was my favorite game of 2014. At that point, I was a lapsed South Park TV show fan: for my tastes, the show had gone too far into the gutter, become too bloated with excessive pop culture references, and grown too invested in just offending everyone instead of providing solid parody.

Stick of Truth seemed to help the South Park brand find its satirical feet again. It also came at a time when videogames benefited from the injections of self-referential farce that South Park provides. That element hasn’t changed: videogames are still taking themselves far too seriously. In fact, most geeky properties in TV and film are also overdoing the grimdark. Superheroes have mutated from avatars of middle class hope to muscle-bound strongmen  who destroy entire cities and don’t even like each other. Help us, Eric Cartman!  You’re our only hope!
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Only South Park can have an obese white kid dressed as a character called The Coon and make it palatable. This is Eric Cartman’s superhero alter ego in the follow up, the pointedly named South Park: The Fractured But Whole.  I swear that the woman on the intercom at the Ubisoft party at E3 deliberately pronounced the title “The Fractured Butthole” to make sure everyone got the double entendre. The Fractured But Whole seems to be continuing the narrative device that worked so well in Stick of Truth: it’s a videogame adventure created by the biggest loser in the school.

This time , South Park is riffing on Civil War, Batman vs Superman, and all the other stupid pretenses out there for having good guys fight good guys – that’s why it’s fractured, but whole. It’s also skewering the multiphase superhero film universes that DC and Marvel are rolling out, and there’s a revolt in Cartman’s superhero ranks when the less marquee kid superheroes get tired of waiting for wave three of Cartman’s master franchise plan. They form their own opposing superhero team, and fights break out in the streets of South Park. In the middle of all this is the playable character, the New Kid, aka “King of the Douchebags”, from the first game. For those who didn’t play Stick of Truth, the douchebag thing was a riff on the workarounds fully-voiced RPGs use to refer to the main character by a title instead of the name the player chooses. Instead of “Grey Warden”, “Inquisitor”, or “Dragonborn”, South Park used “douchebag” as a title.

Of course, New Kid still has their preternatural fart powers. According to the internet, you can play as a female New Kid this time, and I can only imagine what Cartman will do with that. I will be choosing that option as gleefully as I selected the “Jew” playable class in Stick of Truth, because Cartman’s ignorance is something I find funny. Getting back to the fart powers, they can now be combined with the superpowers of other kids in both the exploration and combat elements of the game.

There were, of course, some jokes in the demo that will offend more than a few people. It’s South Park:that comes with the territory. The thing that makes the whole formula feel fun instead of stupid is how cleverly pre-existing characters are used in new ways. The behind-closed-doors preview showed certain characters, like Timmy and Craig, with more to do than they did in the first game, and this isn’t just change for the sake of change: their roles are played for big laughs. PC Principal even makes a brief appearance in the trailer.
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Ubisoft San Francisco is replacing Obsidian as the developer, and with that change comes a game that strives to have more thoughtfully designed gameplay. Though the combat of The Stick of Truth was humorous, it got repetitive in places, and Ubisoft has beefed up this gameplay mode by introducing a small grid to the battles that allows for strategic positioning and tactical combos. Fire Emblem Fates it ain’t, but there’s hope that there’s enough here this time around to keep the battles interesting once the novelty of the sight gags wear off.

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Another improvement to the game is an increase in interactive humour. The concept itself made me laugh, because I never thought I’d see Ubisoft’s “gameplay first” philosophy applied to finding sex toys in Cartman’s Mom’s room and a crafting system involving poo. This element might be too much for more “cultured” gamers, but it’s South Park. In South Park you embrace the poo, the foul language, and the shock jokes as part of the landscape. South Park manages,  sometimes just barely, to rise above being offensive for the sake of offending by picking timely, relevant targets for mockery: in Stick of Truth, they were possibly the first people who didn’t get destroyed for suggesting that elements of Skyrim were incredibly stupid . Before that, suggesting that the game was anything less than perfect would get your face ripped off by angry nerds .

Beyond catharsis, the South Park games serve to remind game companies that humour sells. In a time when games seem to be racing to see who can be the most bleak, depressing, and fatalistic, South Park uses the exact same concepts – zombies, aliens, end-of-the-world scenarios, and prophesied heroes – in ways that pop the bubble of seriousness threatening to surround gaming. Not every game has to say something about the human condition to be worthwhile, and yet South Park manages its own sort of profound message by being very serious about taking absolutely nothing seriously. I have faith that Ubisoft will keep Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy instincts on the right side of the line, and there were obvious signs in the theater preview that they certainly haven’t neutered their dialogue in the process.

What I’m looking for from the complete game is precisely that sense of balance. I want moments where I’m legitimately shocked, but for some sort of purpose. I also hope that it’s another experience that ties seemingly random components together at the end. Finally, I hope that this franchise hasn’t allowed being ludicrously censored in various parts of the world to define its identity. That is, I hope that it doesn’t try to get censored again by being deliberately offensive, but I don’t want to see it cowed into trying to actively avoid censorship either. Sometimes a little offense is healthy. It makes us question our assumptions and verify our beliefs.  Ubisoft and South Park seem like the oddest couple in gaming, but it seems to still be working.