The Triple-A Wannabe | South Park: The Fractured But Whole
If you like South Park and played the Stick of Truth already, you were probably looking forward to “The Fractured But Whole”. However, the reviews weren’t quite so warm with it as it only ended up receiving a score of around 80 on average, which is significantly below the 85 that “The Stick of Truth” had received. The reason for the lukewarm reception is that the game pads out its content in order to justify its 60 Dollar price tag. As a result, this filler harms the pacing of the game, worsening the experience.
In this review, I’ll be breaking down the different parts of the game: the combat, questing and puzzles, and then explain how these components have contributed to the overall degradation of the gameplay.
The basic combat explained
The game is an open-world based on the town of South Park from the cartoon. In short, one could describe this game as a Strategy RPG (SRPG). The combat is turn based with battles taking place on a small grid for the player and enemies to move on. Each character takes a turn in order, in which he is able to do one of 3 moves: attack, use an item or activate the ultimate if it is charged. Each of your attacks has a certain area of effect, which is always clearly visible from the attack combat screen. Overall, this seems quite simple but a lot of depth is hidden here. The first thing to notice is that a lot of attacks are only able to be used horizontally. This may seem like a small deal but it is quite important. This is a limitation that applies to not only your characters but also your enemies and here is where the tactics come in. The main objective in SRPGs is to avoid as much damage as possible while also defeating the enemies. If the player knows the attack patterns of the enemies, he will also know how to counter them and that is what he needs to exploit to win at this game. If you position the characters correctly, they can avoid most of the incoming damage. The heavy relevance on positioning adds depth to the game which contributed greatly to the fun factor. The core combat loop is great and doesn’t feel padded out, so let’s check out a place where it did.
Now, the game has the player explore the town of South Park as the “New Kid”. While the original game “Stick of Truth” followed a more linear path in its progression, the game opens itself up a bit more by having more sidequests. Tasks will be given to the player, some of them through the in-game Social Media platform Coonstagram. For a few of them this makes sense since they are fetch quests. These have the protagonist find multiple objectives spread out on the map without any markers. It makes sense for these to be sidequests, since they can be completed alongside the main game. An example would be collecting the Yaoi. These are hidden in plain sight throughout the game. To collect them, the player simply needs to spot the drawing of Tweek and Craig in a location. There is no obvious indication that there is a Yaoi around unless you are in Detective Mode, where the Yaoi then give off a small sparkle. It is possible to enter Detective Mode by pressing the left trigger and it reveals the secrets in the character’s surroundings. However, the Detective Mode isn’t on all the time and the player therefore really has to pay attention to the actual drawings in order to spot them, making the exploration aspect more engaging.
In contrast, the other types of sidequests that are single event-based worsen the pacing of the game. The problem with these is backtracking. The player has to walk, a lot, and walking is hella slow. An example: At one point, the police puts the protagonist on a quest to defeat and arrest a criminal. After the task has been completed, the police at the scene of the crime tell the protagonist to go back to the police station for a debriefing. Little information, apart from the protagonist being told to go and go and arrest the next criminal, was then given there. It was pointless going back to the police station, as the protagonist could have been directly sent from the last crimescene to the next one. At this point, it’s clear that the game pads out its gameplay by constantly making the protagonist walk from one location to the next. There is a fast travel system of course, but it still always takes time to walk to and from FastPass points (fast travel points) as they are spread out quite sparsely. It was oftentimes better to just walk the required distance. For those kind of sidequests, it would have simply been much better to just implement them as part of the main story and keep the campaign more linear.
Back to the Combat, Realtime elements and the game teaching you
A little bit into the game, it introduces realtime hazards into the turn-based combat. How these work is that during the player’s and his opponent’s actions and movement, the hazard timer counts down. Once it reaches its limit, the current turn is cancelled and the hazard is activated. Ideally, one would want for this to happen during an opponents turn. This is a cool mechanic that forces the player to think fast, adding variety to the gameplay. It is used well whenever it appears in the game, especially as the mission is always balanced to this timer. Just take a look at this example. The player’s goal in this battle is to defeat all the strippers to then be able to catch Classi ( with an “I,”and a little dick hanging off the “C” that bends around and fucks the “L” out of the”A”-“S”-“S.”). After the strippers are defeated, the real-time-based hazard appears. Now, you battle the other strippers again, but this time they have reduced health. The reduced health is in this example precisely how the combat is rebalanced to the limited time to think. The only real criticism of this system is that it isn’t properly introduced, causing the player to likely fail the combat when this timer first appears.
Outside of real-time hazards, the game introduces its other mechanics to the player really well. There is always an easy place where the system is taught to the player through very natural challenges. An early mission in the church is a great showcase for this. There, the player learns about telegraphed attacks that take two turns to execute. In the first turn, the attack is charged up and shows the area of effect where serious damage will be dealt in the second turn. The protagonist is by himself with no other party members and the priests only do these telegraphed attacks. Learning this system is the whole point of of the mission.
While on a mission, the player will oftentimes have to solve some sort of observational puzzle to progress. In some cases these are done really well. However, most of the time, they are not. The defining characteristic of a good puzzle is that it makes the player apply a set of existing knowledge and use it to create a new solution. A good puzzle shows the player enough clues to solve it, but leaves the logic of actually doing so up to him. There is a fine balance here and it is problematic if the player is either shown too few or too many clues. The game has 3 types of abilities to solve puzzles with. Firstly, the protagonist is able to combine his farting powers with his friend’s tools to overcome obstacles. Secondly, he gains the time fart ability, which allows him to bend space and time to his liking. And third, he can physically interact with some objects like moving them (indicated usually by marks on the floor) or ranged attacks in the form of farts and fireworks. The combinations of these create some very interesting puzzles, such as when the solution involves the protagonist having to move an object, then timefart to go back in time to be able to position himself so he can light an explosive on fire safely. These are good puzzles, but unfortunately they are quite rare. Most of the time, the only thing the protagonist has to do is to call upon your friends one after another to apply their abilities. These abilities are clearly marked though; Fartkour is marked by a small windmill, Captain Diabetes’ Superstrength is marked by green lego-like mounts and the ability to disable electric wiring is marked by, well, distinct electric wiring. In theory, these should give you enough clues to solve the puzzles. However, a lot of the times you just click on them to progress in a sequence. Pressing a series of obvious buttons is not gameplay; there is no application of the player’s knowledge, it is literally just going up to something and pressing A.
With the amount of times these “puzzles” have been used, it looks like the developers were trying to generate downtimes to let the player cool off from the battles they just had. Sometimes, the game utilises downtime well with some less intensive cutscenes that show dialogue or in more relaxing gameplay sections. One could argue that going up to an object and pressing a button is easy and thus relaxing. But good downtime requires engaging player input. Pressing a button just for the sake of pressing it is not engaging. The developers should have made more puzzles that are actually puzzles. These would still be relaxing, since there is no stress to complete them quickly. This puzzle padding just serves to stretch out the game’s length to justify the $60 pricetag.
Well, the biggest offenders of filler are Coonstagram, the in-game social media platform, and Crafting. The game tries to get the protagonist to do selfies with every character in South Park, which in turn makes them your followers. However, this system is completely pointless. Gaining followers unlocks absolutely nothing. There is no benefit to doing so and it only serves to get the player to do busywork to obtain the selfies. Due to their lack of rewards, I stopped caring about selfies and outright skipped them as I progressed through the campaign. Why was this system built in? Probably, to act as more filler.
The crafting system is marginally more useful than Coonstagram. By finding components all across of South Park (usually in people’s homes or by breaking stuff outside), the player can remake these components into different crafting items. However, the crafting is in most cases very generic. Many parts are not unique and are labelled as electric, food or biological for example. Using these ingredients, the player can craft items such as burritos for health or artifacts. The question is, why put in a crafting system in the first place? If the components are just generic all around, crafting something lacks any sort of meaningful tradeoff. The protagonist can just buy more of any of the random components at vending machines or at stores and craft something else. There are some items that require unique components to craft since they are related to the main story. The thing is, why would this even need a crafting system in the first place? On its own, this really isn’t such a big deal, but this system negatively impacts the game.
As a result of crafting, the developers put in a bunch of lootable boxes everywhere. Opening up and scouring for boxes in levels consumes a large amount of time that actually doesn’t contain any real gameplay, slowing pacing to a crawl. After a while, these boxes stop feeling rewarding to open due to their generic loot. The game would have been improved if the crafting system had been scrapped and if loot boxes offered up more meaningful rewards instead of junk.
Only in few cases did the crafting system actually enhance the gameplay. In one example, you enter a house and find a recipe for an artifact. Two of the three components are easy to find, but the third one is trickier. Looking at the recipe however, you can see that the missing component is “wet” and that is precisely the clue you need to find it. I’ll leave doing that up to you though. This is the kind of puzzle that fits the description of a good puzzle mentioned earlier, and if the game contained more of these within the crafting system, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place.
Not too far into the game, it introduces the concept of Microaggressions by the politically correct PC principal. Effectively, whenever an enemy says something offensive, he makes a Microagression at the protagonist and thus allows a free hit on him as a punishment. Honestly, this mechanic could have had a lot potential since there is a lot of banter in the game and identifying the offensive microaggression for a free hit could have added depth to the combat. However, this mechanic is implemented as a simple scripted event that occurs in some fights. Whenever a Microaggression happens, a huge billboard sign with “Microaggression” written on it appears along with the necessary button prompt to get a free hit. Therefore, this mechanic is solely used for comedic effects. How awesome would it be if the game didn’t tell the player if a Microaggression had occurred? Imagine that when a Microaggression had occurred through an opponent’s banter, the game gave you five seconds or so to press a designated button to give the protagonist a free hit. However, if the player pressed the button outside of this window, the protagonist would have to cash in a hit himself instead. This would have added a layer of depth, as the player would have to also actively listen to what the characters say during the fight and make decisions based on how offensive the statement was. It looks like the developers wanted to originally put in a system like that as PC principal teaches you just that. He makes multiple potentially offensive statements in a row implying that the player has to decide whether or not those are Microaggressions. It sounds like the idea was implemented but later scrapped to make it more appealing to a wider audience, which in turn watered a potentially awesome mechanic down.
Critique of the Story
The story of the game is definitely enjoyable and if you like South Park’s shtick, then the game is a great adaptation of that. Also the atmosphere and the sountrack fit the “Superheroes” crossed with “South Park” theme very well. However, the one big problem with the story is its structure. As mentioned earlier, the sidequests end up interrupting the main story rather than enriching it. As you gradually unravel more and more of the game, the player’s interest in the story should go up and up as the plot pieces finally start to fit together. However in this game, the player’s interest mostly doesn’t really increase because many of the larger events don’t seem to be particularly connected to one another. The long and seemingly unrelated segments of sidquesting between the story bits end up making the plot far less interesting than it should be. Thus, every single large story segment has to deal with your interest being right at the bottom again and therefore making the game less enjoyable than it could be.
Before we head off into the conclusion of this review, we should take a look at the technical performance. One huge positive of the sequel compared to Stick of Truth is that it can now run at a higher framerate than 30. That said, the animations are still capped at 30fps like the cartoon. The benefit of higher framerate is improved camera movement. Whenever you were moving around in the Stick of Truth, the movement of the camera was quite jarring due to the low framerate. On the rest of the technical performance, there isn’t all that much to say. The game is not very demanding; even a Switch Port was announced just now! However, there is a peculiar and egregious bug.
At one point in the game, the protagonist is supposed to go to Token’s house and right before he enters, a cutscene is supposed to play. There are two types of cutscenes in the game: realtime renders with your custom character and pre-rendered videos. What should happen in this scene is that both kinds of cutscene play at the same time: the protagonist waiting for a phone call with Classi (video) to end.
This is precisely what happened, but unfortunately the next event didn’t trigger. This was because I didn’t actually receive the quest yet that required me to go to Token’s house. I was able to pick the quest back up by returning to the map segment where it triggers through a phone call. The protagonist then has to return to that earlier spot and since the phone call with Classi already occurred, only the rendered cutscene starts. He therefore just stands still and waits for a cutscene to finish that won’t start anymore.
The player is forced to reload to an earlier save and if he doesn’t have one, tough luck. Ubisoft has already been aware of this issue for over 4 months since the game’s release and nothing has been done to address it. They are still very happy to sell you a Season Pass (kachink). This bug massively tanks the value of the game as it completely prevents progression. If you do plan on playing the game, make sure to save regularly and do so with multiple saveslots. We saw some information on this kind of bug occurring in multiple locations in the game, so take care!
In conclusion, South Park: The Fractured But Whole did a lot of things quite well; the combat was simple yet in-depth especially with the additional real-time elements in some fights. The soundtrack, graphics and atmosphere were well-done and the humor was spot on for what we know and love of the South Park franchise. On Ubisoft’s desire to make a Triple-A blockbuster out of what could have been a double-A masterpiece, they instead worsened and devalued the experience overall. Useless features such as Coonstagram and crafting were tacked on and side activities stretched out to increase the playtime at the expense of killing the pacing. Cool and unique ideas for gameplay elements such as the microaggressions were simplified to the point of lacking any depth. The length of the Fractured But Whole’s campaign is about 20 hours compared to the Stick of Truth’s 15, but honestly, the latter is preferable since those 15 hours were better paced and more enjoyable. Overall, I wouldn’t have paid more than $35 for this game at launch. With the knowledge of the unattended game-breaking bugs, I have to penalize the value of the game and thus wouldn’t recommend purchase of the game above $25 dollars.
For the score, I have to say that I have to roughly agree with the metascore. Outside the many aspects of the game that dilute the experience, the combat and humor are on point and thus it stilll deserves an 80 out of 100.
(out of 100)
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a good game, but fails at living up to the expectations set by its predecessor The Stick of Truth. Unfortunately, the gameplay was padded so much with filler that it killed the pacing. In Ubisoft's desire to make a Triple-A blockbuster, they instead weakened something that could've been a Double-A masterpiece.
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