Given the mire that mankind currently finds itself in, we should probably applaud Trey Parker and Matt Stone's scattershot, omnilateral approach to satire in South Park: The Fractured But Whole, a game which mercilessly skewers all facets of modern life. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you align with, your religious beliefs, your ethnicity, or your gender, there's probably something here that's going to poke fun at you.
The jokes don't all land, and perhaps too often they take the easy way out, but if you're on board with this particular strain of comedy then you'll likely find yourself belly laughing on numerous occasions throughout the game, and you'll probably be smiling for much of it. The jokes come thick and fast, with as many clever gags hidden in the background as crass fart jokes put from a centre. Well, perhaps not quite as many. Even the menus get in on the act. During character creation at the beginning of the game you're asked to select your skin colour, with each incremental step darker raising the difficulty slightly. After we sat for a couple of seconds in bewilderment, Cartman's voice-over instructed us that changing skin colour wouldn't effect the difficulty of battles in the game, but it would make every other aspect of our lives more difficult should we choose to be black. Make of that what you will.
The Fractured But Whole sees most of the young cast of South Park embroiled in a bitter rivalry while playing as superheroes. Cartman is The Coon – basically Batman, but a raccoon – and he recruits you into his superhero franchise in order to help battle against a rival faction called Freedom Pals. As with The Stick of Truth, the story begins as nothing more than a children's game with battles taking place under strict rules decided upon by the kids involved, but later, the plot expands to include Italian mobsters, violent strippers, corrupt cops, and for some reason, Morgan Freeman as a sort of spirit guide. We won't discuss the story any further, because seeing how the various layers of the narrative unfold is a joy for much of the playing time, but there is rarely a dull moment across the 15 hour campaign.
Most improved over The Stick of Truth is the new battle system, which definitely leans towards the easy side for the genre, but requires an element of strategic thinking largely absent from the previous game. Here, turn-based battles take place on grids, and each attack will have an area of influence that you'll have to pay attention to in order to maximise its effectiveness. Some attacks are as simple as a punch in the face that will hit only an enemy in an adjacent tile, but as your repertoire of techniques grows you'll encounter more elaborate arts that could target each foe in a diagonal line, or huge area of effect moves that could take down several baddies at once if employed correctly. While the combat rarely becomes difficult enough to warrant more than a few seconds contemplation per turn, there's a certain amount of satisfaction to be garnered from systematically picking apart a team of enemies with clockwork precision.
As the new kid in town you're granted the ability to switch between different classes and use attacks you've learned from each to form your own super-class. Your friends each have clearly defined job roles, and once you've unlocked enough of them to make choices as to who you take with you on your adventures it makes sense to choose friends that complement your main character. Given the relative ease of the combat overall, though, you shouldn't run into too much trouble if you just team up with the characters you like the best, or the ones that you think are the most fun to use. We found ourselves relying on the same handful of allies towards the end of the game, and we rarely found an enemy threat that felt overwhelming or impassable.
As with South Park: The Stick of Truth on PlayStation 3, the recreation of the look and feel of the South Park television show is superlative. There are moments when if it weren't for items popping up on the HUD to direct you where to go next, you could be forgiven for thinking that you're watching an episode of the long-running series on Comedy Central. The attention to detail here is painstaking, and it's obvious that an incredible amount of love went into creating the game. It's unfortunate, then, that it suffers from a number of technical issues that hamper the experience somewhat. We ran into a handful of occasions when we had to reset the game thanks to a freeze or because we wound up stuck in scenery. The auto-save function is fairly generous so we didn't lose much progress, but it's still annoying to have to hard reset a game four or five times.
The only area in which South Park: The Fractured But Whole can't compete with The Stick of Truth is surprise. There's nothing here that will rival the childish glee we felt seeing 8-Bit Canada for the first time. But it's still riotously funny from start to finish, and on top of that there are some genuinely poignant moments in the game that we weren't expecting. With a much improved battle system and a larger, more well-rounded cast of characters, The Fractured But Whole is practically everything you could want from a Stick of Truth sequel. And there's a bunch of fart jokes, too.