South Park: The Fractured But Whole review
I'm The New Kid in South Park, and I'm having a conversation with Mr. Mackey, the elementary school counselor, about my gender and sexual identities. He explains there is a difference between gender and identity; one does not necessarily determine the other. He then asks me to identify myself.
In real life, I am a cisgender, straight man, and so I decide to have my character reflect that. But I accidentally click the wrong option. And so, my character identifies as a transgender boy who is attracted to girls. I go with it, rather than restarting the scenario.
Mr. Mackey tells me that I need to be careful—that many will not accept me for who I am. And true to form, the minute I leave the school building, a pickup truck pulls up, and stereotypical rednecks attack me for being transgender.
My jaw hits the floor. I'm sort of angry, sort of appalled, and sort of tickled as I destroy the rednecks with a combination of punches, farts, and fireballs. And I think to myself: "This is probably the reaction that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted me to have." After all, it wouldn't be South Park otherwise.
The new South Park:The Fractured But Whole videogame, available on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows, is an improvement over its predecessor The Stick of Truth, starting with the game's engine. The prior game was prone to stuttering, particularly when you walked from one area of the map to another. That issue no longer exists; the animation in The Fractured But Whole now looks as deliberately bad as Parker and Stone intended it, and nothing less.
In The Stick of Truth, the kids were playing pretend as fantasy heroes. There's a bit of that at the beginning of The Fractured But Whole, but the kids quickly switch to playing pretend superheroes instead. It gives the writers many opportunities to poke fun at Hollywood's current deluge of superhero franchises. And to its credit, the game has the self-awareness to know it's part of the problem. Several characters, when they see my caped character walk by, wonder out loud, "Isn't the superhero thing played out?"
Everything about the new game's combat is a marked improvement over the first game's combat. Stick of Truth's combat was fun and easy to pick up, but it lacked depth and challenge. The damage of status effects stacked too heavily. You were only allowed to control two characters at a time. And you could only choose from one of four classes.
In the new game, you have 12 classes. You control four characters instead of two, and you have the option of controlling side characters beyond the Main Four: Token, Tweek, Craig, Scott, and Wendy, among others. Each of the characters is well characterized and defined, with unique, personalized superhero attacks. Stan is Toolshed, who uses drills and screwdrivers to make his opponents bleed. Wendy is Call Girl, who can hack her enemies' phones and make them explode. Butters is (of course) Professor Chaos, who uses lightning/shock attacks.
The turn-based combat now takes place on a grid, which allows you to strategically snipe from a distance.
But the best change to the combat system in The Fractured But Whole is the new casting system. In The Stick of Truth, the most powerful special attacks were dependent on a green mana meter, which depleted during a battle. But now, the meter fills when you successfully block or react to your opponent's strikes. By tying your ability on defense to your ability on offense, the game creates an excellent 'push-and-pull' sort of balance. And despite the increased difficulty, there is little to no grinding throughout the game. You are barely prepared for each challenge as you come across it, which gives the entire game a sharp but fair learning curve.
The town of South Park is a character unto itself. After watching over 20 seasons of this show, I've had hours of fun exploring the environment, even without completing missions. It's interesting to see where everything is, geographically speaking. Where is the school in relation to the police station? In relation to City Hall? In relation to Tom's Rhinoplasty? There are Easter eggs everywhere; I even caught a few references to Season 1, both through the collectible items and the background scenery. The town isn't more fleshed out than it was in Stick of Truth, per se. But there was little to improve upon anyway.
In fact, if you liked the first game, you're going to like this game as well, because it takes everything done previously and refines it in small ways. It used to be that you friended people on The Stick of Truth’s in-game version of Facebook. Now, you collect friends by following them on "Coonstagram," and you take selfies to solidify those friendships; your smart phone comes complete with photo filters. It's a much more interactive, intimate way of creating your in-game network. It used to be that your upgrades were tied to your costumes. Now, you use Artifacts—modules crafted out of scrap—to customize your overall team's strengths and weaknesses.
The humor also works. And even when it doesn't land precisely, it's courageous by how it delves into uncharted territory.
For example, midway through the game, Mr. Mackey asks me to see him in his office, again. And this time, he offers me an apology. He tells me that he oversimplified his first explanation of gender and sexuality—that there are many non-binary identities that I could fit into as well. After another series of questions: Was I born as a boy or a girl? Do I identify as a boy or a girl or neither? Am I attracted to boys who were born as boys, or also boys who were born as girls?— he assigns me a new identity.
By playing around with the permutations, I find out that I can be genderfluid or genderqueer. I can be trisexual or asexual. I can be gender-nonconforming. There is an exhaustive, portentous list of terms that I can use to identify myself.
Given the overly clinical manner in which this scene is framed, South Park is clearly making a joke. But who is it at the expense of? At the counselor, who is uncomfortable and overwhelmed? At the LGBTQ community, which is still in the process of defining these labels? At the player who, more likely than not, is receiving a crash course in gender studies parlance?
It's vaguely defined. Players will probably project themselves onto the scene and judge the joke accordingly. As for me, I thought the humor derived from Mackey's discomfort, being given so much unfamiliar information at once and asked to relay it to students before he’s fully internalized it himself. And that's a truthful reflection of what I see around me in real life, as good people step over themselves to say and do the right thing.
Thanks to social media and Internet, the language surrounding gender and sexuality is changing rapidly. And even as someone who considers himself a straight ally, I find myself learning new terms and misusing pronouns as I adjust to new social norms. The game hits that well-meaning discomfort on the nose. And that's how a lot of the game's politics feel—uncomfortable but well-intentioned, even in the most bizarre instances. Parker and Stone may not have it all figured out. But they're trying to figure it out, and they have the guts to be confused in public.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is recommended. It has tight controls, improved combat systems, messy politics, offensive predicaments, and, surprisingly, lots of heart. And if I were to replay it, I would create a different identity so that the NPCs react differently. What if I played as a cisgender, African American straight boy? Or as a cisgender, bisexual white girl? Would the police treat me differently? Would the waitresses in Raisins (the elementary school version of Hooters) treat me differently? Parker and Stone, in collaboration with Ubisoft, have created a game that is both deep and surprisingly personal. And I'm looking forward to playing it again from a different perspective, to see how deep it goes.