A lot has happened in the years since the release of the last major South Park videogame, the controversial Stick of Truth. For starters, there's an elected president who has arguably been more controversial than the potty-mouthed protagonist fourth-graders who lead the infamous television show, which in 2017 embarked on its 21st season.
That's no mean feat, considering The Stick of Truth didn't pass the then-in-power BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) without being heavily censored in a number of sections. Even then, some of the questionable content that made it through - fighting aborted foetuses, anyone? - wasn't exactly family-friendly material. Nor did it ever proclaim to be.
For its follow-up, the much delayed The Fractured But Whole, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have hardly gone in soft, but the game's absence of ol' orange face - which is in sync with the 21st season's ditching of that narrative - instead leaves the game to follow the line of Cartman's superhero franchise, Coon and Friends, while stepping up the fart count to frankly ridiculous levels.
Is The Fractured But Whole a South Park fans' and role-playing game (RPG) lovers' dream or - like the non-stop farting core to its story - a bit of a stinker?
What's the new South Park game like?
Continuing where The Stick of Truth left off, The Fractured But Whole follows you, The New Kid (slash Douchebag, Butthole and various other slurs throughout the game), as you gain popularity and rise through the superhero ranks of Coon and Friends. Who knows, maybe one day you really will get your own Netflix series?
There are various core pillars to the game: exploration and collecting, which in turn fuels item crafting and the buy-and-sell systems; gaining popularity through taking selfies with characters in South Park and posting on Coonstagram (many won't do so until tasks are completed); costume and artifact hunting, which can be used to strengthen your character (many of these can be crafted, with the right materials and achieved rank); and turn-based combat with a choice of character classes, which brings the addition of time-based instances and adjustments (yep, your farts can bend the fabric of space-time, eventually).
This all, like in any good RPG, provides a whole lot of stuff to get your teeth around. Fortunately, The Fractured But Whole is very well paced in its delivery of each new component part.
You begin with one character class and a limited selection of moves for combat, which upgrades to a trio of classes as you rank up throughout the game. This leads to different move options to select which, depending on your choices, levy strength in different forms - from strength, to psychic ability - and can be strategically enhanced by friends you meet throughout the game, too.
Fighting off some other fourth-graders to kick things off is a breeze, but dozens of hours into the game you'll probably be fighting Morgan Freeman using combined characters' abilities and specials - which are activated after powering up a Special bar through countering moves - and wondering how on earth things arrived at such a ridiculous point. Hint: don't punch Freeman from behind his taco counter.
The in-game combat is very strategic, requiring deft use of characters' moves, often an interplay with surrounding objects, and astute movement across the available battle grid. Death is not an uncommon end result against some of the tougher characters. Well, unless you choose Casual difficulty, which is far less tricky; Heroic, on the other hand, is brutally tough.
Beyond combat, the world of South Park has heaps of content to be found within. You'll begin with farts which can be thrown, progress to flinging firecrackers and then, for the sake of puzzles, combine these two, er, motions for explosive effect.
As the game goes on, The New Kid's abilities progress in interesting ways, allowing for new areas to be reached, puzzles solved and items collected. From "fartkour" (using other character Human Kite to fart-jump to unreachable areas) to Glitch (using mega farts to undo special moved objects), it's all rather ridiculous - but requires brain power (in addition to ass power).
Is South Park TFBW for the fans?
We won't give away the precise details of the storyline and spoil the progression, but it's safe to say that all your favourite South Park characters and references are safe and well.
From PC Principal teaching you about "microagressions" - the ability to interject mid-combat damage, justified as a response to enemies' slurs - to Counsellor Macky's emphasis on gender - male, female, cisgender or transgender (all of which the Rednecks "don't take kindly to your types around here") - it's an often amusing comment on modern society's sex and race issues. This is something Stone and Parker have always lampooned: from every black male in the game being a prime police suspect, to cheap-to-hire Mexicans making up a chunk of Professor Chaos' army; it plays upon privilege and stereotypes - using comedy to labour injustices.
It'll offend some, but most likely only when taken out of context.
The world of South Park is beautifully crafted on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, too, delivered in true-to-style graphics that make you feel like you're controlling an episode of the TV series. Unlike its predecessor, The Fractured But Whole runs smoother thanks to the latest hardware, with fewer glitches present (although not absent: we had two Ms Cartman characters appear one atop the other; while a Glitch manoeuvre saw our character appear half way up the screen and unable to leave the area).
Side missions also touch upon fan favourites, which makes such missions feel altogether more rewarding. Plus, these often result in the addition of call-upon single-use specials - from Gerald's cheesing-induced bombs, to Jimbo and Ned's "it's coming right for us" hail of bullets, and Moses' "waaaaa" healing power - that are sometimes life-savers during combat.
For the wealth of content that South Park has available from its 21 seasons, however, the latest game suffers from a familiar limitation: it can feel repetitive in places. Fighting yet another bunch of sixth-graders or Raisins girls for that extra 40XP to try and rank-up and achieve a new character-boosting artifact slot can become laborious.
That said, The Fractured But Whole brings a wealth of new characters in combat, with different moves and tactics, which is always refreshing - and there's far more variation than The Stick of Truth ever offered.
After playing South Park: The Fractured But Whole from beginning to end, including the additional downloadable content (oh hai MJ), we felt like we had binge-watched multiple series of the animated show. It hits the nail on the head when it comes to representing the TV show in typically uncompromising fashion, while bringing all those fan favourites to the fore.
But just because it's a South Park game that's littered with ridiculous (and often try-hard offensive) elements, doesn't mean it's some silly little game. As a role-playing game it's complex, develops well and delivers turn-based combat that's far more complex than the earlier The Stick Of Truth game.
Some will baulk at The Fractured But Whole's content and call it a stinker. But for us, as both South Park and RPG fans, it's a great game that stands-out as much for its excellence as it will for its controversy.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is available now for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch.