Time travel is a central mechanism to Fractured but Whole. That’s appropriate. The UbiSoft production skims 20 years of South Park lore. From the surreal early seasons, filled with miniature pets and gay dogs, to the languishing of recent safe, centrist-leaning parody, including PC Principal.
Maybe it’s the development timeline; Fractured but Whole is classic Matt Stone and Trey Parker, more than recent seasons of the TV show indicate. Fractured but Whole snaps together something that feels from South Park’s middle years, say the Terri Schiavo episode as opposed to the sloppy and obvious Jared from Subway (although Fractured but Whole goes there too, foot long jokes and all).
The strength for Fractured but Whole is in ensuring perspective stays with the kids. They entered their own superhero war, fueled by the Marvel and DC overdose. Cartman leads one side (starring as the racially-derived “Coon”), Stan the other, traveling about South Park oblivious to what they encounter. Adults make themselves out to be the fools.
There’s a lot of Double Fine’s gentle RPG Costume Quest here, particularly the childhood innocence. It’s arguable Costume Quest (and the sequel) did this better too. However, Fractured but Whole’s social commentary allows for an abrasive success, albeit inconsistently.
There’s a counter argument that South Park uses the kid’s to shield itself from criticism. It’s Fractured but Whole’s everything, and true as the show increasingly moved storylines to a safer, less biting center. The kids just play; they have no idea the destruction they cause or the harm. It’s part of a game, an updated Cowboys and Indians, and somehow cruder in tone. It’s a wonder, if all of the fantasy is a visual, imaginative play, what happens as a kid battles two Catholic priests in a dark room? The gag itself falls flat for its obviousness, too.
When Matt and Trey hit though, they do so with might. A handful of missions deal with South Park’s New Kid – or Butthole, named so for his ample flatulence – infiltrating the police, taking on odd jobs to earn trust. The kid busts into homes, arrests a handful of innocent black people, and the task is complete. Race doesn’t register to Butthole or his dress-up gang. Later, the Police Chief bumbles the entire scenario, sinking himself – and the force – regarding the jail’s not-colorblind population. He speaks in oblivious conservative talking points (“You wouldn’t call racism if we only arrested white people!”). The reason for the arrests? A spoiler, but assuredly an irreverent, needlelike gag that hits as it should.
PC Principal returns too as Fractured but Whole drifts through South Park history. He’s still not there as a character. It’s more counselor Mackey who deals with identity, fumbling the scenario. He’s clueless. In a panic, stumbling over words, he asks questions about gender. Part of this riffs on the previous game’s (The Stick of Truth) lack of any choice. Another puts older adults on blast for their stubborn inability to identify with changing social norms, along with the discomfort these topics introduced to a puritan-like generation. That’s Fractured but Whole as its best, enough to distract from the quasi-failure of the core story itself. Most of the time, it’s invisible. When Fractured but Whole closes in on its climax, all of this bubbles to the surface. No commentary, no social perspective, no jokes. The final few hours are a miserable coda added on to an already overlong slog.
South Park takes its critical lashing – and it should as Comedy Central’s Wednesday night leader drifts between tired or outright oblivious. Fractured but Whole restores a bit of that zest for social comedy and responds to critical backlash. Maybe Matt & Trey still have something to offer. Based on the videogame, there’s something still worth watching, sometimes.