South Park: The Fractured But Whole--the Ubisoft-lead sequel to 2014's The Stick of Truth--digs deeper into the role-playing game genre than its predecessor. Whereas the previous game used simple turn-based combat and offered a small number of character classes, The Fractured But Whole more than doubles the amount of strategy needed to succeed on the battlefield. The use of space, indicated by a grid, as well as nearly a dozen different roles to choose from makes the game feel like a more well thought-out, deeper experience.
Right off the bat you're asked to pick a class, and each one is as varied and unique as the next. In our demo, we played as the Speedster, South Park's riff on a superhero like The Flash. Other choices include the Assassin, Netherborn, Gadgeteer, Brutalist, and the Karate Kid, though we've yet to see more of these classes other than their names. Among these you have your tanks, your healers, your long-range and melee types, and no two classes are too alike. And you don't have to be too judicious with the class you pick at the beginning; you'll be able to change your class later in the game, as you see fit.
The grid-based combat is immediately reminiscent of strategy RPGs like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, in which you have to consider the space between you and your enemy every time you attack. In addition to space, you can also using timing to your advantage. The UI lists the order in which your team and the enemy will attack, and you can plan your moves accordingly to execute more complex ones, like knocking enemies into one another or blowing them back a few spaces to protect a comrade within their reach. It's a more tactical approach that The Stick of Truth, and I found myself more carefully considering my available options instead of simply piling on the powerful attacks or just button mashing.
According to producer Jason Schroeder, The Fractured But Whole's combat seems to borrow its battle layout from familiar SRPGs, but its roots are actually in tabletop games. And the development team chose to keep combat turn-based--a mechanic AAA RPGs have been moving away from for years--because it gave them the space to inject South Park's trademark humor.
"Turn based combat totally worked in Stick, because it gave us time to tell jokes," Schroeder told me. "There was enough air in a moment that you didn't have to worry about people reacting and doing active quick blocks and stuff like that, like in an action game. Then we started using Snowdrop, and we were able to stream in different environments really quickly and let people wander around town in a much more seamless way.
"A lot of those dungeon crawling, tabletop RPGs are actually more of the inspiration, but of course...Final Fantasy Tactics," he added on The Fractured But Whole's use of space. "One of the limitations of looking at games like [Tactics] is that they often either stay in an isometric camera far away from the action, and South Park being 2D, a lot of those rules don't apply. We looked at games like Skulls of the Shogun, that has a nice analog feeling of being able to move around. Everything from Disgaea to Castle Crashers. You find inspiration everywhere. Ultimately, I think we pulled a lot more from board games."
These influences are no more readily apparent that in "Civil War" fights, large-scale battles that pit a handful of characters on two teams against one another. In the demo I played, the New Kid squared off with two pals against three other children. Using a powerful punch attack, I was able to knock one child back two spaces and into another, causing damage to them both. And when the going got a little too tough, I used my ultimate attack, which took out everywhere within a certain square radius from me in one blow--but not my guys, thankfully, as there is no friendly fire in this game. The battle forced me to think about the whole playing field at any given time, considering how far my opponent's' attacks would reach and who I could move out of the way in time to avoid them.
There are also a dozen smaller touches that make The Fractured But Whole delightful, from the ability to have your controllable hero fart on anyone and everything--complete with a unique reaction for each NPC--to subtle references to other heroes like Sailor Moon in the battle dialogue between the town's children. The set dressing, too makes you feel at home in South Park, offering glimpses into the characters' personal lives that we don't get on the show. For example, rooting through Cartman's room will unearth some interesting things, such as the inappropriate comics about his friends that he draws in his spare time. You'd think such absurdities would detract you from the fact that the game is built like a classic, tactical-focused RPG: but surprisingly, it doesn't. The South Park IP isn't the framework; it's the flavor.
There are also smaller quick time events scattered throughout South Park that require you to call in other characters for help, like bringing in Human Kite to reach a treasure chest on top of a building. These unique moments are also carried in combat; depending on the characters you have fighting alongside you, you'll have different dialogue as well as different tactics available to you.
"I think we really struck a good balance [making] something that feels tactically deep, and people are enjoying making these decisions and customizing their characters and customizing their combat party and seeing how it all [fits]," Schroeder said. "'Oh man that fight totally played out differently because I brought in Jimmy and I brought in The Coon,' and stuff like that, and be like, 'Oh, I played it with Human Kite and Tool Shed.'
"It's totally not balanced yet. Sometimes you can game people. You find yourself thinking, 'Oh, I used ranged attacks,' and 'Oh, no, I went in and totally blew him away with my strength,' and that suddenly changes the way you play."
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is still a ways off from its December 6 release date, but from what I've seen so far, it's shaping up to be an RPG worth sinking your teeth into. If you don't mind the farts, that is.