South Park: The Fractured by Whole
Developed by: Ubisoft San Francisco, South Park Digital Studios, Massive Entertainment
Published by: Ubisoft
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Few things can potentially infect a child’s imagination with anxiety like the phrase, “We’re moving.” What if your new classmates hate you, or your next house is haunted? Worse yet, what if your family moves to South Park? That misfortune befalls the star of “South Park: The Fractured but Whole,” a young child of no particular race, religion or gender (you can select all three at various points in the game). The townspeople insist on the name “New Kid” even though it’s been more than three years since his, her, or their first appearance in 2014’s “South Park: The Stick of Truth,” which translated Comedy Central’s long-running series into a role-playing game so simple that it appears to be playing itself for long periods of time.

There’s a sense of meanness in the omission. It’s not just that nobody knows your name, it’s that no one cares to know, and they all want to make a point of not knowing. Then again, detached cruelty is all part of the show in South Park, and there are more important things to worry about, including farts so foul they reverse the flow of time, a belligerent stripper named Classi, and a plot to poison the town’s supply of drugs and alcohol with cat urine.

The game opens where “Stick of Truth” ended, with the neighborhood kids role-playing medieval warfare using cardboard swords and molten lava formed from red LEGO bricks. Cartman interrupts the battle at its peak, and demands Kyle, Craig, New Kid, and the rest of the gang give up their halberds and don superhero costumes to help him search for a missing cat called Scrambles. There’s a $100 reward, and Cartman, in costume as The Coon, a raccoon clawed crusader first introduced in Season 13, is confident it will be enough to launch their own franchise of movies, TV shows and merchandise and make them all richer than Bruce Wayne. Not everyone wants to work with Cartman though, so the kids are riven into two competing groups of heroes, the Cartman-led Coon and Friends and the Freedom Pals led by Timmy, famous only for being able to shout his first name over and over but here transformed into a telekinetic genius in a wheelchair.

The game’s turn-based combat takes place on long grids with slapstick attacks and status effects unique to each character. Wendy’s alter ego, Call Girl, comes equipped a selfie stick and array of cellphones she uses to unleash social media mobs, which attack enemies in a stampede. New Kid’s superpower is flatulence, which he uses to poison enemies in battle and to solve puzzles around town. This special power can be used to clear away the LEGO-block-lava that blocks certain paths or launch a hamster covered in tinfoil into electrical panels to open locked doors and disable sentry turrets.

The game is most charming when it foregoes toilet gags for a simpler satire of suburban adolescence. Combat sequences are sometimes interrupted for a passing car, as if conflict between superheroes were as trivial as a game of touch football. One late-game battle captures the pleasant weightless of children’s imaginations, with an enemy that changes the rules of engagement in the middle of each turn and grants himself extra turns whenever he feels like it. These sweet and silly touches are welcome relief from the game’s oppressive humor, which relies much too heavily on stereotypes and slurs.

“South Park’s” sense of humor has always been more confrontational than convivial, relying on crass defiance to stand in for cleverness and observation. Freud described this kind of humor as the ego’s way of insisting “that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for [the ego] to gain pleasure.” In a retrospective on the series in “Entertainment Weekly,” former Comedy Central president Doug Herzog recalled the panic he felt before the show premiered in 1997. “I bolted up in bed just nights before we put it on the air, in cold sweat,” he said, “I swear to God. I was like, ‘Wait, can I get arrested for this? Is this legal?’”

Like the show, “The Fractured but Whole” seems engineered to make you feel like you’re getting away with something without being able to specify what exactly that is. Before you can start “The Fractured but Whole,” you’re asked to adjust New Kid’s skin tone on a slider, with a warning that playing with the darkest skin will increase the difficulty by having all the town’s residents treat you with even more hostility than they already do. In brisk 22-minute episodes, this kind of humor might pass as satire, but the punchlines sour when they’re spread out across a 20-hour video game. The jokes work as intended, but that rarely feels like a good thing.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

Recent game reviews:

‘The Invisible Hours’ gives new hope to those who might have started to sour on VR games

‘Cuphead’ is really hard but learning its tricks is awfully fun

‘Figment’: A bright adventure through the human mind

In the smart and slick new game, ‘Echo,’ you become your own worst enemy