(Warning: Mild spoilers below.)
At some point in "South Park: The Fractured But Whole," your character, the New Kid, will walk by a movie theater. As a member of Cartman's Coon & Friends superhero team, he'll be wearing a DIY costume of your choice. And when the ticket taker sees you, he'll quip: "Aren't superheroes kind of played out?"
The Justice League and Avengers movies creating that franchise fatigue motivate the role-playing action of Ubisoft's "The Fractured But Whole." Stan and Kenny's Freedom Pals is the DC to Coon & Friends' Marvel. However, the winner of the fourth-graders' playtime won't be who wields the better superpowers, but who maps the better shared cinematic universe. This inside Hollywood theme even accounts for the boys' aversion to girls: Their movies, unfortunately, come much later.
The sequel to 2014's "The Stick of Truth" avoids the sameness of its blockbuster subjects by introducing improved battle and character systems. So it's a much better video game. But "The Fractured But Whole" not only finds less novelty as fan service, it often fumbles the humor driving its story by oversampling characters and concepts from the even more reactionary recent years of Matt Stone and Trey Parker's Comedy Central series. So it's a slightly worse "South Park" episode. But it's still one any fan of the show will adore.
The New Kid, the first game's silent and customizable protagonist, trades his medieval getup for visors and utility belts alongside the rest of the boys when Cartman rallies them to find some missing cats. As he's initiated into Coon & Friends, you learn that Cartman wants to use the reward money to bankroll the franchise's convoluted schedule of movies, streaming series and more for his Coon, Kyle's Human Kite, Scott Malkinson's Capt. Diabetes and the rest of the roster.
In scenes with Cartman that structure what winds up being a well-plotted arc, you select your New Kid's own class-based super abilities. You also learn his origin story — which, like many of the best jokes in the game, punctures the boys' superhero playtime conceit and hints at their very human vulnerabilities, in this case Cartman's. "The Fractured But Whole" is similarly funny when the boys have to suspend battles because a car is crossing the street, or when one fussily changes the rules of battle on the fly.
Less funny are the scenes where you select the New Kid's sex, gender, ethnicity and race. The first two take place with guidance counselor Mr. Mackey, the second two with newer character PC Principal. Laudable as it is for any video game to allow you to mirror your own identity in your character so articulately, this is "South Park." So Parker delivers Mackey's dialogue with a restrained frivolity that almost sounds sarcastic. It's as if he's saying, "This is stupid, but I have to do it."
(Warning: Mild spoilers below.)
The PC Principal scenes work better. As jabs at "social justice warriors" go he lands somewhat flush, drawing an unsubtle parallel between them and fraternity brothers as groups whose pomposity and pack mentalities can get vicious fast. Still, both PC Principal and the mechanic he gives your New Kid — the ability to punch enemies when their mid-battle trash talk constitutes a "microaggression" — are bound by the same tired cynicism as Mackey. They, and indeed Stone and Parker, think caring is stupid.
The rest of the humor in "The Fractured But Whole" is about as hit-or-miss. Its main superhero sendup has little oomph but it lands a good shot once in awhile, like when TV news interviews a bystander who rhetorically asks, "When will Daredevil become the Punisher? (Someone whispers to him.) Three seasons? Oh, OK." But for every scene like that, there's the curiosity of treating sugar as Malkinson's spinach, or naming Wendy's smartphone gadgeteer the sex worker euphemism Call Girl.
And for every Sober Towelie or Red Wine Drunk Randy boss fight, there's one with women you can "pimp slap" into fighting on your side, or bumbling Catholic priests who want to rape you. The latter, plus a few missions that see you beating up innocent black suspects at the behest of South Park P.D., reinforce how predictably shallow Stone and Parker's satire has gotten recently. They prefer the silly and the absurd to actually saying anything, cheap laughs to ones that provoke a look at their unjust origins.
The switch from TV to games could explain that, and to the "South Park" creators' credit, a few gags in "The Fractured But Whole" mine humor from that switch. Ubisoft San Francisco takes care of the rest, smartly redesigning what was a breeze of a battle system in Obsidian Entertainment's "The Stick of Truth." Now, your party of the New Kid and three supporting superheroes are positioned on a grid. Each of their four attacks covers different patterns of the grid, and some deal cumulative damage to enemies in the same row.
As a result, you must assemble and maneuver your Coon & Friends team with more care. Some battles also throw obstacles into the mix or assign you additional spatial objectives, like walls of death you have to avoid. You can't just mindlessly spam attacks like in "The Stick of Truth." But at the same time, only one highly difficult secret boss battle forced me to fully engage with these systems, carefully picking party members and attacks to eek out a win only after about 10 tries. So it might still be wise for RPG veterans to play on high difficulty.
What also improves your New Kid's fate in battle are stat-boosting artifacts, which can often be found in "South Park" or crafted from raw materials you also find there. The snowy Denver town is mostly the same as it was in "The Stick of Truth," save for recent season developments like CtPaTown and Skeeter's Wine Bar. Much of the city's loot is walled off, though, until your New Kid fully unlocks his most powerful ability. Which, of course, is farting. Which is taught to you, of course, by Morgan Freeman.
As the game goes on, you learn farts that lift you to rooftops and clear lava (red Legos), as well as ones you can use in battle. And those, namely a fart that cancels an opponent's turn, defang the game's battles more than any other attack. But the farts are so nonstop they also function as a sort of ambient soundtrack to "The Fractured But Whole." It's the same wet, rumbling noise Parker and Stone once used to skewer the movies of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider for being so interchangeable. The irony, though, is that now it's "South Park" that's fighting franchise fatigue.
If you play
GAME: "South Park: The Fractured But Whole"
TL;DR: The sequel to "The Stick of Truth" significantly improves upon what was a breezy battle system, but its humor takes a few steps back toward crueller, harsher satire.
GENRE: Role-playing game
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood and gore, mature humor, nudity, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs and violence
DEVELOPER: Ubisoft San Francisco
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Microsoft Windows and Xbox One)
PLAY: Single player
DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of "The Fractured But Whole" from Ubisoft and completed it on normal difficulty in about 20 hours prior to writing this review.