The first day in South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a busy one by any standards. You get some super powers, are given an origin story, join a hero team, are attacked by some rednecks, are attacked by some Catholic priests, and are further attacked by a rival team of heroes. You're also hounded by older kids from school, and the minions of Professor Chaos. Phew.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole has been delayed several times, to the point that I'm still half expecting it to happen again even though it's out next month. Usually when a game has a lot of delays people assume it's because of what is termed a 'troubled development', which generally means 'There were a bunch of cock ups and we really tried to sort them out, but it might not end up being as good as anyone wanted.' Fortunately, The Fractured But Whole seems to have come through the delays, troubled or not, looking in good shape.
Good shape so far, at least. The biggest and best change between this game and its predecessor, South Park: The Stick of Truth, is in the combat. In a previous hands on I'd only had a couple of the kids in my party; this time there were four of us, working against large groups of enemies. The combat in The Fractured But Whole is actually difficult. This time, instead of tactics being to hit the nearest enemy and maybe healing a bit sometimes, you have to consider healing, damage-over-time effects, buffs and debuffs like shields or slowing, and all of this over a grid battlefield. Everyone can move around or be moved on it, and your abilities will have different ranges and areas of effect. It's not as complex as a fully tactical RPG, but it has way more elements than combat in The Stick of Truth, and is drastically more fun for it.
So you start off a fight, and you were able to initiate a surprise attack so you get the advantage of moving first. You use a single target fire attack to inflict burning on an enemy, but one of the other minions is gearing up for a more powerful attack. It's going to take him a couple of turns, but you need to keep out of range of it when it lands. Later in the fight the Kyle the Human Kite takes a bit of a beating because you forgot these enemies explode when their HP reaches zero, so you use Jimmy, who has super speed, to switch places with him, healing Kyle in the process. It's great stuff.
You can also see added complexity in the crafting systems (where you can make summon items, health items like burritos and Phoenix Down-style resurrection potions, and craft new clothes for your superhero outfit) and in the Artefacts — special items your character can equip to boost some of their hero stats. There's no real restrictions on character creation either, since anyone can equip any combination of things, and change the colour, whenever they feel like it. It was well received news that you could choose to play as a girl this time, but you don't actually choose your gender until a little way into the game. You have a conversation with Mr. Mackey, at which point you can choose your gender, and whether you're cis or trans (if you choose to be a transgender girl Mr. Mackay will call your parents to check how this tracks with the continuity of The Stick of Truth, and will be told it does because you were a girl the whole time, of course).
This added complexity is balanced with everyone in it being children, so sometimes you have to pause the battle and move out of the road as a car drives through, and the lava that Professor Chaos' goons are using to block the town is actually heaps of red LEGO bricks. Facebook has been replaced with 'Coonstagram', so you can take selfies with everyone and even apply filters, and the UI has been improved, with a drop down map, and better organisation of all the icons.
The only thing is the humour. Thankfully there was a lot more in this hands on that made me laugh than in previous ones (particularly the combination of Timmy playing as a version of Professor X and my forgetting what Cartman's first name actually is), but I still haven't found anything quite as funny as the lampooning of video game and fantasy genre conventions in the first game. The Stick of Truth was funny but was lacking in the combat and some other mechanics. This time it could prove to be the other way around, but if the South Park lads can find as much funny about superheroes as they did fantasy, The Fractured But Whole could be a bit of a belter. In theory that should be easy, because superheroes are quite funny already.