IFReviewed by Paul OBrian on 2006-07-17 05:56
Here's my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel
comic at age six, I've always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master's degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We're talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I'm disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women's bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it's still a pleasure.
Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97's magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I've always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF -- if it's a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow's headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters' dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (">GET HOUSE" brings "You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)") It's hilarious.
Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game's shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my "super Improv power" to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I'm afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb ("You can't see any bite here.") or "That's not really possible in your current state." I got the impression that the author hadn't really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I'm still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.
Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character's mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment -- for example, saying "Down" in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response "Sadly, you're not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground."
Plot: Since I wasn't able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliche. Since this was a spoof, of course, cliches were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains' hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I'll discuss those below.
Puzzles: In fact, I'll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances -- for example, the door to the villains' hideout uses a "guess-the-big-word" lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character's superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn't implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.
writing -- I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.
coding -- I think the main failure of the coding was the one I've already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game's main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I've ever seen -- when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked "Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?"