The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang by Neil deMause(1997)

The Evil, Ugly Guy On My Shoulder's Verdict: Sturm is cool. But Drang is totally gay. I wonder why the hell Sturm lets such a loser hang out with him. You don't think... No way. Couldn't be. Sturm is just too cool. THE FORCES OF EVIL WILL BE VICTORIOUS!

The Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder's Verdict: With all due respect given to the above commentator, allow me to state that I find Sturm und Drang's unique and special personal relationship to have been beautifully depicted by Mr. deMause. The two guys might be villains, but their love for one another is so genuine and heartfelt that I almost felt bad foiling their evil schemes. This game, I hold, is a masterwork of the finest order. Of course, I could expect nothing below top quality from such a talented individual as my personal friend Neil "Da Mouse."

My Verdict: Err...what's exactly the fuss about here, anyway?

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Neil deMause is a respected member of the IF community who has achieved a certain measure of acclaim for his often wise insights concerning the nature of gameplay in interactive fiction. Even more importantly, Neil has shown himself adept at writing games which hold up to his high standards...though critics sometimes challenge his philosophical approach and his fans lament the sometimes large lengths of time between the man's longer(as opposed to "mini") game releases. He's got a homepage over here

Other Games By This Author: Lost New York, The Frenetic Five vs Mr. Redundancy

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The Review...

The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang is a very, very unique game. We've probably all played countless dungeon crawls, whodunnit mysteries, treasure hunts, and hero quests before. A lot of us have also played romances, "experimental IF"(that often takes place in relatively mundane settings), futuristic cyperpunk thrillers, and even games with premises taken straight from folk/fairy tales. But not too many of us have played IF inspired by, er, superhero comic books. The reasons why this is so are probably manifold, but I'd say mostly it's just a case of quality subject matter being ignored by authors unready to break the mold. Generally speaking, the one thing that a game needs to have in order to differentiate itself from the rest of the crowd is a unique setting. If the initial setting for a game is something the game player has never seen before, he or she is likely going to be interested in playing the game further if just for the novelty of it all. The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang definitely has this effect going for it. The player is put in the role of a superhero, one of the world famous Frenetic Five. You have four superhero pals who live with you(platonically). You and your friends get your kicks by busting on evil and saving the world. Clearly, ladies and gentlemen, we have here an original story idea never used before in IF...the kind of idea you might have expected a company like Level 9 or Magnetic Scrolls would have eagerly seized upon back in the day. Of course, it goes without saying that Level 9 or Magnetic Scrolls would have only released the game if it was as quirky as a beanbag full of beans, because, after all, superheroes are not supposed to be something you take completely seriously. And Neil DeMause, though hailing from a nation with presumably a far lesser grasp on quirkiness than England(New York, apparently), did the MS/Lev 9 legacy of quirky adventure games proud. He also created a game that is rather annoying at the same time, but let's discuss that a little later.

In this game, the player takes the role of "Mediocrity Man", the most boring superhero of all. Er, he's really known as "Improv" because his skill lies in improvising clever uses for everyday objects. He's dull, yeah. But as Robb noted in his review of this game, Improv is the natural choice for the PC because he's just doing the sort of things you tend to do in text adventures anyway. If the glove fits... "Mediocrity Man" is also the closest thing the Frenetic Five have to a leader. He directs what the other superheroes should do, and this, too, is at it should be, because, quite frankly, it would be a little chaotic to have four NPCs doing whatever the hell they want at any point in time... and it wouldn't be very interactive for the player either, either. The other superheroes have individual talents which "Mediocrity Man" will need to call upon at various stages in the game:

The Clapper - Female finder of objects. She's a bit of a lazy slob, but if you were a superhero, wouldn't you be, too? Her powers are not unrestrained. She can only find objects in her immediate vicinity - otherwise, she'll just whine and mope about the object being out of range. Also a cat owner. She's sensitive, caring, and cuddly. Aww.

Pastiche - Flaky girl. She knows the lyrics to every pop song ever written, but...err... what kind of super power is that? Maybe Improv ain't the loser in this bunch, after all. Pastiche is sneaky cool, though. Don't underestimate her. Still, I wish she'd just hold onto her bus token like everybody else. She's also a mite argumentative and a little too eager to give her superhero friends a little lip(not what you're thinking) in response to a reasonable inquiry. Damned girl! I mean, it's not that I'm saying I wouldn't date her. It's just that I think I already have.

Lexicon - A walking dictionary, and a cool guy to boot. Intelligent, sarcastic, eminently helpful. He's designed to make guess the verb puzzles fun, and though that is a task impossible even for an NPC with superhuman strength, Lexy gives it a good shot here.

Newsboy - He's got a speedy connection to the Information Superhighway through his brain. Ask him questions, and you'll be glad you did. Personality wise, he's an annoying, prissy little shrimp, but at least that's better than a smoking lobster.

In order to call upon these characters' superpowers during your quest, you ask them about things or simply give them orders. Bloody simple, actually. The task which soon reveals itself involves(of course) mashing the forces of ultimate darkness and saving the world from impending doom. What else would superheroes be doing, heh? Before discussing the game further, let's take a minute to spot the comic book influences at work here. They seem to be manifold. Of course, this being a superhero game superhero comics are what this game is most like. I don't need to name names here, I don't think. There are still hundreds of those suckers in print, and I wouldn't care to read too many of them, quite frankly. Most superhero adventures are awful similar - I'm not a huge fan. This game does a good job at taking elements of the standard superhero plot and making them very interesting and fresh. That's all we need to say. Surprisingly, this game is also like a couple non-superhero comics you might be familiar with as well. Obviously, Archie was a huge influence: you have the two girls, one flaky and tyrannical(Pastiche), the other sweet and selflessly devoted(The Clapper), who are both madly in love with a nondescript, ordinary fellow(Improv, of course!). Then there's normal guy's friend who is tons smarter than him, wittily sarcastic, and incredibly adept at getting himself and his friends out of trouble - that's right, Lexicon = Jughead. The only thing missing from the plot is Lexicon having a hatred for girls and being a glutton. I guess that would have made it too obvious. Okay, maybe there was nothing in the game specifically concerning the long standing love triangle between Improv-Pastiche-The Clapper, but you have to read between the lines. You can't rip off a comic read by millions and expect to get away with it, eh? The other influence is Herge's Tintin series. Newsboy is Tintin, the brave, independent boy in search of adventure armed with ingenuity and ability beyond his years. The Clapper's cat is the dog, Snowy. I don't where the heck the professor is, but I'm sure he's somewhere. It's an obvious homage, don't you think? These influences duly noted, let's get to the nitty gritty of why I didn't particularly love The Frenetic Five vs Sturm Und Drang.

I had played this game before recently returning to finish it. There were two big motivating factors that spurred me on to get to the end of this game. One, Robb's review of it was one of the most complimentary he's ever written. It's practically like Seanbaby soliloquing about "Pro Wrestling"(NES)...have you read it??? I figure, heck, if the guy was right about "Knight Orc" there's a good chance he's right about this, too. I'll give it another shot. My second motivating factor was the recent release of Neil DeMause's sequel to this game. It always sucks getting into the sequel without first appreciating the charms of the originator, unless of course we're speaking of Deathstalker films(the first one is abysmal, but the second is my third favorite film of all time, behind only Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa's greatest cinemactic moments). I wanted to play the sequel. So, I realized, I ought to play the first one to the end. While I at first enjoyed the heck out of playing the game, savoring each delectable moment of its unique gameplay, story, and setting, I soon ran into a brick wall. You see, the trick to this game is knowing which superhero pal of yours you need to turn to for help at any given moment. And I couldn't guess which one to turn to. Instead, I kept trying to get on the wrong bus at the wrong time. Over and over again. Couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. Three of my four superhero pals were completely unhelpful, and the one who held the answer to my secret was the one who I didn't even think of requesting help from. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I easily spent an hour and a half working out the answer to the bus problem. This did not exactly endear me to this game. The game itself is not really long, but I ran into a couple more brick walls before reaching the merciful end. While a couple puzzles worked really nicely for me in that it immediately came to me which superhero I should turn to, a couple more did not, and they caused me supreme frustration. In retrospect, I realize the puzzles actually did make quite a bit of sense, but for some reason I sure tried doing a whole heck of a lot of different stupid things before finding the "right" one. Probably because I had a throbbing headache whilst trying to play the game, but having yesterday begun to play the sequel I realize that it probably wouldn't mattered much even if I had had a clear brain. It helps to approach this game knowing that it was influenced by comic books and "The Tick", too, as you have to do a couple of the exact same things famous superheroes of the past have done before whilst serving the cause of justice. But that's all water under the bridge now. My primary beef with this game is that it does not behave sympathetically to mere mortals' struggles. It expects that the player will just naturally see which person you are supposed to consult or recruit at what time, but my success rate was only around 50%. I do think that Neil wanted very much to avoid causing his players undue frustration, which is why the easier obstacles are almost ridiculously easy and intuitive...but this did not make the harder obstacles any easier for me. Unfortunately, I felt like my friends were total assjacks most of the time. They didn't help me that much, and at times seemed to deliberately mislead me. What do I need these jerks around for anyhow? But...isn't this game completely about NPC-player interaction? Not "completely" but "mainly"? It did win an XYZZY award, you know. On the flipside, I did not die while playing this game. I just got stuck for long periods of time without knowing what the heck to do. There might be a time limit at the end, but if there is one, it's an awfully long one. I spent a _long_ time tied up and a long time up on the roof as well, but didn't get into any trouble whatsoever. I've definitely played games a lot less forgiving than this. There are a few Infocom/Magnetic Scrolls titles which have frustrated me just as much as this game did. The different is that those games were long and involving - this game was short. This much frustration in a short game? Just too much. There wasn't enough reward for my trouble. I finished the game and I felt cheated. I did a lot of crap for nothing. I made my aching brain jump through too many hoops and fall flat on its ass too many times for no reason. Nope. Don't need that kind of frustration in my life. Don't want it. Instead, I think I'll just go play "Jinxter." How do you like dem beans, narmean?

One of the most interesting things about this game(in terms of design) is the parser - it is not that responsive, but this lack of responsiveness seems to be deliberate. Time and time again the player will have to resort to new and unusual verbs to get him out of trouble; that's sort of the whole idea of having Lexicon around, y'know, so every friggin' puzzle wouldn't be a guess-the-verb bonanza. There are quite a lot of games that allow you to win just by typing direction commands and few basic stand-bys. This is most certainly not one of them. In short, I recommend the game if you're looking for an original game that tackles new design concepts and new story settings. Purely as a game, no. Like many other things(gravity for example), The Frenetic Five vs Sturm Und Drang is better in theory than it is in practice. Much to my own surprise, I even discovered a fatal bug in this game which I plan to mail Neil about soon. So in no way can I call this game a design masterpiece as Robb did.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 32/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

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