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Improv: Origins

by Neil deMause

Part of Frenetic Five

Web Site

(based on 5 ratings)
2 reviews

About the Story

In the long-awaited (by someone, surely, maybe) prequel to the Frenetic Five trilogy, your new employer SuperTemps has sent you out into the field with nothing more than your wits and your freshly minted Ingenuity degree from superhero community college. Now, if only you had some duct tape...

Game Details

Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: July 1, 2022
Current Version: 1
License: Freeware
Development System: Inform 7
Forgiveness Rating: Nasty
IFID: B5089E16-F467-4262-8FB8-9837F336F4C9
TUID: jdpbk8ipk7ukvoi


4th Place - ParserComp 2022


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Number of Reviews: 2
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Nasty, with bugs that make it Cruel, July 11, 2022

The object of this one-room game is to open a safe in the center of the room. The safe has a large red button. Here's what it says when you push it:

If it were as easy as that, the bank probably wouldn’t have needed to call a superhero, don’t you think?

That sounds like "you can't push this button" to me. But, instead, you're just supposed to "push the button" again. At that point, the safe asks for a password, on a countdown timer. If you don't have the password (or the (Spoiler - click to show)companion you need to get the password), there's no way to discover and use the password before the timer runs out.

This puzzle is "Nasty" on the Zarfian cruelty scale. The game doesn't benefit from a countdown timer at all, and there are multiple puzzles where you have to just do the same action repeatedly to get a surprisingly different result.

Furthermore, the game is buggy.

(Spoiler - click to show)
  • If you ask Pastiche to unlock the safe before you've solved the password puzzle, the game deposits an "invisible force field" in the room, which never goes away.
  • If you tape anything to anything that you're not supposed to, e.g. if you "TAPE THE CLIP TO THE PEN," you can never unstick them; you're walking dead at that point.
  • You can't call the office until you examine the pen. ("Which number would that be, then?") But when you do examine the pen and call the number, the game says, "Fortunately, part of your Ingenuity training is that you can memorize phone numbers at a glance. Not that you needed to here, since you have the number written on that ballpoint pen, but it’s a nice trick to show off at superparties."
  • Conversation topics with NPCs are very specific. You can "ASK LEXICON ABOUT WORD" but not about "THE WORD".
  • When you "ASK CLAPPER FOR PASSWORD" she claps and Clapper herself beeps. (This makes no sense, because she's not a password of any kind.)
  • The Safe has a password, and a lock, and it's hard to open when unlocked. But there's nothing telling you whether the safe is closed and locked or closed and unlocked.
  • After opening the security box, it's not described when you "LOOK."

A funny, buggy, hard puzzlefest, August 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

A prequel arriving more than two decades after the original series wrapped up, Improv: Origins is a funny, deep one-room puzzler that makes me interested to check out the sequels it sets up. There’s some old-school difficulty, plus a nasty bug or two that made things even harder than intended on my playthrough, so I can’t help bemoaning the lack of modern conveniences like a hint menu, so the game’s definitely not for everyone, but the entertaining cast of characters and intricate puzzle design made me glad I powered through (and, er, begged for help on the forum when I got stuck).

What we’ve got here is comedy superheroes. I see you shuffling for the door, and I know, I know, that sounds pretty dire. But the game makes a great first impression, with sophisticated jokes that go way beyond the typical played out super-parody. Like, your hero is a temp – so far so standard, but the reason the bottom’s dropped out of the heroism game is that a superhero bubble has just burst. The game’s set in a bank – your job is to open up a locked safe after the bank fired the inventor who created it, and they huffed off without sharing the trick of accessing the thing – and as a result there’s a set of economics jokes that kept me laughing, like the painting of two financial-themed heroes, PIN and Teller. Sure, much like with the game as a whole the author must have been sitting on that one for several decades, but it still got me.

It quickly becomes clear that the challenge on offer is no laughing matter, however. As befits a good one-room game, you’re presented with a clear goal and a dense space to explore in hopes of finding an answer. Atypically for this sub-genre, though, soon enough you’re not alone – your MacGuyver-themed superhero is eventually joined by others whose powers include object-finding echolocation, Google News searches avant la letter, and deep familiarity with the dictionary. This is the crew, presumably, that star in the 90s-era Frenetic Five games, and their powers – and personalities – strike a good balance between being comically useless and surprisingly helpful. The group is implemented well, too, with the team serving as a Greek chorus to some of your more hapless flailing, and interjecting into each other’s conversations with the occasional bit of kibitzing.

For all the fun banter and clever writing, though, the game is very much structured around that puzzle, and as mentioned up top, I found it to be a doozy. After finding that the obvious ways to try to open the vault end in failure, I wound up doing a lot of further poking and prodding in the environment not because I had a clear sense of how it would be helpful, but just because it was something to do. And this single big puzzle has a lot of sub-steps, some of which can feel more frustrating than they need to (the mini-puzzle of accumulating rubber bands especially seemed like it ended in anticlimax, though the bug I mention below might have contributed to that). There are definitely high points – I felt super clever when I sussed out how Lex’s word powers could be leveraged – but also moments where it seemed like reading the author’s mind, or using out-of-game thinking, was necessary to progress, and overall I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall.

What’s worse, some of that banging was occasioned by what seemed to be bugs. The blurb indicates that it’s meant to be impossible to render the game unwinnable, but I think I managed to bork it up by (Spoiler - click to show) taping the rubber-band ball to the book, which rendered the former object unusable and didn’t seem to be possible to reverse. I also was sent on a wild goose chase when looking for a password for the vault, after consulting with the finding-specialist Clapper to locate it: (Spoiler - click to show)typing ASK CLAPPER FOR PASSWORD results in the heroines herself starting to beep, which by the rules as they’ve been spelled out indicates that she should know, or somehow be, the password. But that appears to be completely incorrect, unless I missed an alternate solution.

These are significant downsides to the game, and again, there’s no integrated hints or even separate walkthrough file to hold the player’s hand, which makes me think some might not make it to the end. Still, I think there’s more than enough creativity and humor here to make Improv: Origins worth trying. What’s even better news, the ABOUT text indicates the author’s return to the IF scene looks to be no one-time thing, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of their work – and as mentioned, I’ll likely check out their older stuff too, though I hope someone’s hacked together some walkthroughs in the intervening decades…

If you enjoyed Improv: Origins...

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