Xena: Warrior Princess - The Talisman of Fate
The history of games based on TV shows isn't particularly illustrious. South Park, by default, is the best of the bunchr but otherwise you're looking at a list that includes such horrors as Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Superman. So, it's a pleasant surprise to find that Xena: The Talisman of Fate is actually rather good - and a relief to see the N64's catalogue of worthy beat-'em-ups expanding to a decent size at last.
Aside from a hastily cobbled-together plot, the Talisman of Fate sticks doggedly to its money-spinning license. The characters are all regulars from the show, the arenas feature the surreal mix of Roman and Greek architecture that typifies the series, and the assorted screams and grunts are convincingly authentic - the best scream is Xena's own tongue- wobbling trill as she pummels her enemies in the face with a multi-kick combo. It's a shame the voices aren't those of the actual Xena cast, but then Titus' wallet probably only extends to so much.
The fighting itself is in the style of that old kick-punching chestnut, Mortal Kombat, with a high moves-per-minute count and an emphasis on button- hammering, effects-laden combos. It's very fast - real pain will spread through your fingers as they frantically tap at the pad, but it's the only way to even approach winning a fight. Thankfully, the control layout is intuitive enough to suit the pace - the D-pad or the analogue can be used, and having crouch and jump on Z and R is especially useful, making it easy to switch from normal body blows to leg sweeps and head pummels.
Wide-ranging moves, though, aren't Talisman of Fate's 'thing'. Disregard the 20-or-so standard abilities and you're left with a maximum of ten moves and six combos per character, most of which are indistinguishable from one another. It doesn't greatly affect the fighting - the sheer speed means you'll often have difficulty pulling off even three different moves from your overworked brain - but if you're looking for combo lists that stretch to multiple screens, or moves that vary wildly from sword slashes and leaping kicks, you'll be disappointed.
Still, the small number of moves actually benefits the fighting, making them surprisingly tactical. It's possible to create devastating custom combos by stringing moves together, breaking through your opponent's defences by alternating between head, chest and leg blows, or timing projectile attacks to catch them when they haven't got the time or space to dodge. The large, free-roaming 3D environments are gimmicky (characters automatically face each other, effectively making for 2D fights), but they give more room to manoeuvre, and avoid the claustrophobic feel of traditional, two-dimensional arenas.
If anything threatens to ruin the well-balanced fighting, though, it's the computer opponents. The age-old problem of 'repeated move wins every time' rears it ugly head, and lazy programming means that as soon as you're a certain distance away, the CPU opponents will whip out their projectile attack and repeat it, over and over again. Even worse, pulling out their weapon means they're fatally exposed for a second, so it's easy to sneak up and smack them as they go through their repetitive missile-throwing routine.
Otherwise, the computer opponents are surprisingly tough, deflecting whole barrages of moves time and again. But, like most beat-'em-ups, they cease to matter once you've completed the one-player game - which, in Xena's case, will take all of 15 minutes. Unless you're excited by the prospect of two slightly different lines of text for every character you complete the game with, you only need to play once through to see everything - and unlock Despair, a homed devil who can polish off any other character without raising a finger. There's little incentive to go back.
Which leaves Xena in the hands of its multiplayer, which, thanks to the balanced fighting, finely-tuned controls and smooth graphics, works a treat.
Human opponents are much tougher to beat than their CPU counterparts - mainly because a friend will immediately find ways to dodge your repertoire of computer-thrashing combos - and the limited moves make for fights where real skill is needed to find chinks in your opponent's armour. The wealth of bass-heavy crunching sound effects also helps to make bouts satisfyingly meaty.
Four-player games are a mess, though, making Super Smash Bros the only serious option for quadruple fighting fun. The camera can't keep still, the arenas are really too small for four people to run around in at the same time, and it's annoying to have almost every single move interrupted by someone nearby. This is also where the game cries out for colour-coded contact explosions - you're never sure who's on the receiving end of the punches and kicks, and, subsequently, it's often a surprise to see your character fall to the floor.
Best stick to two-player, then, where Xena offers suitably frantic fistery. It isn't as varied as Mortal Kombat 4, as original or fully-featured as Fighters Destiny, or as downright enjoyable as Super Smash Bros, but it'll give you something to do when a friend comes round for tea. And, after Superman, it proves that Titus' TV tie-ins needn't all be diabolical nonsense.
Ares' Circle Of Fire
This special is pitifully straightforward to achieve: just tap the right kick and right punch buttons together and your opponent will be caught in a burnin' ring of fire. And it bums, burns, burns.
Caeasar's Crowd Quake
The most criminally unfair move in the entire history of fighting games. Press right kick and right punch together and any fighters in the vicinity will immediately fall to the floor. Hmph.
Xena's Mad Kicking
A real crowd-pleaser, this. Push away and forward on the stick, then press right kick for a painful (and physically improbable) mid-air leg-stabbing action. Your enemy's face will never be the same.
Despair's Fire Boulder
Just one of this giant demon's 'ass-kicking' specialities. Back, toward and left punch will bring an elephant-sized slab of granite crashing down on your opposite number's bonce. Rockin'.
We're not sure why this big, red demon should be called 'Despair', as his huge sword allows him to come away smiling from almost every fight. A few taps of Left-C gets him swinging his blade, while pretty red trails dance their way under, over and through the victim. Thanks to the sheer power and speed of his weapon, Despair isn't a great choice in multiplayer, unless you're a fan of grossly unfair, one-sided fights.
The Princess Guide
The traditional round of one-player fights, with a penultimate round against your own character, and a final showdown battle with a suitably imposing boss (in this case, the lovely Despair). As you progress, the opponents you meet aren't necessarily any more intelligent, though -they're just more resistant to your attacks. Win the final bout and a cheat code is yours.
A battle mode for up to four players, where it's everybody for themselves in an arena of your choosing. When you're fighting with more than two players, pressing A will switch your character's attention to another opponent (in the best wrestling tradition), but it's awkward and unwieldy, and, criminally, you won't automatically face a fighter who has just punched you in the back.
This is similar to the Versus mode, but each player has a 'roster' of up to four characters I which they can call on during the combat There's also the opportunity to incorporate computer-controlled players in your own team, and even form teams with other players. To take away some of the mayhem, coloured arrows point out who's on whose side. Even so, the sheer amount of stuff happening on screen can still make things confusing.