Titus seems to be spending most of its money lately on licenses that will turn heads: Superman is no slouch of a name, and the company's new Xena title has come at a time when watching leather-clad women duke it out has never been bigger. But in both of these instances it seems that Titus is relying far too much on the reputations of its pop icons to sell copies when it should be focusing on creating solid gameplay, smooth animations, and responsive control schemes.
It seems that Xena and Despair (the Champion of Dahak) have both laid claim to the Talisman of Fate. Whoever controls it will have influence over all of mankind, so, naturally, Xena doesn't want it to fall into the wrong hands. A battle ensues, but the Fates themselves intervene, deciding that the only way to settle the dispute is to hold a tournament with earth's greatest heroes and villains as competitors (how Joxer managed to get himself invited is beyond me). Up to four gamers can play, and each player controls one of the many characters from the show (Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Ares, Hope, Callisto, Autolycus, etc.) and tries to beat everyone else's brains in with punches, kicks, and various special moves. Xena has her sword, the Chakram, and a torch that lets her breathe fire; Gabrielle has her staff, some extravagant kicks, and a Dhalsim-type meditation-into-projectile attack. The game is 3D, it supports four players, and it showcases a hot commodity. So why the bad score? It's hard to know where to begin.
Almost everything in this game is done poorly, except the music - but twice while playing this title (the final, retail version, mind you) the sound effects and musical score cut out completely at the end of a match for no reason. Restarting the game is the only way to resurrect the audio. When you can actually hear the sound effects, you hear clangs of metal on metal, metal on wood, and metal and wood on flesh. Each character has his own theme (appropriately, Joxer's sounds like the entrance music for a dismal failure of a circus clown), and these are played over and over until the corresponding character is defeated.Audial effects aside, there is a discrepancy between the manual and the practice mode as to what the buttons are called. The manual divvies up the buttons as "left punch," "right punch," etc., while the game itself refers to them as "weak punch," "weak kick," etc. - and from there it gets worse. The game is three- dimensional, but jumping and crouching are handled by the R and Z buttons. The analog controller is used solely for moving the characters around the ring and unleashing special attacks, instead of the "block high/block low" convention. Why Saffire feels the need to strike out on its on in this regard is somewhat confusing. It's also possible to perform a Soul Calibur-style guard-impact technique, whereby you temporarily knock an opponent's weapons out of his hands. But this isn't covered in the manual and seems to happen more by accident than anything else. Throwing an opponent is next to impossible, and many of the characters' special moves (like Velasca's Tornado) take more than a full second to come out, making them easily interruptible and useless in actual combat.
All of the characters have combos that can be activated simply by jamming on a C button repeatedly, removing the need for skill when juggling an opponent. In fact, it's possible to defeat the one-player game on its default setting just by pressing the down C button over and over. Collision detection is atrocious; characters miss each other by miles even though they're standing right next to each another one minute and then footsweeping airborne opponents the next. The animation is equally awful: When fighters perform handsprings to get back on their feet their hands aren't anywhere near the ground. Jumping animations are stilted and jerky, and almost all of the characters can perform attacks infinitely without any fear of reprisal.
Aside from the character animations, the visuals are moderately appealing. The camera zooms in and out gracefully as characters negotiate the distance between each other in the ring, and the close-up textures of combatants leave no doubt in your mind that you're looking at characters based on Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Conner, and Ted Raimi. The backgrounds are well-drawn collections of temples, town squares, and dungeons, and they feature plain touches such as plants, fallen stone pillars, marble floors, flickering torches, and Persian rugs.
Multiplayer games are enjoyable, but if two or more characters team up on you, you have absolutely no chance of defending yourself successfully because your back is always exposed. Defeating the computer on the hard setting is next to impossible because the two CPU characters will attack relentlessly until you're destroyed, leaving you no chance to launch a strategic assault of your own. This would probably make a decent party game for players who don't know how to do anything more than mash every button available, but fans of fighting games should stay far, far away.