Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week though, it's ancient history, in syndication.
"She was Xena, a mighty princess forged in the heat of 90s girl power. The pouting. The fashion. The lesbian subtext. Her cleavage will change the world..."
Yeah, I never really watched this show, nor its predecessor, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Saw a few episodes. Even... or perhaps especially as a big mythology buff, they just didn't click. The same goes for all the similar shows from the same period - things like Sinbad, Robin Hood, Jack of All Trades, and god help us all, Cleopatra 2525. (Not heard of that one? It's the one where a stripper gets cryogenically frozen after a botched boob-job and wakes up in a future full of killer robots.) Xena was by far the most popular of these shows though, especially when it came to spin-offs, and the inevitable games. You'd expect lots of simple hack and slash cash-grabs. You'd be right. Obviously.
But this isn't one of those. Nope. This is Xena, adventure style!
Well, I say 'adventure'. It's really more Xena: The Choose Your Own Adventure, or Xena: The Interactive Movie. Except not. What happened is that back in the 90s, a company called Brilliant Digital Animation got hold of the Xena license to produce animated online games, which it called Multipath Movies. The action was played out in real-time 3D, with occasional decisions to make, like whether the characters should go into the spooky mansion, or call the authorities. The game we're looking at today is based on an actual Xena episode rather than being its own story. Let's recap: that's an episode of a TV show, converted into real-time 3D graphics, then burned onto a DVD to be watched... like a movie.
You'll be shocked to learn that no, these are not still being made.
The story opens on Mount Olympus, where Zeus ("King of the Gods, Creator of All Living Things...") announces that he's about to tell us the story of Xena: Warrior Princess, while his wife Hera, here voiced by Fran Drescher's more nasally grand-mother, picks away at his every other sentence.
"This adventure of that godlike mortal focuses on Bacchus, God of Wine-" he continues. Wait. What? His Greek name was Dionysus. "In this tale, Bacchus has gone bad," continues Zeus. "I always knew that boy would be trouble," chips in Hera. Already my head hurts. Dionysus was the result of one of Zeus' many conquests, specifically with a girl called Semele, the daughter of the king of Thebes. Hera, bitchiest of all the goddesses, found out about this and promptly tracked Semele down, persuading her that if Zeus really loved her, he'd show her his godlike form. She promptly demanded this, Zeus was far too used to being hen-pecked to turn down an excuse from someone he wanted to slip the little lightning bolt to, and he accidentally flash-fried her. Attempting to fix this, he took the baby Dionysus from her dead body and... look, basically, this is almost as bad as Megara being the love interest in Disney's equally broken Hercules, only without James Woods' Hades around being awesome.
Somehow, I suspect that owning a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is not advised for playing through a Xena game. And in fairness, while I've never seen the episode this game is based on, a quick scan of Wikipedia suggests that most of the inanity comes from the original story.
On that note, Zeus declares it time to begin. Orchestral music rising, he blasts two of the wimpiest looking lightning bolts ever down at an unsuspecting world, summoning the epic presence of the standard Xena logo from the depths of legend itself, and presenting the game's title card...
Zeus sets the action going by presenting a map of the world - a village, some woods, and not a lot else. Onto this, he places two simple little dolls of Xena and her assistant Gabrielle, and it says something about the level of graphics that they're not that much simpler than the actual character models.
"Which path shall we go, Xena?" asks an actress who is clearly not Gabrielle. "Woods... or the Village?" Helpfully, two options immediately appear, labelled... get this... "Woods" and "Village". The game never figures out a way to make this flow very well, so most scenes ultimately end with one character laying the choices out like that, and Xena standing around fidgeting for a bit until the timer runs out.
Selecting the Woods, because why the hell not, the duo show up for real, walking like two puppets whose strings have been cut. The animation quality varies dramatically throughout the game, with characters randomly not moving their lips when they talk, 3D models that vary from 'not awful, considering' to 'ye gods man, your arms!', and some hilarious action sequences... but this about sets up the level. This version of Xena and Gabrielle can't even walk straight, never mind anything else.
Their first meeting is with an old woman emerging from the woods. "Looks like trouble," announces Xena, who is also very clearly not being played by her actual actress.
"Oh-oh-oh," cries the old woman. "Thank goodness you are here!"
"What's the matter?" asks Gabrielle.
"The Bacchae is the matter! They've kidnapped the girls from my village, and others too! Please! Say you'll help us!"
Of course, Xena and Gabrielle agree. "Where are these Bacchae?" demands Xena.
"In the woods!" sobs the old woman. "The Bacchae Woods!"
Somehow I don't think this is going to be one of those manhunts that requires the Ancient Greek equivalent of a helicopter. But wait! Who are these mysterious Bacchae of which she speaks?
"Are the stories really true?" asks Gabrielle, also curious." They say Bacchae are beautiful young women turned into soulless, evil dead beings that roam the dark underbelly of man's domain! That a single bite from a Bacchae can turn you into one of them! That once they drink of Bacchus' poison blood-"
Excuse me for a moment.
(sound of walking away)
(sound of door opening and quietly clicking shut)
No. The Bacchae were not vampires. Not even close. Moving swiftly on.
At this point, Joxer - the show's comic relief - randomly shows up, being chased by a trio of slavering hell-beasts who look like they've come straight out of a box of Lego. Decision time! Whip or sword? Indecision time? Don't worry, it doesn't matter a damn. Either way, Xena quickly ends up trying to chop them, only to find that their flesh immediately repairs itself. Being functionally immortal doesn't make them any braver though, and they quickly run howling at the sound of Xena screaming at them.
Joxer climbs down from the high-ground - the nearest tree - to explain his presence, by pulling a severed talking head out of his pack. There's a quick comedy moment where Xena can boot it into the air on the grounds that it's a creepy talking head, but again, it doesn't actually matter. It turns out to be Orpheus, currently Weight Loss Champion of the Year due to a run-in with Bacchus, who-
That's Bacchus? THAT? No. No, don't be silly. My eyes must have been playing tricks. That couldn't possibly have been that stupid. There must be some mistake. Let's look at that again.
Look. I'll forgive the horns. I'll forgive the red skin. I'll forgive the goat-feet. I can even forgive the silly shorts. But the giant gold 'B' hanging from his neck? No! Bacchus does not have bling! I demand a new villain! Right now, or I'm turning this Crap Shoot around and going home!
While we wait for that demand to be accommodated, you might be wondering what happens if you go to the village instead of the woods. Shockingly, it makes precisely zero difference whatsoever. The only change is that Xena and Gabrielle meet the old woman there instead, before immediately being redirected back onto the 'correct' path, where everything plays out precisely the same.
Has the new villain shown up yet? Okay. Okay, fine. But consider yourself warned , game.
Orpheus explains that he was using his lyre to calm Bacchus and his vampire hussies, but got over-powered and decapitated. The question of how a severed head managed to make a daring escape remains unanswered. He explains that he needs Xena's help to find a new lyre that can subdue the Bacchae, and his friend in the village, Melodius, can help. Gabrielle can't help but pick-up on the unspoken... and largely unacted... angst between Orpheus and Xena, which turns out to be a result of a clash back from before she became good and took the spikes off her breastplate or something.
Pausing only to help a mysterious old man, the three head back to the village. Meanwhile though, drawn to Bacchus' abode, sought there to conspire, the three wolves turn out to be (cough) beautiful Bacchae. In fact, they're the only Bacchae. Either Bacchus is one picky god, or the nearby villages aren't living up to this show's Beautiful Maiden Quota. Or it could be that the original 3D engine used for this story could only handle about twelve polygons at once. It's anyone's guess, really.
Bacchus turns out to be one of those 'dick' gods, responding to his minion's explanations that Xena curb-stomped them with a quick rant about "Women nowadays! Dress them in leather and give them a whip and they prance around like a less hairy Hercules." Coming from the guy with an exclusively female army, I'm not sure if he's being sexist, or simply regretting ordering the 'long dinner dress' uniforms instead of reaching for one of the naughtier catalogues. Next time, it'll be bronze bras all round!
Apparently struck by this idea, he bursts into poorly animated laughter. "You!" he demands, pointing at one of the Bacchae. "Do you want a chance to redeem yourself? Then listen carefully..."
Unfortunately, his explanation of why he plans to send her into battle alone after three of them just chickened out of a fight with Xena is unceremoniously cut off by our heroes arriving in the village. Here, things are much as you'd expect. Beautiful maidens being kidnapped? A dark god holding the land under his thrall? Must be party time! Orpheus is attached to Joker in traditional Zaphod Beeblebrox style, while Xena and Gabrielle demonstrate their fashion sense by showing up at a crazy shin-dig in their regular clothes and nobody so much as batting an eye. "The town is celebrating!" Xena explains, telling Gabrielle that the whole point is to ward off the Bacchae. Spoiler warning: It doesn't work. At all.
Approaching Melodious' house, the team spots a cloaked figure leaving with a lyre under one arm. Xena easily traps her by a cart, whipping off her hood to reveal the Bacchae underneath. As is traditional for vampires, said Bacchae promptly stands around hissing for roughly nine hours, before morphing back into a wolf and escaping. Or at least, pretending to escape. For no apparent reason, she decides to take a break from getting to safety to randomly seduce and try and eat a couple of thieves in the woods, letting Xena catch up and kick her ass. One buttock, anyway. After that, she more or less just lies back while the Bacchae escapes, yelling things like "This isn't over!" without actually giving chase or anything.
Back in the town, Gabrielle is busy partying, when two seductive, low-polygon girls show up to say hello. "You look just like a real Bacchae!" she tells one of them, marking herself down as the dumbest person in the history of ancient Greece. Xena shows up and pulls her out of the party, much to Gabrielle's annoyance, with not even the slightest hint that she's been bitten by one of them and is slowly becoming evil. Joxer has the wrong idea though, thinking that Xena is one of the 'fanged denizens of darkness'. This results in a zoom-in on her neck to prove his point, and a zoom up with this 3D engine is... less than a great idea. Anyway, it'll clearly be a huge surprise when Gabrielle turns out to be one.
Since it's been a few seconds since the last pointless fight, the group sets up camp and is immediately set upon by a group of giant spiders. It's such a terrifying moment, it takes almost five seconds for them to go back to sleep and never mention it again. The next morning, Xena explains the plan. Turns out the only way to kill a Bacchae is with the bone of a dryad, a skeletal, winged monster that Zeus describes as "A fearsome creature of forgotten lore, spawned from some dark, inky mind."
No. In case you're wondering: No.
Conveniently, there's a dryad graveyard not far away, with two possible paths - via a mountain and through the forest. Yep, it's another basically false choice. On both, Joxer almost but doesn't quite confront Xena about being a Bacchae - only if you take the Forest path, you arrive safely. If you pick the Mountain path, the ground crumbles underneath them and they fall down... to the edge of the forest. "So I guess we're going to the forest after all," spits Joxer. "Yes, we are," admits Xena, along with the writer.
In the Forest, Gabrielle finally turns vampire. Xena tries to bring her under control by whipping her bottom, but Gabrielle is clearly too addled to remember the safe word, and flees - at least for the moment. Another false choice immediately follows - pursue Gabrielle now, into the lair of the Bacchae, or go and get the only weapon that can actually defeat the unstoppable hordes of darkness. Well, the three women of darkness. The three women whose arses Xena has now kicked roughly three times. The game gives you no option to point this out though, so trying to fight them again is now suicide.
In the dryad graveyard, the game suddenly realises that it risks being shorter than the 40 minute episode it's based on - even shorter than Michael Crichton's Timeline game. This clearly won't do, so it's time for pointless padding! At least, sometimes. For some reason, one path just skips straight to the middle of the graveyard, turning the extra bit of the story into "We need a rare item. Here it is! Well, let's go!". In the other, Xena arrives to find the gate locked up tighter than Penelope's chastity belt, with a demon monster thing on hand to issue several brainless challenges. Either way, she gets her hands on a giant bone - an experience not entirely unfamiliar to her after Hercules, no doubt - and rushes off to the rescue.
Deep in Bacchus' mostly empty base, his trio of soul-stealing hussies invite Gabrielle to drink his blood, turning her into a true Bacchae - a maenad man, if you like. "We have to hurry!" demands Xena, walking incredibly slowly to the rescue, with the others in pursuit. Oh, the excitement.
Finally, there's a plot branch that actually matters! By default, Xena launches into a hilariously unimpressive combat sequence. "My Bacchae! Attack!", demands Bacchus, again trying not to notice that his army consists of exactly three people. Xena kicks them in the face while Joxer and Orpheus go for the lute, only to be immediately cornered and beaten up. Xena stabs Bacchus in the chest with the dryad bone, but he just laughs "Foolish Xena! Don't you know that only a Bacchae can kill Bacchus?!"
The answer? No. Because he totally just pulled that out of his ass. Luckily, Gabrielle is on-hand to offer some very polygonal fan-service deus ex machina, sinking her fangs into Xena's neck and instantly... oh, you know where this is going. Bacchus turns out to have the worst pattern recognition ever, letting her stab him again in the exact same place , and vanishes in a flash of bad special effects.
Still, vampires will be vampires. Killing Bacchus releases his hold on the captured girls, who are like, so out of there. Orpheus gets his body back and makes up with Xena, and Xena and Gabrielle head off for a romantic evening in the magic squirrel tube. Game over!
"Well, a very interesting ending to this quest," declares Zeus, who was apparently watching another, much better game, which ended on drama and thrills and stuff. "I always knew that boy would amount to no good. It's what we get for basing a deity on a mind-numbing intoxicant."
"But did Xena really have to kill him?" whines Hera, who in one version of the Dionysus myth sent the fricking Titans to rip him into pieces. While he was a baby . I'm just saying...
"For once, we are in agreement. It's not that Xena has failed, it's just that her methods were questionable."
"I don't think I deserved to die either," complains Bacchus, sitting just off camera, and who also was apparently watching a different game. "Oh, shut up," Zeus commands, ever the loving father.
There is of course another way. Almost at the start of the game, Xena and Gabrielle hear a cry for help. If you don't respond, this is the ending you get - basically the same one as in the original show. If you do, you meet an old man who gives Xena a magic elixir that he can put into Bacchus' goblet of blood, and which breaks his old non-violently. It then turns out that the old man is really the god's soul, and that just opens up a whole load more stupid problems. That is literally the only plot decision in the entire game that means even a little. All of the others soon railroad you back onto the correct course, resulting in an episode that may not be much shorter than the original, but definitely has less content.
Even ignoring the weakness of this format - was this really the best Xena episode to make into a game? There weren't any others with some actual plot? Well, yes. There was another one too, Death In Chains, and if you want to play it... here you go! Someone's uploaded the whole thing to YouTube, using its button support to replicate the experience of actually playing it. Maybe it's awesome!
(Disclaimer: It is not awesome. But at least it's a little more dramatic.)
No Bacchae were harmed during the production of this Crap Shoot. However, a few braincells and the street-cred of at least one god of wine were definitely killed in action.