Companions of Xanth is based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels and loosely follows the plot of his 1993 novel Demons Don’t Dream, in which a young man uses a computer game to enter and explore the world of Xanth.
Typical of Piers Anthony’s novels, the game is filled with puns and visual gags, and some knowledge of the Xanth universe is helpful; for those players who haven’t read any of the Xanth novels, an in-game ‘Com-Pendium of Xanth’ is provided to the player for the majority of the game.
The whole premise of this game is that you’ve been sucked into this fantasy world through your computer to act as an avatar for a force of good (or evil?) to undergo a quest to find some legendary artifact. Your opponent, who is the avatar for the other force of good (or evil?) is another person from Earth that has been recruited in the same fashion as you.
As you begin to explore the house on Earth where the game starts you’re presented with a pretty standard adventure game interface. The left hand side of the screen contains the fixed verb list, below that is navigation and options, to the right is your “party” view followed by descriptive text and your inventory.
After figuring out how to initially navigate, answering the phone, accepting the bet, getting the package and putting the disk in your computer you’ll be whisked off to the world of Xanth. This is a fantasy setting that apparently you (the player) don’t believe in. As a result you’re seen by the residents of the world as a floating computer screen.
Aside from the static view of the world you see most of the time, on occasion you’ll be greeted with a cut scene. This appears to be digitized photos animated at a rate of like 1 frame per minute, as the “action” during these exchanges just crawls. I tried cranking up the CPU cycles in DOSBox-X a few times to see if it helped, but it really wasn’t any better.
You’re not alone on this adventure, as you are joined by a companion from Xanth. I can’t remember if you could actually choose or if you were forced down a fixed selection path but I went with Nada Naga. Her icon will be present in the “party” view whenever she’s with you, and on every screen you can ask her questions, or ask for tips. She’s actually quite useful and helping to direct you to your next goal, and occasionally is a required piece of a multi-pronged puzzle you’ll have to solve.
The puzzles is where this game kind of falls apart - especially if you’re not a native English speaker. EVERYTHING in this game is a pun, and on more than one occasion the solution requires you to not only know that it’s a pun, or double-entendre - but how to turn that phrase into meaning something literal.
I can’t imagine this was fun for kids playing in the early 90’s. I would have been 13 when this came out and the solutions to these puzzles would have just frustrated me to no end. Getting past the “Fireman and Hot Dog” for example requires you to ask Nada if she’s feeling hot, and when she says she is to ask her to put her hair in a bun. Then you take that bun, and put mustard on it. The fireman’s “hot dog” is afraid of the bun with mustard on it so he disappears.
To get the fireman to move along you need to
WAIT for a minute, and he’ll give you fire water (because I guess he’s an alcoholic). Would a younger player know that this is alcohol - which then is needed in solving a fetch quest/item combo puzzle? Probably not …
Waiting is also a recurring solution to puzzles. There is a dedicated
WAIT command that will occasionally cause some condition on the current screen to change. Sometimes this is to get a different dialogue option, sometimes it’s to allow something to happen. For example the shimmering door in the desert will eventually appear if you alternate
WAITing and asking Nada questions. I think she alludes to you having to be patient or something - I honestly don’t remember.
The main screen area can contain a larger text area when more information needs to be communicated, which is nicer than having to continually scroll the 2 lines the info bar typically presents you with.
There are a dozen or so NPCs that you will interact with throughout the game, and this is done via a standard dialogue tree. These interactions do advance the plot, but typically not before setting up some random fetch quest that involves a tedious amount of backtracking.
Though most areas are pretty short, some areas like the Burrow are enormous and maze-like. Thankfully the game gives you a
MAP view that makes navigating these sections of the game a lot easier as they contain landmarks on each tile to help you remember what was where.
From a gameplay perspective there is some generic looping ambient music, but it just fades into the background along with any sound effects so playing this game on mute would not detract from the overall experience. The artwork is pretty good on the static screens, but the cut scenes are so janky that you might forget about the parts of the game you were just enjoying visually.
Companions of Xanth is not breaking any new ground in the adventure game genre. The writing is not particularly good, but this may just be the adaptation of Piers Anthony’s work focusing too heavily on the puns and wordplay and less on character development and world building. I did leave this experience wanting to know a bit more about the world of Xanth, but not the game world - the books. I have a feeling these worlds are better experienced in writing than in game form, but that’s just my 2 cents.
|Companions of Xanth
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