Despite messy design decisions, Pac-Man's latest still manages to come together.
My first thought: they've cocked it up. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 starts with a tutorial, and a pretty ugly one at that. I didn't go giddy for Championship Edition and its DX remix because they sat underneath a weighty, mandatory tutorial - they're blistering, simple, high-score chasing experiences you're supposed to be able to just pick up. So why was Championship Edition 2 throwing up pages of text about bloody boss battles? I was so upset I switched the PS4 off.
Thankfully, it pans out. The tutorial is there to introduce what's been layered on top of the formula since the remix of the original remix - slight but important changes with things like gauges, braking, meters and, yes, bosses. Viewed in this isolated sequence it seems like a mess, but it (mostly) clicks once you start getting stuck in.
As always, Pac-Man is all about huffing up the dots in a level, switching his focus to ghosts when temporarily strengthened by a power pellet. The Championship Edition version of the classic removes many of these dots, turning the game into a time-trial gauntlet to be carefully followed - something easier said than done when the game speeds up. Grab enough dots here and the game will spawn a piece of fruit, which will fling Pac-Man to a new board of fresh dots to clear. Repeat until the clock runs down.
The trick to success is to following the optimal path - again, easier said than done - which in turn also has you scooch past rows of slumbering ghosts, waking them up and having them join the nearest of the main ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, pub quiz fans) making what the game likes to call a ghost train. Gobble the power pellet, which turns up alongside fruit from time to time, and it all goes a bit Southern Rail as ghost trains go haywire and scatter wildly around the level. The path they're following is outlined on the screen, but chasing them down feels a bit random, chaotic and irksome in a game that shines because of its speed and precision.
At times it's hard not to wish for DX's simpler times, where you turned tail and immediately consumed a conga line of ghosties in a cathartic, well-earned purge. Namco lays it on pretty thick with its frantic 3D animations, too, and consuming a ghost train or advancing to the next stage comes across as a little too busy, though the game's trippy electronica feel just about holds under the pressure. Maybe I'm just getting old, but it's all a bit much.
This slight random factor of the ghost trains will be Championship Edition 2's biggest point of contention - I think it spoils things somewhat, making it messier and less focused than before. I'm sure people will argue about the merits of some of the other changes, too, such as how colliding with a ghost is now no longer immediately fatal, and the inclusion of another ghost type which roams around as kind of spooky pinball bumper.
That's not to say chasing high-scores on Championship Edition 2 isn't addictive. It absolutely is. But some of the new elements at play here overload the experience a little, taking the focus away from what should be biggest danger: your own hand-eye coordination and those tragic moments where you realised you've just made a complete hash of it, scrambling around in a panic after zipping massively off-course. The wallowing three seconds I like to call the pre-restart blues.
The thing is, Championship Edition 2 wants to force you into its breakneck pace faster than ever before - Pac-Man accelerates up to max speed in no time, and the general push for more, more, more means that an average score here is already dwarfing the DX world record. Crank it up to 11! Who wants to go faster! The whole game is lit in saccharine neon hue, as if Tron was having a really bad migraine, so 5 minutes on the new board is enough to make your brain feel like it's being pelted with a hailstorm of radioactive Skittles.
There's still a generous amount of game in here, too, with multiple difficulty modes across ten boards and a subsequent (and more throwaway) adventure mode. While most of your time will likely be spent chasing a high-score across the 'main' CEII stage, the alternatives options can help refresh your senses. Much like some of the classic examples of this ilk, this surfeit of options means you're always able to be chasing, advancing or getting closer to being better at something, somewhere. Those boss battles, though? Still rubbish.
I'm a little torn here, because ultimately I think it's great Namco has experimented with what was arguably a near-perfect formula in Championship Edition DX. I like that they took a risk, basically, even if I think this is the least successful of the three Championship Edition games. Still, I think it's commendable that all three are different enough to be worth playing, and my evening plans for the next two weeks (at least) will largely revolve around dates with Championship Edition 2's leaderboards.
Pac-Man's latest might fall a little short of its predecessors, then, and some of its design decisions are more than a little suspect, but it still makes it to the power pellet in time.