Reviving past glories is something publishers have been doing since the dawn of videogaming. But no dead horse has been flogged quite so mercilessly as Pac-Man, which has gone from 'surreal dot munching maze game' to 'side on platformer' to 'isometric dot muncher' to 'Tetris clone' before finally settling on '3D dot munching platformer' over the past 23 years. But unlike so many companies that have gone to the wall in that period, the original creator Namco is still going strong, and occasionally capable of releasing genre defining classics that keep us interested despite our advancing years.
With the likes of the criminally under-rated Klonoa out there, we know Namco is more than capable of producing a decent platformer, and we were quietly confident that the Japanese veterans could make up for the years of misuse of the Pac-Man brand. I mean, the prospect of "retro gaming chic combined with cutting-edge action" sounded promising. It was billed as "bigger, brighter and more addictive than ever". Even EA signed up the GameCube and Xbox versions. What could possibly go wrong?
Save the Pac-People from franchise doom
But first let's explain what the ageing Pac is up to these days. The evil Spooky, the leader of the ghosts, has been freed from his prison beneath the tree in Pac Village. The wee ghosts (apparently still called Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, which we liked) have been ordered to hide the five pieces of golden fruit around Pac-Land and thus our hero Pac-Man has to save the Pac-People by collecting said golden fruit from the 18 levels, eventually meeting the evil Spooky in a "grand showdown".
Each level is a simple case of guiding Pac-Man to the exit, via various tricks, traps, and objects, mainly consisting of spiky plants, bottomless pits, switches, pills, power pills, fruit and tokens. It's up to you whether you can be bothered to collect everything, but there are some interesting and tempting rewards if you do.
Collecting tokens, rather cunningly, allows you to unlock various ancient Pac-Man titles from a bygone era, including the original Pac-Man arcade game, the sublime Ms Pac-Man, Pac-Mania, the Tetris clone Pac-Attack, but mystifyingly absent is the wonderful Pac-Land. The tight fisted gits. These are all playable in the games 'arcade', which is housed on the very first level and accessible via the game's hub whenever you feel like a trip down memory lane. Sadly, the graphical representation of these pieces of gaming history are hideously ugly, somehow making them look blockier and jerkier than the real thing, and to compound the misery even the audio seems to have been reproduced badly. We're not sure what emulation system Namco chose to use, but it doesn't appear to be the one that worked so well on its Museum compilations, and gives the player no way of changing settings, such as difficulty or the number of lives you can have. Somehow a good idea has been badly implemented, and throws away a decent opportunity to give long term fans something to cherish.
Continuing this retro trickery is the game's Museum, which, like the Arcade, will require the player to collect scores of tokens before it will become unlocked. This one, however, will only be of real interest to those who find old poster artwork and the like interesting.
Munch those pills, daddio
But enough of the past; what of the here and now? In tune with every other 3D platformer, Pac-Man World 2 is a bright and cheery collect 'em up, populated with baddies that can be dispatched by jumping on their heads, while the ghosts can be killed off by munching a glowing power pill. Using his butt attack (double tap X) can also activate switches, which send our yellow headed hero soaring through the air on a Pac-Dot suck chain pill munching frenzy. All rather bizarre, but it allows the game engine to corkscrew through the level, giving hitherto unseen, rollercoaster style views of the proceedings.
Pac also has the usual jump capabilities by tapping X, while holding down square sends him into a 'rev roll' dash, which enables you to traverse yawning gaps. However, to prevent Pac from overshooting, you can tap X to stop him mid flight. Meanwhile, tapping circle while jumping activates our hero's spin attack, enabling the yellow one to rid the world of baddies mid flight. It's a simple enough system, but one not aided by an unwieldy camera that steadfastly refuses to allow for more than a few degrees of movement if you attempt to adjust your viewpoint manually (with the right stick).
The game also allows Pac to engage in a spot of swimming, but to be able to walk under water; Pac must collect some steel boots, which give our hero some ballast to be able to collect the items hidden in the boxes on the water's floor. Later on, we get to collect objects that allow the jaundiced one to ice-skate, in-line skate and even drive a submarine, but it's hardly up there with Naughty Dog's and Insomniac's efforts for variety - or fun for that matter.
Occasionally, you'll also be tasked with completing mazes, which are merely isometric 'Pac-Mania' style efforts. Slightly updated graphically, but featuring the sound effects we know and love from the past. They're fairly welcome interludes, but seem to have very little to do with the main game. And for those who love the chomp endless pills, you can even replay them down at the arcade, and try and beat your high score, if that kind of thing still sounds like your idea of gaming heaven.
On a visual level, Pac-Man World 2 barely even tries to compete on the same level as its many rivals. It may well be "bright and cheery" as the PR blurb claims, but having been recently treated to the sublime delights of Sly Raccoon and Ratchet & Clank, you have to check the disk to make sure it's not a PSone version. In all honesty, within minutes the almost total absence of texturing, the unimaginative characters, and - worse still - the presence of texture seams has you convinced you must be playing a PSone game. The dodgy camera work just compounds the issue, and regularly forces the player to make leaps of faith - that age old bugbear of 3D platformers of a certain 'vintage'
One thing in its favour was the gorgeously rendered fruit, that look so realistic and juicy that we swear we were salivating during our time with the game - but that's about as good as it gets. The game's by no means awful. In fact compulsive platform freaks won't be totally disgusted with what's on offer here, but it's so lacking in technical merit, and lacking anything even remotely approaching a new idea that it just reeks of contractual obligation. A by the numbers, inoffensive collect 'em up that neither inspires rage nor the compulsion to play for any length of time. For the asking price, it seems a hefty wedge to pay for an average game, with a few badly implemented retro classics tucked away inside it. For the real Pac-Man heads among us, we guess we're going to have to wait another few years before Namco can properly revive this flagging franchise.