Pac-man Championship Edition 2 isn't Pac-Man anymore, in a lot of ways. Like ghosts. Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde want you dead, and have wanted that for over three decades. One touch and you're down a life – so it is written, so it always has been. Even previous games in the Championship Edition series have kept them that way, adding a dramatic zoom-in-and-slow-down effect when you're about to touch them, giving you a split second to figure out what to do and get out of the way. But now you can just bump into them. And you bounce right off a couple of times before they get mad, fly into the air, and start sorta chasing you. Only in this angry state can they kill you, but it's so easy to put distance between you and them they're almost never a threat to you, unless you literally just don't pay attention to them
And it's... curious. In fact, a lot of things about CE2 are best described as curious. On its most basic level, Pac-Man is about nailing a route – a route that gets you all the pellets, super pellets, fruits, and most importantly, avoid ghosts with their own rudimentary AI that give chase. So they made that game again, technically, but it feels like it's lost the spirit of how the best games in the series actually work. Finding the right route was the challenge then, but now, there's only one route: the one that the pellets send you on. Sometimes it can be a little more winding, but sometimes it's just a single straight line. You don't even have to eat everything in most levels – just enough to fill a bar at the bottom that lets you move on to the next maze.
With routing that is practically handed to you and ghosts that don't actively kill you and easy enough to avoid, and at some point I found myself actually wondering why CE2 even allows for player inputs. There are actually some maze layouts that you don't have to press any directions for most of the level – it just sends you along, flying around the level on jump pads, eating everything, and that's that. It looks dynamic as hell, but actually has nothing going on. Which also means I have no idea what the ghosts are really even here for. In certain parts of the game you don't even eat them, you just don't even have that option. They're like moving pinball bumpers, really there to be more of an annoyance than anything.
This is one of those really annoying reviews where I just want to start digging into each mechanic and mode and talk about how they work and where they don't, but there's really one thing that it comes down to: the game doesn't offer you any real freedom or choice for how you'll get through each area. I know, I know, you're sitting there going "freedom? Pac-Man's all about going through a maze, which necessarily restricts freedom! And you said it yourself: it's about nailing a route and executing perfectly, right?" And you're right – but there was still experimentation to it, timing based around when the best time to eat a power pellet would be to maximize a score, things to work out that weren't just about following the single path of dots until the game says "OK, move on you've filled an arbitrary bar."
A quick example comes down to one of those most basic things you associate with the series: eating the ghosts. Even in previous CE games, when you started digging into that ghost train, you could make a wrong turn, stop eating, even run out of power and get killed halfway through. But this time, when you touch the lead ghost, it locks you into an eating animation. It looks dynamic, but it takes you out of the game.
You don't even get to choose when you want to eat the power pellets. You just have to when the game says it's time. No option to keep building up the ghost trains or anything, no choice as to when the best moment would be to get the highest score – it gives you the pellet and there's no other options and nothing you can do about it. It makes score attack less about the give and take of time vs score vs ease of maneuvering the board and everything, and makes it just entirely about being the fastest at a pre-set path, and being lucky about where the ghosts go.
Which can frankly be a rather bizarre thing to see. I've seen ghosts get stuck in loops, winding forever in a square around a piece of the maze without stopping until you bump them out of it. When you eat a power pellet, ghosts are supposed to follow set "ghost paths" that are overlaid onto the mazes, but I've watched them inexplicably break free and roam somewhere else, rendering the whole point of the paths (to help you predict and catch the ghosts) rather moot.
Now and then, though, things still just fall into place in the right way – yes, you're just following this single trail mindlessly, yes the game gives you no options for doing anything else, yeah yeah yeah, but sometimes the music just hits right. The pulsing of the stages. You get those close calls, those tight scrapes – you corner to avoid a ghost, collect the last dot you need. The power pellet appears and the patterns get just right so that you're chowing down dozens of ghosts in a matter of seconds, and you're reminded just how good this series can be. But it's a surprisingly fleeting feeling before you're back to seeing the far-too-simple design for how progression works.
I can definitely applaud CE2 for not just resting on its laurels and just releasing more CEDX but with more maps and skins or something, but what they actually did with the gameplay managed to take a lot of the thrill out of it. Despite the fact that it seems to run a lot faster, there were too many times while playing this game that I just got bored in the middle of a run. "This still going, huh?" I thought to myself. For all its bells and whistles, bumping music, and sleek framerate, Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 just doesn't keep the thrill alive.