When I was a kid, my parents were pretty strict about the kind of video games I could play, which meant that they chose most of the games from the rental store. Their picks weren't always great, but every now and then I'd end up really enjoying a title I'd initially dismiss as "kiddy." That's the way I approached Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures when the review copy showed up, expecting an easy, by-the-numbers platformer, but the truth is quite the opposite.
Based on the currently-airing animated series, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures has a bleak-sounding setting for such a bright and happy game: Pac-Man is the last of the yellow Pac-Worlders, and must save the world by defeating a powerful ghost named Betrayus, who Pac accidentally released. It's also implied that Betrayus killed Pac-Man's father, along with the rest of the yellow Pac-Worlders. Hell, some of that even trickles into the actual game--as soon as I start the game, friendly-sounding scientist Sir Cumference (ugh, I could learn a thing or two from these puns) cheerfully tells me "when you defeat a ghost, you collect their eyes!"
All jokes aside, after creeping through blood-soaked hallways in Deadly Premonition, and then beating/terrorizing the entire criminal population of Gotham City in Batman: Arkham Origins, Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures felt like a very welcome, refreshingly old-school break. Minimal tutorials immediately drop you into the game, telling you what Pac-Man's basic abilities are, and then letting you play. Each level is pretty straightforward, always pointing you in the right direction, but a lot of the challenge comes from figuring out how to get to where you're supposed to go.
Pac-Man also has a variety of abilities gained from eating different berries, from fire and ice powers that work as attacks and can open up new areas, to a platforming-centric chameleon form and combat/puzzle-solving titanium form. Early on, the game's setup is simple, giving players the chance to get comfortable with each form individually before mixing things up and making you decide which power-ups are more important to you in a given area. And yet, in a game like this, based on a kids' show and very clearly marketed only to a younger demographic, there's a lot of care and thoughtful design put into each level.
There's also a surprising amount of challenge, eventually--as play-by-numbers as the early segments feel, with ice levels that teach you how to use Fire Form, and metal levels that teach the basics of the Titanium Form's magnetic powers, the game eventually expects a lot more from players. Later levels constantly change up which power-ups you need, and while it's keeping with Ghostly Adventures' simple design of only having one power-up at a time, I'm wondering why they didn't let you keep one berry stocked, like Super Mario World. A small addition like that wouldn't break up the game's balance, and would actually keep the action moving faster in some levels, instead of having to run around and grab the appropriate berry.
Controls are solid, and skilled players will make short work of enemies, but the camera often stalls in some locations, and you don't always have full control over it. This can lead to a lot of "where the hell did he come from" moments as you get attacked by off-screen enemies, and it only gets worse in later levels where the challenge is higher. Enemies are pretty aggressive, and Pac-Man starts with only three hits and three lives--the rest is all up to you. Poking around levels can lead to power-ups that give you 1ups or more HP, and I was quickly able to build a store of like thirty extra lives playing through the first dozen or so levels.
There's also a multiplayer "maze mode" that lets four players hunt each other down in something I never thought I'd see in a modern game: split-screen competitive and co-op play. There's no online component, and I'm not hyping this as the next best thing in competitive gaming, but it's a lot of fun getting people (especially kids, or the whole family) together and playing.
Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is openly kiddy, gives few real challenges to experienced gamers early-on, and has kind of a shallow multiplayer mode. But all that goes out the window when you see that the game's target audience--actual children--are getting a bright, fun game that is far better than you'd ever expect a game based on a cartoon (which was in turn based on a game) to be. Inventive level design, smart ramping-up of challenge, and a lower starting price ($40 brand-new) all point to a game that's excellent for kids, and surprisingly solid for experienced gamers willing to wander off the beaten path.
+ Smart level design never holds you by the hand, only giving basic hints and letting you figure out the rest
+ Variety of power-ups keep each level feeling fresh, with tight platforming between each setpiece
+ Low HP, limited lives and aggressive enemies make for a refreshingly old-school challenge... in later levels
+/- Multiplayer doesn't offer much for hardcore competitive gamers, but is excellent for kids or for family gaming
- Overall, pretty easy in the early parts of the game, and it takes a little while to pick up steam
- Clunky camera can lead to frustrating and unfair deaths