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NDS Review - 'Pac 'n Roll'

by Alicia on Oct. 1, 2005 @ 3:12 a.m. PDT

Have fun with Pac-Man in a whole new way with Pac 'n Roll. This challenging and unusual platformer lets you roll your way through Pac-Land, fighting ghosts and chomping power pellets. Use power-up hats to give Pac-Man new powers, and send him rolling and leaping through loops, platforms, and streams.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Namco
Release Date: August 23, 2005


One of the great things about video games is how gleefully bizarre the medium is willing to be. Things that would be far too weird to succeed at in movies, TV, or even comics not only make perfect sense when you're playing a game, but also become very deeply enjoyable. Namco's Katamari games are a perfect example of this, and Pac 'n Roll seems to be an attempt to duplicate that success using Namco's venerable old Pac-Man mascot. The result, while ambitious, falls a little short of the mark in terms of enjoyment.

The story behind the game – I know, I can't believe they bothered with one either – is that a monster called Golvis has been loosed by the Ghosts on Pac-Land, and has immobilized the citizens by cursing them to lose their limbs. This leaves all of the various Pacs left as helpless balls. Not to be outdone by the likes of Kirby, our young hero Pac-Man hooks up with a magic fairy named Krystal (no, really, I swear!) and goes off to defeat Golvis like the destined hero he is. The story sequences are exercises in pure surreality that have little to do with the actual gameplay, but you have to sit through them at the beginning anyway. They're mostly told in 2D still art, with voice acting "implied" by random cutesy "pakupaku" sounds that stand in for dialogue. It may have worked in Animal Crossing, but it sure doesn't work here. This is one of those games where you'll probably just turn off the sound early on. The music, although not bad, is certainly forgettable.

Pac 'n Roll's gameplay is like an unholy hybrid of a traditional 3D platformer and an old NES game called Marble Madness. Remember Marble Madness? For those of you who make me feel old, I'll try to explain it: you were racing a marble through different surreal pseudo-3D courses, dodging enemies and trying to get to the goal as quickly as possible. It was fun in very small doses, mostly because controlling your marble with the D-Pad on the old NES controller was nearly impossible. Most of the time when you tried to play, your marble ended up flying off the sides of the course into the abyss. You might finish one or two levels if you were lucky.

Now, in Pac 'n Roll you aren't racing, but the courses are just as dangerous and flying off into bottomless pits is just as much of a danger. The main thing Pac 'n Roll has over Marble Madness is a control interface that is pretty superior to the old NES D-pad, but not quite what it should be. In Pac 'n Roll, you move your little Pac-Ball around using the touch screen. This sounds really great, right?

Well, the problem is that it wasn't implemented in a remotely intuitive way. It would make sense to touch your Pac-Ball with the stylus tip and then move him around on the touch screen. Instead, the main game plays out on the top screen, and you have to sort of rub the stylus around on the bottom screen to indicate where the Pac-Ball should go and how quickly he should move. Imagine trying to use a trackball controller without actually being able to feel it, and that's about what playing Pac 'n Roll is like. It's better than Marble Madness, but not as much better as it really should be. Advanced functions like dashing are maddeningly difficult to trigger consistently, and your ability to move Pac-Man completely lacks precision.

It's a shame Namco botched the interface like this, because the basics of a good game are lurking, undeveloped, in the title. There's a reasonably good variety of worlds to roll your Pac-Man through, with each world following one of the basic themes that are required, by law, to be in every platformer. You know what I mean: there's a jungle level, a lava level, an easy "grasslands" level, an ice level, etc. Fortunately, each of the courses in the various worlds is cleverly laid out, and figuring out how to get through a particular one can be an excellent challenge.

The only thing that really mars this gameplay, the awkward interface aside, is an unusually awkward camera system. I'm no great fan of fixed camera angles, but this is one of the few games where they really should have been implemented. Instead, Pac 'n Roll went with a free-ranging camera that you can set as you wish using the D-Pad. This actually makes gameplay more awkward, since certain jumps and stunts are only possible if you have the camera at a certain angle. There's no way to discern this other than trial and error, and it can be frustrating when you figure out that what was tripping you up was the camera angle you picked, or when you get killed by a ghost you had no chance of seeing without moving the camera.

Visually, Pac 'n Roll is an unimpressive game. The courses are interesting in an abstract sense, but the 3D graphics offer little more than sterile worlds full of geometric solids. This would be fine if the game still managed to be visually interesting, but the generic level themes result in very bland, utilitarian maps. The jungle and lava are unobjectionably lava-y and jungle-y, but just not all that interesting to look at. Similarly, Pac-Man is an entirely nondescript yellow ball and the ghosts oddly plastic-looking. Super Mario 64 DS proved you could do impressive if simple 3D on the DS, so the bland graphics aren't the hardware's fault.

With so much in the way of fantastic games about to come out for the Nintendo DS, I can't really recommend spending much time with Pac 'n Roll. The game's very playable, but it's just not very much fun. More imaginative level concepts and a better implementation of the rolling game mechanic could've resulted in a brilliant title. However, the fact remains that Pac 'n Roll is a fine idea implemented without any real sense of imagination behind it.

Score: 6.9/10

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