Pac-Man has worn many hats over the course of his nearly two and a half decade tenure. In addition to his popular top-down maze fashion, he's also starred in a runner, an adventure game, and even full-on 3D action titles. Now, courtesy of the Candy Crush and Puzzles & Dragons craze, he's the star of a Match-3 with heavy RPG elements called Pac-Man Monsters [Free]. And you know what? It's not half bad.
GREE and Namco Bandai have teamed up to bring Pac-Man into a relatively overdone genre, but it's the little things Monsters does that makes it shine. First off, the role-playing elements make their way into the fray hard and fast from the get-go. You won't be going at it alone with just the Pac -- you'll assemble a swarthy crew consisting of ghosts, fairies, and other creatures that ape the Puzzle & Dragons formula. You'll have over 100 monsters to collect and summon, all of which ties into the game's currency system (more on that later).
In a nutshell, you're going to be doing battle with tons of monsters, some of which are pretty basic design wise, ranging all the way up to classic Namco cameos like the Galaga ships. The way you do this is by -- you guessed it -- matching colored icons on the lower half of the screen. Where Pac-Man Monsters gets it right though is the means in which things are matched. By dragging your finger across the screen, you can guide a miniature Pac-Man in any direction you wish, munching blocks like the classic arcade game. Every time you munch, the enemy takes damage.
Each color takes the form of an element, which you'll have to tactically attack depending on your enemy's weakness. In other words, it's a modified version of rock-paper-scissors, but with the added bonus of complete control over where you go next. To help mix things up there's Power Pellet items that grant bonuses when munching up vulnerable ghosts, and fruit that heals your entire group.
In many ways, Monsters is a more methodical Match-3, which I really enjoyed over the typical frantic nature of the genre. It's nice to actually sit and think every so often and plan out your current move in addition to your next steps, and having to choose between a good combo and a power-up is always taxing. While the art style is definitely a bit uneven (the ghost designs are lacking), I really enjoyed seeing the different takes on Pac-Man -- particularly the thief-like "Forest Pac."
To help prolong the game, there's a huge world map to explore, offering up new quests (more battles, essentially), in exchange for in-game currency and rewards. You'll spend this money on earning new monsters, as well as items that facilitate monster evolution and extra bonuses. If you're keen on constantly checking the menus, you'll also find special time-sensitive quests with the aforementioned Namco cameos.
Now, this is a free-to-play joint, so it does come with some caveats. First, there's an energy meter, which thankfully isn't too bad as it doesn't limit your turns as often as other games. While I'm generally against energy meters as a whole, I didn't really feel like I was barred from playing Monsters, and was content perusing the summon, upgrade, and equipment menus in-between refills. Of course, it would be nice to do away with it entirely.
To help ease the pain you'll have the opportunity to use "guest" creatures from your friends or other strangers online -- but you don't get to keep them after the battle. It helps, because earning money can be a rather slow experience. and it's a nice system that helps players out even if they don't have a strong party -- beyond the energy dilemma, allows you to play as often as you like.
As a general rule, GREE can go overboard with their free-to-play style, and hook you in to the point where you feel like you constantly need to pay to play. But with Pac-Man Monsters I feel like there's a decent balance, and I still pick up my game daily to go a few more rounds and assimilate some more members of my crew. While the pay model inherently holds the game back from everything it could be, it's still worth a go because of the match mechanics alone.
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