Pinball Wizard: Rollers of the Realm offers a fresh, story-based take on bumpers, flippers, and high scores.
Pinball is one of those things that seems to be inherently, timelessly fun. Growing up, I had a friend with a pinball table in his basement that was at least as old as his parents, and over the years we would always go back to revisit the old thing now and then. It was a simple cabinet with some kind of beach party theme to it, but it was always fun to play for a while.
So how does pinball translate to modern gaming? People still enjoy pinball cabinets, but how are they represented in video games? The answer is usually generic, vaguely fun downloadable titles, and not much more. But not this time. Rollers of the Realm aims to fuse pinball gameplay with a complex, story driven experience. Put on The Who’s Tommy soundtrack, and let’s talk pinball.
Rollers of the Realm inserts players into a Medieval realm, following the footsteps of a young roguish girl whose village was long ago burned, and her family killed. Living her life as a common urchin, the rogue’s only companion in thievery and street life is her faithful dog. When said dog is stolen, the girl joins forces with a washed-up, drunken knight and a simple and loyal medicine woman to rebel against the man responsible, eventually making enemies in high places and setting off into the realm beyond their town.
The twist here is that all of this occurs across levels that are planned out across pinball tables. Each character gets their own ball, and each ball has its own size, weight, and speed. The Rogue is extremely fast and light, which makes for easy navigation of larger tables, while the Knight, larger and heavier, is better for dealing with smaller, more compact areas. The more characters you collect, the more options you have for maneuverability, as well as effects.
Different levels will have different objectives. Some will require you to steal a certain amount of gold, made easier via the Rogue’s pickpocketing skills, while others require you to collect a certain item or kill a bunch of enemies. Attacking foes is accomplished by rolling into them enough times, augmented by individual skill levels. The Knight excels at head-on combat, while the Rogue will do the most damage if she collides with a foe from behind. A different example still is the Hunter, who isn’t much for melee combat but whose bow will shoot enemies from a distance. There is also a simple arena mode, returning players to stages from the campaign with new, gold-collecting objectives, with a certain number of lives.
Each character has a special ability as well, such as summoning a second ball, or healing other balls that have been lost. The latter is especially useful, as each character can only be on the board once when the player is in danger (when enemies are afoot). These specials can be used by collecting MP, gathered as the “points” collected by hitting most of the stationary obstacles around each board. Bumpers and various setpieces will give you MP, but their placement and ease of accessibility vary wildly.
Characters also benefit from upgrades. All the gold you collect can be spent at the Port, buying new equipment for your characters that makes them a stronger force on the table. There’s no equip/dequip; once you’ve bought a new item, its effects are there to stay. You can even come here to buy new characters to add to your spherical crew. All gold and MP you collect,a s well as the damage you deal, also contributes to an EXP bar that will slowly but surely level up your collective team. For every three levels you gain, a new team member can be hired on. There are four hired hands to take on adventure with you, and each is just as unique as the ones gathered through the story. Every character at your disposal will be available in every board you play, as a “life” to themselves. Think of each one as not just a new asset on the playfield, but an extension to an imaginary HP gauge of your own.
Rollers of the Realm has a lot going on, and it works quite well most of the time. Each character’s ball feels distinct, and you’ll find yourself continuously challenged by deciding what to use. Some levels do a good job of giving the player an opportunity for some trial-and-error; in a huge, complex board with lots of enemies, do you prioritize a stronger ball that can take out foes quickly? Or do you opt for a smaller, zippier ball that can maneuver across the map with ease? The choice is completely up to you.
One clever thing about Rollers of the Realm‘s level design is placement of flippers. Some levels will just have the main two, plus maybe an extra one on each side. The main flippers have HP, which can be lowered by enemies over time. This is your main reason to play as the Healer, whose impact with MP-granting pumpers will automatically give back small amounts of HP to the flippers. Other, smaller flippers across the map are integrated into puzzle elements. Knowing when to hold one flipper open to launch a ball into, while not accidentally roadblocking it with another, is trickier than it sounds in a few well-designed stages. The downside to this is that the placement of these flippers can make it sometimes hard to tell which button will trigger which flipper, which can lead to some disorientation and aggravation.
The main issue with what Rollers has going on is tricky, because there’s no real easy solution to it. The game relies on a character-driven story, with a solid sense of progression. As such, it can get really frustrating to spend an hour playing the same level over and over until your goal is finally reached. The paradox here, though, is that doing so is kind of the crux of pinball. Play a pinball table over and over, mastering its challenges and getting higher scores. That mentality somehow goes against this game, making replaying the same board twenty times get seriously tedious. The story doesn’t even feel like much more than a vehicle to move from level to level, but having to listen to the same dialogue and play through the same board after nearly making it the end, only to be thwarted by something cheap, is not a great feeling. People more fanatical about pinball than I, however, are likely to find it more enjoyable.
Rollers of the Realm sells its character- and story-driven nature through some good presentation. Mideavel towns and mysterious forests are well-designed and pleasing to the eye, and a lot of the game’s more memorable levels are crafted based on the area. One level might have you launching your ball across rooftops, for example, while another may have you repeatedly navigate your ball through a maze of tombstones, collecting gold as you go. The soundtrack does its job just fine, supplemented by voice acting that brings a surprising amount of life to characters only represented by one still image apiece.
Added to that is a solid backstory, setting up an age of men claiming to be reincarnations of powerful beings, while a witch governs over all with a cruel fist. Unfortunately, the story as the campaign goes on does not feel as engaging, often coming off as little more than a nudge onward to the next stage. Again, how you’ll feel about this ultimately comes down to whether you want a pinball game, or a character-driven story. The characters themselves are simple but enjoyable, each with narration that carries over into each level. Listening to the Knight start to get queasy as I slung him around was probably more satisfying than it should have been.
Rollers of the Realm is the most creative pinball game in years, basically by default. It has some really cool ideas behind it, with a lot of well thought-out concepts and mechanics. These all work well in practice, but could use a little bit of refinement here and there. Things like laboriously long-winded enemy HP and disorienting flipper placement are chinks in the armor of an otherwise impressive, if somewhat self-unsure, knight of virtue and honor. The clash of elements that come with being a story-driven pinball game provide some amount of frustration, but cannot take away from the fact that the game is enjoyable simply because of what it is. It’s a shame that the game’s story becomes such a bland vehicle for gameplay at times, but Rollers of the Realm makes its way into the pinball hall of fame. It gets 3.5 witty, cockney-accented pinballs out of 5!
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Vita ; Publisher: Atlus; Developer: Phantom Compass; Players: 1; Released: November 18th, 2014; Genre: Pinball; MSRP: $9.99