Devils, dragons, mutants, and balls
I was in a game store when I came across a box of Bethesda blind-bag toys the other day. I don’t know why, but they kind of captivated me for a little while. Seeing plastic miniatures of Dog Meat and the Lone Survivor mixing with the DoomGuy, Corvo, and the weird murder-dude with a safe for his head from the Evil Within made me appreciate the variety of Bethesda’s library in a way I typically gloss over. It’s easy to think of Bethesda as an Elder Scrolls and Fallout factory and forget the other weird and interesting titles under the studio’s belt.
The Bethesda Pinball pack for Zen Pinball 2 strikes the same chord. It’s pinball, but played on tables based on the eclectic settings of Fallout 4, Skyrim, and Doom. Each table takes the very familiar experience of playing one of these three major titles and abstracts it out to flippers, silver balls, and tilt warnings. It makes for a weird and interesting experience you might not immediately expect from the worlds of Bethesda.
Bethesda Pinball (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, Android, Mac, PC)
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Released: December 6, 2016 (Console and PC) December 8, 2016 (Mobile)
MSRP: $10.99 (PSN, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Mac)
If you’ve played any of Zen Pinball 2‘s novelty tables before, such as the Aliens vs. Pinball pack released earlier this year, you should already know what to expect. All three tables are gorgeously rendered, featuring a kind of semi-realistic style that blends the traditional pinball design and trappings with some outlandish table hazards and animated figures that stalk the sides and top edges of the tables. The Doom table is dominated by a sneering Cyberdemon, the Lone Wanderer ducks and dodges at the bottom of the Fallout table, while the Skyrim table has lousy fire spewing with dragons, just like the real deal.
As always, it’s in the little touches where the tables find their charm. Like when a miraculous “FUS RO DAH” saves a sinking ball in Skyrim, or when a bumper hit triggers the iconic bang of the Doom shotgun. The big animated characters are fun, but to me, it’s the little details that truly sing, the parts you can buy-into and believe would really make it to a licensed pinball game in some alternate timeline where arcades never went out of style.
All three tables try to stay true to their namesake games, borrowing different elements of their design and translating them to pinball. For Fallout and Skyrim, this means piling on the RPG tropes. Before you can even launch the ball, you need to generate a character, picking SPECIAL stats like you were fresh from the Vault or choosing your preferred combat style between mage, fighter, and rogue. It’s an amusing diversion from the typical pinball experiences.
Fallout leans hard into the idea. Trapping the ball in certain pits will trigger shops (displayed in a classically clunky LCD screen) to purchase Rad-X, Stimpacks, and gear (provided you have the caps), just like the full game. Skyrim also allows allows you to equip your character, changing the animated player avatar on the side of the table from a jerkin-wearing nobody to a fully developed character after long (long) sessions of play. Sinking three balls isn’t the end, as you can opt to continue as the same character in further playthroughs, amassing gear and weapons until you resemble a respectable Orc. Both games let the player choose different companions, factions, and generally recreate the Bethesda-RPG experience in a bizarre little microcosm of bumpers and ramps.
Unfortunately, these same unique elements are also what holds these tables back in some ways. While novel and interesting, the RPG trappings have a way of breaking up the flow of the game. Fallout is particularly plagued with constant stop-and-go action as frequent (intentional or not) trips to different traps pester the player with menus and options to tab through to get back to the game. It’s fun at first, but quickly becomes tedious.
Doom is a little more traditional, lacking the RPG components, but captures the aggressive spirit of its inspiration well. Doom features weapon swapping just like the shooter, frequent multi-balls to match the frantic pace of the game, and extra touches like super-heating the ball to a glowing hot orb of destruction, bringing the badass super aggression of Doom to the table. Even the heavy metal soundtrack makes the transition from demon-slaying to pinball surprisingly well. Turns out Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was right after all, pinball really is the devil’s tool.
As you likely expect from Zen Pinball tables by now, there are all kinds of “missions” to complete and goofy table interactions to witness. Fling your ball up the right ramp or trap and you’ll be able to do things like sleep at the inn in Skyrim (which funnily enough advances the clock and can lead to a nighttime version of the table), shut down the reactor on the Mars research station, or pull jobs for the Railroad.
Sometimes the regular pinball action will stop to put you in a bizarre mini-game. Players are tasked with navigating a tiny dungeon with a ball by tipping the table, or bursting demonic sacks by bouncing the ball around a small arena with weightless floating stones. As usual, these mini-games are often clunky and difficult to pick up, but offer some amusing diversions to the standard experience and give the tables a bit of flavor. If you really want to master the tables and set a high-score, learning how to access these missions and excel at them is key.
Sadly, the structure doesn’t work as well for each table. Skyrim in particular suffers from repetition, as the game begins with the same sequence (more or less, this is pinball after all) as the actual title: escaping a dragon attack. Hearing your Nord companion/narrator tell you to “watch out! Try to avoid the flames!” is fun the first time. Around the twentieth or so times, you’ll want to conquer his lands in the name of the Imperial army just to spite him.
This is compounded by the fact that the Skyrim table just doesn’t seem that well made. Despite all the interesting possibilities of dragon-slaying, battling trolls, finding loot, and learning new Dovahkiin powers, it’s rare to actually accomplish these goals. The table seems designed to sink the ball as quickly as possible, with a huge flat square positioned just at the top middle of the table that seems perfectly shaped and spaced to kill all momentum and drop the ball down the center every time you touch it. Add on a number of bumpers that consistently fling the ball towards the dead-end left side pit, and progress on any of the many, many quests available is painfully slow.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the hottest pinball player in the world, but with Zen tables I’m usually able to progress a fair amount and see a good spread of what a game has to offer. I feel like I’m still missing big chunks of the Skyrim experience even after repeated attempts, and all the repetition does little to encourage more time on the table.
The Bethesda Pinball pack is an odd proposition. The tables are spectacular looking and all the little touches and gameplay twists are ambitious and creative in a way I really enjoy thinking about. But, both the Skyrim and Fallout tables are held back by small annoyances and wonky design choices that just make them less fun to play than they should be. Doom ended up being my favorite of the pack, which in a way is disappointing since it is also the most traditional of the tables offered. Maybe I’m just a pinball purist. Or maybe that pinball devil has a hold on me.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]