Sure Plays a Mean Pinball
I likes me some pinball. It’s why I have a good dozen tables in Zen Pinball 2, a copy of Pinball Hall of Fame for my 360 (in case I want another go at a virtual Medieval Madness, a table that was in my college cafeteria), fond memories of my visits to the Pacific Pinball Museum, and a copy of Odama – the Gamecube pinball war game that required voice commands – tucked away somewhere.
So it was with a bit of trepidation and a good deal of excitement that I loaded up Rollers of the Realm, a pinball adventure RPG game. While my favorite Zen Pinball tables include a good deal of technical wizardry and more than a few mini-games that are impossible to recreate on physical tables, I hadn’t played an actual pinball hybrid game since Odama. How pinball is Rollers of the Realm? How RPG is it? How fun is it?
Rollers is a bit RPG, but it’s not going to fool anyone into thinking it’s a real RPG. The biggest mechanic it has going for it is its use of character. Each character is a different ball, with slightly different properties. The story begins with the rogue, who’s small, does more damage from behind, and leads around a pup who can be summoned with enough mana to start a two-ball multiball.
There’s story bits in between pinballing, and those story bits are a generic bit of dialog and voiceover. They serve to introduce the different characters, get a tiny bit into their motivations, and highlight the goals for the current location/table. As the story progresses, further characters are unlocked. The rogue soon meets the burly knight (a bigger ball that tends to do more damage, can roll over enemies without getting knocked back, but is a bit harder to launch), the versatile healer (because your flippers can take damage, you know), and the ranged hunter (who can hit enemies with arrows when he passes close enough to them).
In between levels, you can visit a shop and buy the characters gear from a number of predesigned pieces. This gear then affects their damage or agility or special abilities. Each character has an ability that can be activated with enough mana, a resource which is gathered by knocking the balls into bumpers or drop targets. There’s enough there to make the game feel a tinge RPGy: a diverse cast of characters, a somewhat forgettable story, and the trappings of progression. Still, I’d never recommend this to someone who was a big RPG fan.
A pinball fan? I’d probably tell you to give it a go. The pinball is decent. Each level is a distinct table, most with progressing objectives and multiple flippers. The tables are a bit plain, but they’re often cluttered with enemies and chests and vermin which provide dynamic obstacles to contend with.
There are a few aspects to the actual feel of the pinball that feel a bit off. First, all the balls (even the small ones) feel a bit heavy. Everything tends to settle a little too calmly, which means it is actually quite rare that I drain a ball. Coming from regular pinball tables, this is an odd feeling, akin almost to cheating; I expect it to be harder to control a ball that I launch firmly, but it never quite happens. There’s a reason for this: the game wants to make it easy to capture a ball on a flipper, because that’s how you switch characters. It’s the right design choice (I would be very frustrated if I couldn’t easily switch characters), but it makes some of the levels feel a bit easy.
The other factor that influences this is that every ball can be steered left or right while it is off the flippers. The larger balls have lower agility, which means that they move less, but this simple control means that it is very easy to guide errant shots to the right place or correct a ball that’s draining into a flipper. Again, as a pinball player, it feels like cheating, and it takes away from that skillful moment of launching a ball perfectly into the last drop target or up a ramp.
But if I wanted to just play pinball, I’d just play pinball, right? Rollers of the Realm is interesting and novel and tries something daring and lands somewhere rather good. Each character feels unique, giving the usually inanimate balls a dash of personality. The pinball physics, while a bit floaty and heavy, never get in the way of playing the game. The tables aren’t that fancy, but the objectives are clear and active and change as the level progresses. Hitting a soldier with a well-placed bomb from the alchemist or shooting the rogue behind a row of enemies and “stabbing” them in the back is satisfying. I’m glad this game exists and I’m happy that I got to play it.