What is the smallest unit of anything, be it a movie, TV show, book, song, or videogame that can credibly be reviewed or critiqued? Does it have to be a whole unit, or can you break it down into its constituent parts and review each of those separately? My personal feelings are that you have to review the whole, because often times great art is greater than the sum of its parts.
Taken piecemeal, a painting is just layers of colored pigments on some sort of surface, a movie is just actors reading lines for a camera while some music plays, and a videogame is just a series of control inputs initiated by on-screen prompts that themselves are nothing but ones and zeros. It’s not until you step back and look at whole package that what it truly is comes into focus. My sense is that I’m in the minority with that opinion. It’s seems like more and more videogame reviews are just a collection of individual judgments added up. The originality + graphics + the gameplay + the sound + the story + whether or not is has multiplayer = some nebulous score that either does or doesn’t meet the arbitrary criteria in each persons head required to achieve “good game” status. I myself have surely been guilty of it despite my best effort otherwise. But now, I must do just that. Instead of a whole game, all I have to review is one lonely part of a game. So here goes . . .
Pinball FX 2 is a free downloadable pinball game available right now on XBLA. Don’t go running off to download it thinking you’re getting a free game, however, because you’re not. What you’re getting for the time it costs you to download it is the right to spend money on tables. Essentially, for those who don’t know, you have to buy a themed skin to cover the skeleton that is Pinball FX 2 before you can play it. One of my robot overlords joked that the situation was akin to the disposable razor racket, where the handle is relatively cheap, but the blades are outrageously expensive. “But at least the razor comes with a few free blades,” I though. However, I’ve long since learned the robot overlords are likely to send you to the dihydrogen monoxide refineries on Pegi 16 for such insolence, so a thought it stayed. Unlike your new 398 blade razor, Pinball FX 2 comes with nothing. I expected at least some sort of basic table that did just enough to hook you into buying more (Hey, it works for drug dealers, mirite?), but no. If you download Pinball FX 2, you have, in essence purchased a free car engine and four wheels, but nothing else. Please keep that in mind if all you take away from this review is that HOLY CRAP, THERE’S A FREE GAME ON XBOX LIVE, RIGHT NOW!
If you want to actually play Pinball FX 2, you’ll be on the hook for the cost, in Microsoft Points, of a table.
The table that I’m to review for you today is called The Sorcerer’s Lair (240 MSP). If you’ve ever been a fan of the kind of teen or pre-teen detective stories, like The Hardy Boys and its ilk, then hopefully you already have some idea where this is going. The Sorcerer’s Lair table plays like one of those stories. Two plucky tweens, probably brother and sister, enter and then try to escape from a sorcerer’s lair and are faced with a mean old sorcerer, spiders, skeletons, an evil tree, and the ghost of a little girl named Whisper. Maybe it’s silly to try and assign a story to a pinball table, but there you go, for whatever its worth.
I’ve never been a big pinballer (That’s what they’re called, right?). I think my only real exposure to pinball is Pinball Wizard
by The Who (To all those right now thinking “I’m not from your century, old man,” Google it. I’ll wait.) so as far as the way The Sorcerer’s Lair handles the fundamentals of pinball, I can only say that everything worked like I expected it to. Nothing really stood out to me as being unusual. The table has four flippers, lots of bumpers, spinners, and holes with ample opportunity to string together combos if you’re good enough (I’m not). Pull off the right combo and you’ll enter a bonus mode where ostensibly our plucky heroes have to escape from someplace within the Sorcerer’s Lair. Those sections play out as very simple 2D rounds of pinball where the name of the game is to hit targets in a certain sequence.
The table also contains two rotating structures that move every time you hit the ball into the appropriate hole. What happens to your ball depends on where it is on that rotation, with one depositing the ball in the titular sorcerer’s lap, which upsets him so much he steals it, causing you to lose a ball. Other normal bonus modes require you to shoot ghosts or Whisper’s cave. These play out on the proper table rather than the 2D sub-basement that the others I mentioned play out on. You can also activate a mode where you have to hit the evil tree, but the evil tree is on an elevated track and the ramp that leads to it is never clearly marked. I never could figure out where I was supposed to hit the ball in that situation. That sums up what I would say is the only real problem I had with The Sorcerer’s lair. It can be impossible to know where you’re ever supposed to hit the ball during some of the bonus modes. Flailing randomly never got me anywhere, but that was all I could do. Other than that, The Sorcerer’s Lair was the pinballiest pinball I’ve ever played. If pinball is your thing, I can’t imagine a problem you might have with it.
However, there is one thing you might have a problem with. If you’re anything like me, just one table probably isn’t going to be enough. Pinball FX 2 is very entertaining and it would be nice to play other tables. Unfortunately, new ones have to be purchased, but if you go there, then be prepared for sticker shock. The in-game menu offers packs of four and will run you 800 Microsoft Points each (i.e. ten US dollars). You can buy individual tables off XBLA for 200 or 240 MSP each, but even that seems kind of pricey for what you’re getting. If you’re easily offended by overpriced map packs, Pinball FX2’s table packs might make you apoplectic, so tread with caution