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Pinball FX (2023)

Pinball FX (2023)

Written by Eric Hauter on 2/20/2023 for PS5  
More On: Pinball FX

I can always tell that Zen Studios has released a new pinball title by the aching soreness in my forearms. There are few games anymore that inspire that old "one more try" addiction that lurks inside my 1980s arcade-trained brain, but Zen's pinball games are among them. I have stated numerous times over the years that I am not a great pinball player. In fact, I am poor to mediocre at best. But that does not stop my addictive personality from locking in on a Zen pinball table and keeping me there for hours on end, sweating, swearing, and chasing the ever-elusive dopamine reward of a new high score. There is simply nothing else like it in gaming, and yes, I will merrily damage my body in its pursuit. The endless jamming of the R1 and L1 buttons on my DualSense controllers in this case has made simple activities like doing the dishes and writing into wincingly painful tasks. No worries, I'll get better.

I've gone on record in at least five different reviews about how much I love and respect the work Zen Studios does on these tables. There is no need to yammer on about it and beat a dead horse. Suffice to say, the individual tables are beyond excellent, and Zen is the best in the business. So for this review, I'll focus more on how the Pinball FX experience is structured, with the express understanding that the tables are all in the 8.5-10 region, if we were to score them individually. 

I'm loath to call Pinball FX a "game", as I think of it much more as a platform. Players that download Pinball FX get one table for free, and they are able to purchase individual tables or table packs to add to their collection. In all, there are 86 tables currently available for purchase in Pinball FX, including the sudden (and very welcome) return of most of the old Marvel tables of yore (notable exceptions are The Avengers table and the Deadpool table). I consider each of these tables to be their own separate fully-featured game, much in the way that Galaga or Gauntlet are games. Each table has it's own mechanics, it's own method of scoring, and they all "feel" very, very different from one another. You can play one table for forty hours until you completely master it, just to start a new table and have it hand you your face on a bloody platter. In other words, success at one pinball table does not equal success in all. Thus, individual games.

The available tables themselves have quite a variety of themes. There are huge swaths of Star Wars tables, of course, and the aforementioned Marvel tables (thank God I have access to the Moon Knight table again). But if you are just stopping there, you are missing out on some of the best experiences Pinball FX has to offer. The Zen originals are some of the very best tables available, and I worry that people might skip over them because they aren't as eye-catching as some of the licensed stuff. The new Lovecraftian Wrath of the Elder Gods table is a particular favorite. 

Beyond those, you have a pack of three Dreamworks' Animation-themed tables (more difficult than you might expect), a My Little Pony table (colorful and delightful), a World War Z table (fun), Snoopy and Garfield tables (also fun), a Universal Films series (which might as well be called the Spielberg tables), and a treasure trove of classic Williams Pinball tables that have been meticulously transferred from the real world to the digital realm. These include the new Addams Family table, which is capable of driving the longest, most terrifying streams of curse words from me that I've ever uttered. It's insanely difficult, and utterly fantastic.

For the most part, I believe that Pinball FX offers one of the best dollar-for-dollar values in gaming. You can try any table on a limited basis before you buy it, so you will know if you want to invest or not. When broken down by table, individual games cost between two and five dollars, with just a few big-name licensed bangers costing more than that. Depending on how much you lock in on a table, there are dozens - even hundreds - of hours of gameplay here. These tables are designed like arcade games; there is no ending. It just depends on how long you are willing or able to obsess.

My biggest beef with the organization of the tables as Pinball FX comes out of Early Access is that you now have to buy the majority of them in "packs", meaning that you can't just buy one or two tables in most of these collections. This means that you might be investing in some tables that you love, only to have some that you will never touch come along for the ride. If these were broken down into two- or three-game packs, I wouldn't mind so much, but having to buy the entire run of Marvel games as a pack feels a mite aggressive. In Early Access, you could just snag the stuff you liked and leave the rest behind. That felt much cleaner to me. 

Of course, there is also the Pinball Pass, which at fifteen bucks a month might be the best option for some players that acknowledge they won't be into Pinball FX for the long haul. The Pinball Pass pretty much unlocks everything except for a couple of premium tables, so you can just go nuts. However, upon release, I did have some troubles getting certain tables to download and appear in the interface. Launch difficulties, I suppose.

As far as the platform functionality goes, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Things are okay, but I can't help but feel a few tinges of disappointment at some features that fell asunder along the way. I've been following the development of Pinball FX (dropping the number system, kinda like the Scream films) for about a year on Epic Games Store. I wrote a preview for the platform in April of 2022, when the world was fresh and new and full of promise. But here we are in 2023, and much of the shine has been worn away from the release of Pinball FX over the Early Access months, as the harsh realities of the videogame ecosphere forced Zen Studios to scale back on some of the potential of the platform. 

One of the biggest - well, I don't want to say promised, so let's just go with "hyped" - features of Pinball FX early on was the ability to purchase tables within the Pinball FX platform and have them remain there no matter which console you were playing on. This meant that I could buy a table on PlayStation, for example, and then have my new table - along with my scores and unlockables - carry over onto Xbox, Switch, or PC. Zen players who have been playing since the Xbox 360 days found this to be a welcome relief, as we've been buying the same tables over and over again with each successive release and console generation. But alas, this was not to be, and table purchases will now be locked to the platform on which they are purchased (I'm guessing Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft had a few things to say about the cross-platform feature, which resulted in it's demise). It should be noted, however, that Zen is making an attempt to make things right with it's early adopters on PC, allowing them to carry any tables purchased in early access to one other platform of their choice.

So yeah, having to pick a platform and stick with it is kind of a bummer, as is the eternally missing-in-action Pinball Royale mode. But I will say that Zen has still packed Pinball FX with interesting ways to play. The new tournament functionality is a hoot, allowing players to construct and play in tournaments for any table, with a huge assortment of options. You can construct a tournament to run for an hour or for a month, and they can be measured by full classic three-ball games, or other modes like the number of flipper presses, or timers. It's a lot of fun to survey the literally hundreds of current tournaments and hop into the ones that interest you. The only thing that felt off to me was the ability to monitor or see the history of tournaments that I had created. I could see them while they were running, but when they ended I had no record of the thing; no idea of how many people participated or who won. Likewise, when tournaments in which I took second or third place ended, I didn't get any sort of notification as to my score or placement. They just disappeared.

The "events" feature feels like it has had more time in the oven. Running almost like a season pass, the game posts a number of challenges for players to take part in, which in turn wins points towards permanent rewards. It is a slick interface, and very fun to mess around with, giving the player new reasons and ways to interact with tables they might not otherwise be playing. There is also a nice tutorial to get new players up and running, which takes a funny, slightly insulting tone. It's fun when a game talks smack to its players. 

The basement/pinball cave returns from it's first appearance in Star Wars Pinball VR, and it is every bit as fun and goofy as it was in that game. By playing tables, players slowly unlock collectable statues, posters, and carpets with which they can decorate their pinball room. It's a weird thing, but I must admit that I will sit there and grind out scores just to unlock some little digital doodad to stick on a fake shelf in a fake basement that no one but me will ever see. In other words, it works as motivation.

The tables look fantastic running in the new engine, and are for the most part playing great. Upon release, I did notice a bit of lag from the controllers that made playing kind of difficult, but that seems to have resolved itself over the days since release. It still doesn't feel as clean as it does playing on PC with a wired controller, but I expect that Zen will keep working on it.

I give Zen Studios the benefit of the doubt that it started out with the best intentions to give fans the end-all-be-all pinball platform, with loads of features and cross-platform functionality. And then, as the pressures and realities of the gaming market set in, things got scaled back during the Early Access period until they launched with the product they have today, which is a very solid-feeling, modern pinball platform that doesn't feel entirely different from those that came before. I'm sure the company will keep working on Pinball FX, and eventually that feeling of "sighing for could have been" will recede into memory. For now, there are plenty of great tables to play, and I'm sure there are many more in the making. If you want the new hotness from Zen, Pinball FX is where you need to be. Everything else is secondary to the tables, and the tables are great.

There is no getting around the fact that Zen is the best in the business when it comes to creating (and recreating) pinball tables in the digital space. The new Pinball FX is a solid package with several new ways to play your tables. That said, this is a platform, not a game, and your experience will vary depending on your level of investment in tables. New modes and interfaces are nice, but the game still aches a bit from what could have been.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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