Review: Bethesda Pinball

Disclosure: A PSN code for Bethesda Pinball was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration by Zen Studios.

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After more than five dozen tables (and still counting), it’s remarkable that Zen Studios not only has been able to maintain a consistently high quality across its Pinball FX2 / Zen Pinball 2 offerings (except for maybe a few duds), but also continue to design interesting genre-hybrid mechanics that bring unique new ways to experience video pinball. Bethesda Pinball may just be the greatest example of the studio’s skillful attention to detail yet.

What makes these tables so great? Well it starts first and foremost with the licenses they are based on, Zen Studios tapping the universes of modern Bethesda Softworks properties Doom, Fallout, and Skyrim. The appeal to fans of those games alone is a huge part of the draw here. But beyond the fan service, with or without the licensed themes these are fantastic tables that stand out just as much for their balanced layouts and the surprisingly deep and addictive sense of progression that permeates all three.

Each table hits an appropriate pacing and flow to match its licensed theme, while also finding clever ways to implement key mechanics from its respective game world. Doom features a faster, less forgiving brand of kinetic pinball action, in line with gunning down demons from hell in the first-person shooter the table is based on. The Skyrim table offers a robust role-playing character and quest progression that builds the more you play. And the Fallout table, just like Fallout 4 proper, fits somewhere in between, offering pinball-based shooting action with elements of RPG tactics and progression.

Skyrim begins like any RPG, with a quick character setup providing seven class/race choices, including Human mage, Human knight, Elf mage, Elf archer, Orc, Argonian, and Khajiit. Exploring the Skyrim province of Tamriel on a pinball table spans a main progression of 11 story missions, concluding with a battle against the mighty Alduin. Staple RPG elements like side quests, experience points and leveling up, loot, inns, shops, workshop crafting, guilds, and trainers can be accessed or triggered via the lanes, ramps, targets, and holes around the table. Combat encounters spawn models of various creatures (skeletons, mages, bandits, vampires, rabid wolves) at the table’s center, while direct ball hits to the target creature trigger the attack animations from your Dragonborn hero standing on the left side. The dragon battles in particular are quite spectacular, the dragons breathing fire, flying overhead, and dominating virtually the entire table surface once one lands at close melee range.

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What’s nice about the Skyrim table is the way character and mission progression is persistent across all attempts. Even after three balls out and a game over, your Dragonborn’s experience level and gear are saved to continue building upon with each successive round (or you can always choose to scrap the progress and start a new hero). And the same goes for any quests you’ve finished; you don’t have to complete all 11 main quests in a single go. This helps to give the table a true RPG structure, where early on you may not be able to complete a quest, but by continually playing and developing your hero, eventually you become strong enough to advance. It also allows for the quests to feel longer and more involved.

Inventory management is another cool aspect of the Skyrim table. By holding the launch button while the ball is in play, the game pauses to bring up an inventory menu, from which you can equip looted armor and weapons, use potions and magic, check skill progress, and sort through crafting materials. Gear not only impacts performance in combat, but also reflects visibly on the Dragonborn character model. The only thing with the inventory mechanic, though, is that it takes a few seconds of holding the button for the menu to pop up instead of appearing instantaneously, which can throw off timing and leave the ball in a bad position when play resumes. This can be doubly deadly since there is no countdown timer when returning to play, like there is when the game is paused and then continued normally. On the Vita version, while playing with the system in vertical orientation, I also noticed that the inventory menu doesn’t quite fit the screen parameters and is slightly cut off on the edge. Hopefully Zen can fix that with a patch.

Moving on to the Fallout table, exploring the Commonwealth wasteland similarly begins with a character creation phase. After deciding between a male or female survivor, you get five initial skill points to allocate as desired into the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck), and then do a randomized drawing to choose a companion for an extra perk. Strong provides increased melee attack. Hancock reduces radiation damage. Dogmeat offers easier loot. Unlike Skyrim, though, character progress is confined to a single game, so you have to start a new survivor at the beginning of each attempt.

The Fallout table has two primary quest types. The main Vault quests involve hitting targets to open the Vault door at the tippy top of the table. Hitting the ball through the open door allows you to choose a numbered Vault to explore, and if you can hit the flashing lanes and then clear the enemy drop targets that spawn inside, you earn a bobblehead granting an additional perk for the remainder of the game. Your bobblehead collection even appears on a little display shelf on the table’s sidebar, which is a wonderful touch. Side quests involve completing table objectives for the four main factions, the Minutemen, Railroad, Institute, and Brotherhood of Steel. Like the game proper, you can complete quests for all of the factions up to a point, but eventually there comes a time where you get to side with one over the others.

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Completing quests earns experience points as well as bottle caps to spend on cures, gear upgrades, ball-savers, kickbacks, and other goodies at a shop accessed by hitting a saucer off to the lower left corner of the table. Earning enough experience levels up your character, at which point hitting the ball into the shop allows accrued skill points to be spent on boosting stats. Of course it wouldn’t be Fallout pinball without V.A.T.S. Zen did a great job of implementing the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System within the rules of pinball, allowing you to build an action point meter and then, once enemies appear, hold down on the ball launcher to slow time and manually cycle through and select drop targets to attack. Once targets are confirmed, your character’s 3D model, stationed off on the right, is shown firing his or her weapon in slow-mo, damaging the selected enemies without needing to directly hit them with the ball. All the while you have to manage your own health bar, because the ball is lost if it drops to zero. Incurring radiation damage lowers health capacity and also inflicts a score penalty.

The overall atmosphere and visual design of the Fallout table is very well done, from little touches like the ball launcher being a power fist, to radiation storms that sweep across the tablescape, to the super mutant model that stands at the top right, antagonizing you with suitable super mutant snark and, during certain quest events, attempting to influence the ball’s trajectory by shooting a laser rifle at it or shaking the table. When you’ve lost your last ball, the super mutant also detonates a mini-nuke, which is a fun way to signify the game over state.

Finally, we arrive at the UAC research facility to face off against the forces of Hell that have invaded the Doom table. The Doom table’s defining characteristic appears immediately in the form of two difficulty options, Hurt Me Plenty offering a traditional ruleset, while the Nightmare difficulty ratchets up the intensity by deactivating all aids, including the ball-saver, kickbacks, and opportunities to earn extra balls. Of course the benefit to taking on the higher risk of playing on Nightmare is the reward of an increased score bonus for all table actions and completed missions.

As Doom is not an RPG, its table does not have the same depth of character development as the other two. However, completing main story missions allows you to earn upgrades to health, armor, or ammo, while successive hits to a captive ball located near the top of the table unlocks new guns for your Doom Slayer’s arsenal, which includes all the favorites like the super shotgun, gauss cannon, chaingun, and rocket launcher. Naturally, managing to unlock the BFG9000 is linked in with the table’s lone achievement/trophy (it’s the only trophy of this pack I have yet to earn). Continuing a mechanic theme across all tables in this pack, holding the ball launch button during play slows down time and brings up a weapon wheel overlay so you can choose your gun, which is important since ammo is limited for each firearm.

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During an active combat encounter, smaller demons appear as drop targets and slide side to side across the central area, while a main demon appears as a 3D model standing on top of the table to the right. Killing the smaller demons is done by direct ball hits, but killing the primary target requires flipping the ball up certain lanes or into certain table features. The back and forth attacks play out across the tabletop with animations and special effects. Signature Doom elements such as explosive barrels, secret rooms, ammo/armor/health pick-ups, and collectible data logs add further continuity with the real game. This table also just so happens to have one of the coolest ball launcher sequences, which involves revving up a chainsaw and hitting the ball up a lane while the massive Cyberdemon shoots down the ramp to destroy the ball. Fittingly, the table’s skillshot bonus is awarded for timing your ball launch to avoid the Cyberdemon’s intervaled attacks.

Another area where all three tables excel is in mini-game design. For example, the Fallout table has an adapted version of Fallout 4‘s Zeta Invaders arcade game clone of Space Invaders, which you can play from the Pip-Boy shop interface as many times as you like, as long as you have enough caps to pump into the machine. Completing Zeta Invaders repeatedly is a great way to safely add millions of points to your high score while also earning an extra ball. On the Doom table, one of the main missions takes the form of an Arkanoid-style block breaker in which you slide a floating rock back and forth to deflect a ball up at drop targets and portals, between two other floating rocks that automatically move across the mini play area. (FYI: While playing on PS4, one time I encountered a glitch on this mini-game where the ball got stuck on the floating rock and would not deflect back into play, which forced me to scrap my score and restart a new game.) Two smaller mini-games are found on the Skyrim table, including a lock picking mechanic to open treasure chests (it works the same way as the full game), as well as a dungeon maze in which you have to use the flipper buttons to tilt a puzzle board so that the ball rolls along the correct path to reach the exit. It’s like playing one of those old timey handheld puzzles with the metal bar and a maze encased in clear plastic.

If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear by now, Zen Studios did an amazing job replicating the distinct play mechanics of Doom, Fallout, and Skyrim, making for some of the deepest, most fulfilling video pinball action available on the Pinball FX2 / Zen Pinball 2 platforms. You may be armed only with flippers and a shiny silver orb, but Bethesda Pinball‘s tables impart all the sensations of immersing in the game worlds they are based on. What more could you ask for?

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Each table flawlessly replicates its game’s themes and mechanics
+ Much deeper sense of progression than most pinball tables
+ Mini-games are all well done and add to the experience without being gimmicky

Cons:
– Skyrim inventory menu loads on a delay, lacks resume countdown

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3/PS4/Vita, also on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and Mobile
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 12/6/2016
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: PlayStation Store, Xbox Game Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, Steam, or Windows 10 Store for $10.99

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!