Review: Pinball FX2 Sorcerer’s Lair

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Anyone who‘s flipped a virtual flipper knows that nobody’s done more in recent years to keep the flame burning for video game pinball wizards than Zen Studios. Both Pinball FX and Pinball FX2 (not to mention Zen Pinball and Marvel Pinball) have kept our plungers plunging with plenty of clever and colorful DLC tables, some based on licensed content (Ninja Gaiden, Marvel, etc.) and some entirely original. While there’s several multiballs’ worth of excitement and anticipation trained on Zen’s forthcoming Epic Quest and the Marvel Pinball Vengeance and Virtue four-pack, it’d be a ball-lost bummer if pinball fans overlooked the addition of Sorcerer’s Lair to the Pinball FX2 lineup on Xbox Live Arcade.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. The table’s debut in Zen Pinball had the misfortune of coinciding with the PlayStation Network hackfest that took down Sony’s online platform for more than a month earlier this year, delaying its release substantially. Coinciding with the early waves of the 2011 holiday game season isn’t great timing, either, but maybe XBLA is where the table’s magical curse finally breaks.

The table backstory is a simple one—a brother and sister get lost and stumble into the confines of the titular sorcerer’s citadel. Bad move, obviously. With the help of a ghost named Whisper—the implication is that she may have been one of the wizard’s previous trespassers/victims—they have to escape through a haunted forest or whatever secret passages your ball-flipping skills can unlock.

Sorcerer’s Lair sports a great layout, featuring multiple ramps that lead to huts that spin when you hit them, changing the direction of the ball’s route and descent back to the flipper gutters. Virtual animated figures are now a staple of Zen’s tables, and two hover over the action here—the sorcerer himself, who has the personality of Dick Cheney on a bad day, and a gigantic golden tree that sometimes drops into the table area to block off one of the key routes. Best of all, the table is not rigged to route balls to the ball-lost gutters like certain other Zen tables (hello, Spider-Man and Excalibur). In fact, the table’s standard “ball-saved” function is actually pretty generous here—when your ball drains, it’s your fault, not the table designer’s.

Like the table based on Marvel’s vampiric Blade, Sorcerer’s Lair really comes to life when the table goes dark. Unlocking the ghost mission, where ethereal creepies pop up on the table for you to blast, is awesome. It’s better still if you can route the ramps to disrupt the sorcerer’s research three times—he’s camped at the top of the table, poring through books and pouring potions, waiting to swipe your balls and lock them up. It’s multiball-in-the-dark time, only the bumper bonus can send your score sailing more quickly.

More tricks also await. There’s a sub-table in the sorcerer’s creepy cellar, where the ball can be flipped to bash spiders and skeletons. There’s also a somewhat bizarre non-pinball mini-game mission, where you guide the ball down a set of moving gears and platforms by shifting their directions with the flippers. Only the savant can possibly hope to ace it the first several times you unlock/access it — you have but seconds to figure out the flipper control scheme, and a single mistake sends you back to the main table.

The only complaint is the same one I’d level at many of Zen’s virtual tables: There’s so much visual information flying, mach speed, at your eyes, that it’s often impossible to shift your focus away from the ball to the scoreboard to figure out which bonus you ought to be targeting next. (Not to mention enjoying the amusing LED animations that accompany everything you do.) That’s why it pays to play multiplayer with a friend: Not only does your friend’s score juice your overall Pinball FX2 wizard score, but you can finally focus on everything you’ve been missing.

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Pros:
+ Great integration of story and gameplay
+ Clever table design is sensible and fair—no cheap ball drains here
+ Multiball in the dark brings the table to life

Cons:
– Too much visual information makes scoreboard watching impossible
– Mini-game missions pop up too quickly for players to react

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade DLC
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 10/12/2011
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.