Review: The Walking Dead Pinball

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Taking a break from an extended run of tables based on Marvel superheroes and Star Wars movies, Zen Studios works its pinball wizardry on another licensed property in this week’s launch of The Walking Dead Pinball for Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball FX2. Based on Telltale’s award-winning graphic adventure series, The Walking Dead Pinball condenses the characters, events and settings of the first season into a single table. The result is one of the finest Zen pinball experience yet.

The great thing about the table is the way it adapts the episodic structure and choice-driven story of The Walking Dead into its mission design. In the upper portion of the table, a walker can be seen reaching out of a hatch. By hitting this walker three times, the hatch will close to reveal access to the mission hole. Upon hitting the ball into this hole, you will be prompted to choose one of five episodes — the episode titles correlate directly to the Telltale series — and then one of a few possible events will occur and require a choice to be made. Do you look for help or wait for nightfall? Do you take the supplies or leave them behind for the original owners? Do you save Duck or Shawn? Do you side with Kenny or Larry? Do you reveal Lee’s bite or hide it? Once the either-or decision has been made, the mission will activate, and play will resume with one of a few different scoring objectives to meet in order to complete the episode for some serious bonus points. If you successfully complete an episode, its title will light up in the progress tracker located just above the bottom flippers. But you have to be quick because compared to other tables the choices and missions here have shorter time limits, which adds an appropriate sense of urgency given the subject matter.

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In addition to the main episode missions, the table offers a wide variety of side challenges and mini-game events. Some of these occur within the regular flow of the action, such as ongoing objectives to collect rations or gather weapons and ammunition by hitting certain ramps. More elaborate mini-games are activated by shooting marked lanes enough times to spell out a word associated with the mission. For example, by hitting the ball up the “Sniper” lane enough times to spell the word, a sniper mini-game begins which zooms into a rifle scope view and has you pushing the flipper buttons to adjust aim right or left to snipe walkers that pop in and out of the windows of a series of buildings like a shooting gallery. Activating the “Smile” lane causes avatars of Lee and Clementine to begin kicking a soccer ball back and forth along the bottom of the screen, while the pinball itself temporarily turns into a soccer ball that needs to be “passed” through marked ramps within a time limit. Another fun challenge begins when the “Swarm” lane is lit up. The table atmosphere switches from daytime to nighttime as a horde of tiny walkers begin shambling towards the flippers. Survival is achieved by killing 15 walkers before any reach the flippers.

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Zen also did a wonderful job capturing the atmosphere of The Walking Dead games, as key locations from the series form the foundation of the table. Working from bottom to top, the left side of the table depicts Clementine’s house and backyard tree house, the barn from the St. John’s Dairy Farm, and the Travelier Motel parking lot, while the entire right side of the table is lined by the city streets of Savannah. A couple cars from the train in episode three can also be seen extending down from the top of the screen into the upper-middle section of the table. None of these locations play an interactive role on the table, but a couple others do. A ramp going up the right side winds around the top of the table, tunneling through the Savannah bell tower (which does ring whenever the ball passes through) and eventually letting out in Everett Pharmacy, where a self-contained mini-table with its own set of flippers is located. Hitting the flippers into the walker targets inside the drugstore can open a hatch to the super jackpot or activate a nighttime multi-ball phase.

Unfortunately, the audio is a bit more hit-and-miss in its execution. Sure, it’s great that the voice actors for Lee, Clem and other Season One cast members provided new dialogue for the table, but the voice-overs are largely wasted on lines of dialogue that loop ad nauseam and in general fail to offer any real sense of storytelling or character depth. On the flip side, the music and ambient walker groans and growls do add tension and urgency to the experience.

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Disregarding the Walking Dead theme for a moment, the table itself, purely as a pinball table, is laid out really well. The lanes and ramps have a good balance of being tricky to hit while also maintaining a smooth flow, so the ball rarely gets caught up on edges or stuck going in one direction. That being said, I do think that the bumper placement isn’t as accessible as it needs to be, especially since many of the episode missions require scoring a million points from hitting the bumpers or spinner only. The way the lanes and ramps are laid out always seems to funnel the ball around the bumpers rather than providing a clear path to feed into them. When a mission is in progress a magnetic field does appear within the bumpers to help attract the ball, but even with that extra aid completing certain episodes often seems to hinge not on skill, but on getting a lucky bounce.

Turning a narrative adventure series based entirely on choices and consequences, with little in the way of actual gameplay, into a game of arcade pinball might not sound like an ideal pairing at first, but Zen Studios has married the two very different styles together beautifully. (Come on. Was there really ever any doubt?) With an engaging variety of missions, fun mini-game challenges, authentic atmosphere and presentation, and a balanced overall table flow, The Walking Dead Pinball is well deserving of a spot in your Zen Pinball 2 / Pinball FX2 collection.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Great all-around table flow
+ Episodic missions and mini-games weave in story beats from the Telltale series
+ Table setting authentically captures The Walking Dead atmosphere

Cons:
– Tricky bumper placement often makes mission success feel like too much of a crapshoot
– Overly looped voice-overs

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Vita, also available for PS3, PS4, Steam, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, Android, iOS, Amazon
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 8/26/2014
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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!