There are some unusual mash-ups of game genres out there that are either smashing successes or faltering failures. There are RPG third-person shooters like Mass Effect, hack-‘n’-slash action RPGs such as Darksiders II, and then there’s something like Destiny, an MMORPG open world first-person…well, you get the gist of what we’re saying. Whenever game developers attempt to mix things up, their projects turn into riskier wild cards, as it’s tough to predict how gamers will respond to the end result. And that’s where Rollers of the Realm comes in – a pinball game that replaces many of its conventional aspects with – you guessed it – RPG components. It’s a puzzling genre blend, but does it offer a confused conglomeration of half-baked ideas – or is this eccentric title a fascinating foray into a new genre that brings much promise to the future of pinball?
Right off the bat, we knew that we were in for something unique since there’s not just a premise or theme to this pinball game, but also a full-blown narrative with a diverse cast of characters. In a land simply known as the Realm, three ancient warriors once possessed great power to rule over its people, but a witch came along and cast these figures into an endless imprisonment. The land is enveloped in conflict for many years, and many heretics claim to be one of the three warriors. You come in as a young, poor girl with her trusty dog, and go from town to town in search of coins to plunder from others’ pockets. Naturally, though, your whole life is about to change.
In an escalating sequence of fateful events and encounters, you amass a large party of characters and fight for the safety of the Realm in a tale with several decent plot twists and plenty of character development. Judged as a whole, it may be a typical medieval tale with a generic plotline and personalities, but considering that this is pinball, we were pleased with these touches that allowed us to remain engaged enough throughout the experience. While the voice acting isn’t spectacular, it’s mostly not half bad, with lines speckled with humour here and there.
You’ll start to notice that this is a pinball game of its own when you realise that the characters are the metal balls, being colour-coded and differently sized to signify which one is which. Once you choose a hero to launch on the table, there are several things to note. For starters, all of the tables consist of the different environments that you’ll explore throughout the campaign, ranging from a town square filled with market stands and people to an underground crypt of ancient stone crawling with bats and the undead.
The original objectives of pinball are set aside here, replaced instead with the primary goal of wiping out adversaries that are strategically placed around the levels. Hitting them with a ball takes out their health, and they will fight back by reflecting your ball down to the gutter, parrying your ball, and so forth.
To do this most efficiently, you’ll need to take advantage of each character’s traits in their ball forms. Indeed, every one has a host of stats that determine a number of attributes. Due to the size and nature of some stars, their respective balls will move slower or faster, and – with an interesting game mechanic – move left or right more easily when manoeuvring the right analog stick. Meanwhile, others hit enemies with more melee damage, ricochet with more force, and the like.
Besides going on the offensive, you’ll need to make contact with aspects of the environment like torches and arrow targets to gain mana, which are purposed to activate special abilities that truly define each character’s usefulness. The Rogue can summon her dog as a second ball to attack enemies, but we barely made use of this because managing the animal proved unnecessarily difficult – especially since both characters’ light weights make them shoot across the board with uncontrollable speed. However, the Knight’s ability places a shield around the gutter, so when combined with his devastating power, we needed him as much as possible.
You can even upgrade the surprising breadth of stats and abilities of these characters by spending the gold that you gain from each level. However, while the descriptions of these augmentations are promising, their effects are not necessarily felt during gameplay. It’s a slow process of progression, especially with certain characters. Moreover, this feature can feel further pointless at times due to how expensive the upgrades actually are.
With a solid lineup of enemies to face, such as knights with deflecting shields, mages that cast fields of magic that alter a ball’s path, and tough boss fights, there’s enough here to make for some intense, fun levels. There are even sections at times where you’ll guide a ball through a series of mazes and obstacles, bringing in a weird pseudo-platforming element to the gameplay. But this proved to be something riding between a fun distraction and annoyance over time, and as for the full game, there are flaws and poor design choices that prevent the rollers of this ream from rising to greatness.
Although some levels may have compelled us with their creativity, others left us underwhelmed and even infuriated with the challenges that they posed, with some being irksome slogs to get through. For starters, a good amount of them seem barren with small, bland layouts, making up for this by putting enemies frustratingly close to the gutter, who knock any given ball into it with impossible speed. Other areas bring in verticality to the tables, requiring you to hit a ball up a ramp to land in a specific hole or go over a wall, which brings you to the next part of a table so that you can progress. The problem is that the balls’ behaviours are simply ridiculous in how quick they can move sometimes, either going so fast that we couldn’t react quickly enough to engage the flippers or comically jumping so high that they ricocheted up beyond the gutter and over the table’s environment.
This made hitting or getting to different portions of a few levels a laborious drag that demanded utmost precision or pure luck, rather than skill. We had to walk away a few times in absolute frustration and impatience due to some of the tables’ designs and annoying enemies, which is something that this particular scribe is rarely wont to do.
It helps that the visuals do look crisp and detailed enough when translating the game’s cartoony art style into 3D graphics. It’s nothing that stands out, but it gets the job done and makes for some palatable looking areas. There are also plenty of art stills used for the characters and cutscenes, reminiscent of the colourful, stylized look of Braid. While it looks like amateur work that you would find on DeviantArt at times, there are some genuinely great character profiles to view throughout the campaign, which showcase the art at its absolute best.
The music, meanwhile, nicely complements the medieval atmosphere, and the sound effects of various table features, characters, and enemies help to stress a bit more that this isn’t your average pinball game. Not to mention that its length of about six to nine hours is worthy of its fairly low price tag.
Rollers of the Realm strives for true innovation by fusing the pinball and RPG genres. There are some clever spins on traditional pinball gameplay, and it’s bizarre yet fascinating to see how a story, characters, and RPG stats and abilities are interwoven with this. It’s unfortunate, then, that irritating design faults and questionable ball physics significantly mire the ideas at work. It’s certainly an unexpected journey, but it’s wrought with joys and pains that you should take into consideration, whether you’re a pinball connoisseur or not.