For a virtual pinball game to be any good, it has to accomplish a few things. First off, it needs to stay true to the physics and form of a traditional table. The ball needs to perform predictably and accurately for the experience to be taken seriously. Secondly, it needs to rise above. Sure, players are looking for an honest experience. But that doesn’t mean we want developers to take it easy. High quality rendering isn’t enough; we need impressive ramps, inventive skill shots and well-mimicked lanes and bonus rounds. And finally, we want it cheap. After all, this is pinball, not Halo.
Zen Studios delivers on all of this. And, for a pinball game, there’s a lot going on here. The table and mini-games are all complimentary to the wildly popular, episodic game series Walking Dead by Telltale Games. Players will recognize plot points from Season One of the installment in this pinball adaptation, which is bedecked in Telltale’s minute iconography and locations. (In 3D, the table depicts Clementine’s Treehouse, the Belltower, John’s Dairy Farm, and other scenes).
Just because the game is confined to a table doesn’t mean that it’s limited. Cinematic vignettes play out alongside the pinball action. The ball doesn’t affect characters for the most part, but it does interact slightly with the zombies. The board contains all of the elements you would expect from a table—carnival-esque flashing lights, diversion ramps and multiple bumpers—but there’s also a full environment on this table.
It’s pinball, but then it isn’t. There are added obstacles (such as the lone undead walker in the center of the board that must be hit to opt into missions) and ongoing drama unfolding as Lee wards off the horde, *oblivious to the careening pinballs all around him). This is just the kind of ADHD adventure our mobile platforms have bred us to love. We need to have a lot going on.
In a slight departure from your traditional pinball experience, the spring-loaded release of the ball has been replaced by a giant makeshift ax; when struck, this hammer sends the ball careening into the action. Instead of that traditional snapping sound, gunshots peel out. The primary gutter depicts a boarded up walker pit; the wood strains as the ball speeds across the pit, the undead fighting to break free. It’s all pretty fantastic.
One of the fun ways that developers keep the game rolling full steam ahead is to make sure there’s never a dull moment. Gutter a ball to play out an encounter between walkers and the crew. The main table (complete with one “walking dead” that roams the board) is where all of the action takes place. Here you will also see a grate, through which zombie arms reach in an effort to snag your ball. There is a second stage, also, which can be unlocked by reaching checkpoints. This tier is a sort of bonus-point arena, much like you’d find on a traditional table.
It’s really endearing that the developers don’t take themselves too seriously, either. That’s what so great about Zen Studios. The standing joke—that this is pinball—is not lost on the artists behind this or any of other tables at Zen. The goal behind all of the studios titles seems to be to idolize this addictive traditional of vivid pinball machines, while also showing the flexibility of the genre. Look at us, it says coyly. We’re not your grandpa’s pinball. Thanks to the animations that run peripherally, this game is about as 2D as a punch in the face. The plot and paced goals keep players on target, motivated and engaged.
Which is why Walking Dead pinball is so great. There’s a first-person zombie hunt to reward players for investing in a pinball zombie adventure. There are missions and goals to encourage players to improve and engage in the story. This game shows just enough leg in the plot-driven challenges to entice players to further investigate this award-winning series. Morality and survival are the biggest themes in Walking Dead (as a series, as a comic book, and now as a game), and factors such as these influence the outcome of the story arc as players react to missions on the pinball table. The plot arcs according to decisions that players have to make in game; who you trust, who you save, and who you leave for dead impact the ending of your adventure. (But don’t worry–it all comes full circle eventually.)
In something of a departure, this title is uncluttered by the auditory bells and whistles that Zen is so great at nailing. Walking Dead is pretty quiet for a game all about knocking balls around. There’s music, but it’s low; it picks up a little when action is afoot, but for the most part it’s a very quiet and brooding affair. Occasionally characters talk, which advances the story behind the Walking Dead. Zombies growl, which is in keeping with what most zombies say in the wild. And balls are effectively pinned, which is more or less key to the success of any pinball game.