Thanks to Zen Studios for the review codes
Title: Pinball FX3
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Price: Free to Start
Release Date: 12/12/2017
Taking the experience from Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball FX2 (The latter being a former exclusive to Microsoft systems) to the next level, Zen Studios unifies their brand with Pinball FX3, a pinball game for next generation consoles! There’s not really a story to be seen in this game, outside of the minor stories that each individual table contains, if applicable. (For example, tables based off movies or games tend to follow the plot of said licensed material, with some things going in a different order) Still, considering the rocky support of Zen Pinball titles on Wii U and 3DS, it’s nice that the company brought their newest version of their Pinball tables to the Switch as soon as they were able to.
In docked mode, this game looks absolutely stunning. Plenty of visual improvements have been made to older tables from the original Zen Pinball, the most notable one being to the free pack-in table, Sorcerer’s Lair. In Zen Pinball 1 and 2, the art of the characters on the table itself looked a bit too realistic for my liking, which made the art pretty ugly in comparison to the lighthearted story of the table. In Pinball FX3, Sorcerer’s Lair has received a massive do-over, completely changing the artwork on the table to more natural, cartoony designs that fit the tone of the story a lot better, making it a lot prettier looking by far.
Other tables from the older days, such as the “so bad it’s good” Shaman and the addictive yet simple El Dorado have been given similar improvements, although not nearly on the same scale. The lighting on these older tables have been tweaked so that way not a single table comes off as hard to see, and in the case of these older tables where some text and labels were difficult to see, this is a much-welcomed improvement.
Handheld mode is where things get a bit messy. While the tables still look great in handheld mode, with no visibility problems in sight, some of the detail on the more recent tables has been toned down a bit, understandably to make up for the change in resolution. However, framerate took a big hit, with the entire game running at half the framerate in handheld mode compared to docked mode. Normally a dealbreaker for me in any other game that makes such a sacrfice, Pinball FX3 manages to make the gameplay feel just as solid in handheld mode than on the big screen, once again on the older tables. Start up a new table like Son of Zeus, however and you’ll find yourself dealing with occasional drops below 30 FPS that can suddenly screw up the timing, with a few of these drops getting even worse depending on the camera angle you choose for the table. It’s a relief that most of the tables are old and don’t suffer from these problems, but for the select few that do, it can become a really irritating experience. Stick to the big screen for the newest of the new stuff, and only use handheld mode if you can get used to the locked 30FPS framedip like I did, since it’s still surprisingly playable.
The music for these tables remains the same as they’ve always been, meaning that Tesla still has that high-intensity score to go along with it while Paranormal keeps the moody, suspenseful score and all the tone changes, but a few new tracks have been added for both the new tables exclusive to Pinball FX3 and the main menu. Depressingly, a more generic track has been picked for the table select theme, replacing the classic one from the Zen Pinball series, but the tracks for newer tables such as Son of Zeus and the Universal Pack manage to get the job done, with the licensed tables still doing a great job at using remixes of the source material’s music and good sound-a-likes, with even a couple tables that use the original voice actors or audio! (Although some of the original licensed themes, are kept 100% intact, which may lead to issues with certain tables like Portal if you’re a streamer. Luckily an option in the menu will disable these licensed tracks just for that instance.)
Returning from Zen Pinball 2 is are a majority of the classic tables found from other versions of the game, with only a few licensed tables missing from all versions. (including the stellar Street Fighter II Tribute Table that never got to shine on an Nintendo system) Unfortunately, the Switch version of the game lacks even more tables, with every single Star Wars and Marvel table being MIA on the handheld. Thankfully, it does seem like those tables have a good chance at coming out further down the line, and what’s available already are great options. From legendary classics such as the Paranormal table, to fun licensed tables like the Alien Vs Predator Table, there’s something for everyone to check out.
However, yet another feature missing from the Switch version of Pinball FX3 is the ability to download timed demos for each of the tables, so that way you can try them before you buy. It’s a shame, too, since on other platforms these demos were handled a lot better than the ones in Zen Pinball 2, as it only gave you a time limit and allowed you to play just long enough to get the hang of things. This isn’t too much of a loss, but still an unfortunate thing to see missing considering how even the Wii U version allowed for trial versions.
Luckily when it comes to the actual pinball action, Pinball FX3 is absolutely stellar. The controls are the same as they’ve always been, with the right joystick/A button acting as the launcher, the X button changing the camera view, and the triggers acting as the Pinball flippers. Out of the ones available for the Switch version of the game, I could only think of one I absolutely didn’t like, and that was the Earth Defense table, thanks to the boring table design and slow scoring system. Surprisingly, this is a lot less than on the Wii U version of the game, as a lot of tables that equally bored me are improved, with the biggest example for me being The Walking Dead. As someone who still has no knowledge of the source material, I found the table to be incredibly frustrating on Wii U, with the ball falling down the sides of the table more often than not, but on the Switch I had a lot more luck getting games that would last for a long while, the ball now falling down the sides only if I made a bad shot, which is the way these tables should be.
New to Pinball FX3 are a bunch of features that give the game a significant amount of replay value compared to its predecessors. The biggest one introduced right off the bat is an experience system, where doing well on any purchased Pinball tables will give you experience points that’ll allow for unlockable profile backgrounds and avatar banners. It’s not much, but it is a neat way to add onto the replay value, especially combined with the other new additions, most notably the cross-platform leaderboards. With the exception of the Playstation 4 version of the game, the Nintendo Switch version of Pinball FX3 is capable of bringing up the leaderboards from every other version of the game, which helps show that there is indeed a growing community to this game.
These apply to not just the main pinball modes, but also the newly introduced side modes, Matchup and Tournament, where the former has you aiming after random score target from the online leaderboards for league points (sadly, this replaces the “Race to break the target score” mode in Hotseat as a result) while the latter allows you to aim for the highest score in either an official Zen Studios tournament, or one you can create by yourself! The latter is especially great considering how official Tournaments never happened on the Wii U version of the game, and being able to make your own will lead to lots of custom and fun tournaments that players will create to challenge their friends, not unlike how Mario Kart 8 handles them.
Last but not least, the upgrade system. Unlocked by doing something well enough in a table, such as constantly getting skillshots, combos or hitting bumpers over and over again, along with getting enough stars in each table’s challenge mode, (Tasking you with getting the highest score possible on one ball, in five minutes or as score targets constantly increase) these handy upgrades can significantly help improve your scores and completely change the tide of a table, almost to the point it may make purists upset. As an example, Paranormal is a table I consider myself to be very good at. Normally I could easily earn 56 to 80 million in a good 15 minutes or so, but with upgrades such as more points for successful skill shots and hitting the bumpers, combined with a Wizard Power (AKA a super upgrade activated by holding down the Y button) that multiplies any score achieved while the button is held down, and I was able to make 50 million in only a few minutes. That’s how crazy these powers can be, and it offers another layer of fun and strategy to the mix, especially since the other Wizard Powers include being able to rewind time by a few seconds and activate a slow motion effect for precise shots. Luckily for the purists, a single-player mode that disables them completely is available as well, complete with a leaderboard for that mode, so there’s no need to panic if the upgrades scare you off and make you worry about the balance being broken.
In conclusion, Pinball FX3 does an impressive job at bringing Zen Studios’ addicting pinball action to the Nintendo Switch, with the game running superbly in docked mode, with exception of some strange bugs, (The biggest one right now seems to be that the score counter that calculates the total doesn’t even move, just jumps up from one place to another in contrast to how the PS4/XB1 score counter works) the lack of free trials, occasional crashes, and the framerate in handheld mode. Make no mistake, this game is worth a download on every Nintendo Switch, as even the free Sorcerer’s Lair table can offer plenty of fun and give newcomers a great place to start, while veterans who may feel burned on how the Wii U version of Zen Pinball 2 was handled can at least buy the table bundles to reduce the pain of having to rebuy tables that you might have already purchased.
The Zen Originals Bundle is a steal at $20 and my recommended pick for those who only want to pick up one pack or bundle, since it includes the amazing Paranormal and several other classics, but a lot of the individual table packs are also worth the $10 they offer, from the stellar Aliens VS Pinball, to the humorous Balls of Glory Pack, to the decent but lacking Universal pack, even the average tables are a blast to play over time. It’s just a shame that some features are cut, but thankfully those are minor and hopefully a patch can improve the handheld performance and bring back the Marvel/Star Wars Tables.
I give Pinball FX3 a 9 out of 10, and I hope the future of this version of the game is much brighter than the Wii U versions of Zen Pinball 2 and Star Wars Pinball, which started off great, but suffered in the end due to delayed DLC release dates and some tables just not showing up to begin with.