The free-to-download series Pinball FX has gone from strength to strength over the years, acquiring many famous licenses at an increased rate while slowly refining the overall quality of the experience as each new entry is released. As old-fashioned as pinball now is in the 21st century, the effort Zen Studios has made modernising the classic arcade game is unrivalled. This digital revitalisation has a sustainable and addictive model with the ability to appeal to newcomers and diehard enthusiasts alike.
As implied by the title, Pinball FX3 is the third major entry in the series. Being a freely available title obviously means anyone can download and play it on their Nintendo Switch right away. Of course, this naturally raises concerns about the game’s DLC model. Launching with a total of 30 tables on the Switch, there should be at least one or two tables of interest for everyone. Unfortunately, certain franchises – which are presumably on the way – are not yet available at the time of writing. This leaves players with one of the many other table options ranging from well-known movies such as Back To The Future, to game series such as Valve’s Portal. Elsewhere, there are a handful of traditional themes to select from including medieval and fantasy settings.
With plenty of variety on offer, it can be hard to pick and choose which one to exactly play. The decision-making is made a lot easier when realisation hits all but one of the 30 tables are locked off. Cold hard cash is the requirement to unlock the remainder. The payment model adopted isn’t out of the ordinary, nor is it particularly sinister. A quick visit to the eShop will unlock tables - these can be purchased separately or in packs for what is a reasonable price. It should be noted these tables collectively add up to quite the sum, so it’s advisable to purchase a package in order to get the best value.
Whether you choose to bolster your experience with more tables, the title is relatively non-intrusive when it comes to paid transactions. Contrary to preconceptions about free and pay-to-play titles, there’s a real sense of quality with this particular game, much like existing entries in the series. This is clear from the responsive menu design (as overloaded as it may be with information boxes), the functionality and the game's polished mechanics. Menu navigation is generally not as clunky as past games (such as Zen Pinball 2 for the Wii U eShop) and paid transactions are lot easier to access due to Switch’s simpler and faster UI.
As with past releases under this same banner, FX 3 does its best to emulate a classic pinball table blueprint by making use of the shoulder buttons as each table’s left and right flippers. Players can opt to use the L and R buttons or lower their finger grip to make use of ZL and ZR (either way you go, both of these control methods make use of HD rumble). A built-in tutorial is also on-hand to teach players a number of basic techniques on how to improve their game. Most of the time it’s a very forgiving arcade-like rendition of pinball, with plenty of room for players to develop their skill – mastering trick shots and accumulating large combos on each table. The accessibility can be credited to the basic button input. The ball also has a good weight to it that sustains play, provides a challenge, but won’t just immediately drop to the nearest gobble hole. Zen Studios yet again nails the physics.
Each table purchased comes packed with a single-player high score mode, a hot seat mode – where multiple players can compete against each other locally – a classic mode and a challenge mode. There’s also a built in progression system, enabling you to level your profile as well as the table itself. Levelling up will unlock profile customisation, special concept art and 3D models. On each table, levelling unlocks wizard powers and upgrades. Wizard powers enable you to slow down tables or even rewind time, and passive upgrades – unlocked at different levels – enable additional point bonuses and other high score multipliers. Levelling adds much-needed depth to the title. The challenges available on every table vary, and can spur players on to earn high scores with just one ball or fulfill requirements such as earning as many points as possible in a certain timeframe. All of these modes and objectives per table encourage you to hone your skills in order to get the highest score possible.
Each table also comes with a guide – providing a comprehensive explanation of the table’s objectives and details on how to activate each table’s mini-game. Basically this leads to even better scores. Mastering a table will require you to understand the key features and knowing how to unlock the various secrets.
The multiplayer modes on offer are tied to the online features and social elements. Local multiplayer is a great way to have some classic fun against friends and then there’s the option to participate in tournaments for specific tables against the wider global community by linking a Nintendo Network account. With extensive leaderboards highlighting personal performances of individual players around the world, it’s the competitive aspects of the title that will keep players coming back. The matchup mode enables you to compete against other pinball masters in a seasonal environment. Here you'll rank up by beating other players high scores on certain tables. The online aspects really do enrich the title as a whole, and ensure tables are replayed. A cross-network play feature has also been added to the game to connect players with the wider gaming community.
Visually, Pinball FX 3 is marvellous. All the tables are highly detailed. At the time of writing just about every genre from television shows, movies, games, comic books and popular themes like sci-fi are on offer. Each table is finely crafted with striking artwork, lively 3D models plenty of flashing lights, authentic pinball sound effects and unique announcers to enhance the immersion. The franchised tables accurately depict the source material in the best light possible and also feature all the trademark sound effects, theme songs and voice work present within each series. Even darker tables such as Aliens and The Walking Dead have a great look and feel to them – with plenty of scenes on each table unfolding based on the player’s performance. The title’s announcer in the menu is also a welcome addition, but can become a tad overbearing at times – thankfully there is a way to turn the voice off in the option menu.
In handheld mode, the game performs relatively well. There are occasional framerate issues on graphically intensive tables, but it’s not too severe. In this mode, you can also turn Switch upright in a vertical stance to get a more authentic pinball experience. Alternatively, this option is also available when the device is docked, so the diehard pinball fans among you can flip a television or monitor on its side if they want to go to extreme lengths.
The overall fun on offer in Pinball FX3 really depends on the amount of coin dropped. Certain tables are made free from time to time, but in order to experience the entire package, purchases must be made. Digital pinball fans will likely lap up the amount of content on offer, whereas those who are testing the waters might find the purchase of a single table or package is enough to sustain them for a prolonged period. The developer’s decision to stick with the existing DLC model means the player can select exactly which tables they want to play and completely ignore any that perhaps do not appeal to them. The choice on the level of investment in this game really does rest on the player.
Anyone who is in the mood for a fun arcade take on the classic pinball genre will most certainly get the satisfaction they are seeking from Zen Studio’s latest release. Even if it doesn’t necessarily revolutionise the series, it still expands on it. In some cases it is hard to enhance given the source material. It has all the necessities including global leaderboards, multiplayer action and fills each table with enough content to justify purchases – including challenges and a levelling system. With the game free to try out, there’s no harm in downloading it and taking a look at what the definitive pinball experience on the market offers.