As someone who squandered a fair amount of his misspent youth dropping quarter after quarter into various pinball machines housed inside sketchy arcades across the United States, I’ve always appreciated Zen Studio’s deliriously enjoyable Pinball FX series. I’ve sunk countless hours into FX 2 over the years, usually after a long day at work when I just needed some time to unwind. While some might view pinball as an archaic form of entertainment — especially in the complicated realm of modern video games — I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of attempting to obliterate my high score on a table I thought I’d already mastered. Long story short: Pinball FX 2 embodied everything I wanted in a video game version of pinball, at least, until Zen Studio decided to unleash a follow-up.
The newest iteration of the long-running series introduces elements I never knew I’d always wanted. For example, since every game released these days contains at least one or two RPG-style elements, Pinball FX3 now allows you to level up your profile, unlocking background artwork and various power-ups that will help you achieve the highest score possible. One gives you the ability to earn points for the amount of distance your ball travels across the table, while another increases the points you earn by repeatedly hitting bumpers. You can also level up these modifiers, transforming you into an unstoppable pinball wizard armed with the uncanny power to slow down time or rewind an embarrassing moment you’d like to do over again. Pinball purists may balk at these new-fangled additions, but they’re honestly a lot of fun and add some thrilling new elements to the overall experience.
However, if you’re an old-school flipper aficionado and just want to play a few rounds of traditional pinball without the modifiers, you can do that as well. In fact, there are several additional modes included in Pinball FX3 that weren’t found in its predecessor. Not only can you participate in an assortment of tournaments, you can also complete table challenges. These challenges introduce specific rules to the game, such as playing with only one ball or attempting to achieve a high score within a five-minute timeframe, all of which will earn you experience points to level up your profile. Soon, you’ll have an assortment of snazzy background artwork at your disposal, not to mention the ability to tell your friends that you’ve made it all the way to level 35 over the span of several days. That is, of course, if your pals are at all impressed with such feats of daring do.
If the new modes, challenges, and XP system aren’t enough to sway you, then perhaps the high-resolution textures and enhanced lighting will lure you into Pinball FX3’s addictive trap. The game looks phenomenal on a 4K television via an Xbox One, and I suspect the game will get a significant boost once the Xbox One X hits retail shelves this November. However, I did notice some hiccups and framerate drops on a few tables, particularly Star Wars Darth Vader (one of my personal favorites). It didn’t happen often, mind you, but it occurred with enough frequency that I wondered if the console was struggling to keep up with the enhanced textures and lighting. And while these cosmetic changes might not amount to much for some gamers, those who have sunk untold hours into their favorite tables will surely appreciate the bump in clarity and color.
Sadly, some tables didn’t make the jump from FX 2 to FX3. Plants vs. Zombies, for instance, didn’t make the cut, as well as the infinitely enjoyable South Park tables. I hope Zen Studios renews those licenses so I can spend hours pinging around the thoroughly addictive Butters table, so perhaps we’ll get these missing pieces in future packs. In the meantime, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with the only new pack available at launch: a Universal Pictures-themed collection of tables inspired by Jaws, E.T., and Back to the Future. All three are worthy additions — Jaws is especially challenging — although the Back to the Future table features an almost unforgivably wonky Doc Brown impersonator; it’s more Rick from Rick and Morty than Christopher Lloyd. Granted, the table is an absolute blast, but considering the voiceover work appears throughout, it’s a bit distracting if you’re expecting someone who sounds even remotely like the character fans know and love.
Of course, chances are you’ll have too much to do to notice a few of the tables’ shortcomings, especially if you’ve already purchased dozens of them for FX 2. Zen Studio allows players to import their tables from the previous incarnation of the franchise free of charge, allowing you to enjoy the new RPG-esque elements and visual upgrades without any additional damage to your cash flow. As someone who’s sunk quite a bit of his disposable income into the series since its release, it was nice to bring those tables to the FX3 experience without having to drain the bank account. In the age of questionable microtransactions (even in full-price AAA games), this is a welcomed gesture and a sign of goodwill that’s greatly appreciated.
Pinball FX3 is one of those evergreen games that will always have a home on my console. It doesn’t require a lot of your time to enjoy, though it does demand some serious attention if you hope to master the ins and outs of your favorite table. The addition of a simple leveling system and table-specific upgrades provide that dopamine drip associated with modern-day video games, and the upgraded visuals are definitely a plus for those who have dropped a large chunk of cash on expensive 4K televisions. And while the limitations of my Xbox One didn’t allow me to completely enjoy what Pinball FX3 has to offer on that particular console, I’m hoping the release of the upcoming Xbox One X will give the game a chance to truly shine. Even now, it’s a fantastic pinball title that’s simply a blast to play.
Minus a few framerate hiccups on a handful of tables, Pinball FX3 delivers an abundance of flipper-oriented action with a slick, vibrant, and engaging presentation.