The Pinball Arcade for PlayStation 4 is the best pinball game I have ever played. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. It takes the nearly flawless gameplay from the previous console versions and enhances their graphics with sharper images and gorgeous new lighting effects. If you are even slightly interested in pinball, you need to play this game immediately.
Unlike most video pinball games, The Pinball Arcade uses licensed digital recreations of real-life pinball tables from real pinball manufacturers. Williams, Bally, Stern and Gottlieb tables are all available. This, coupled with pinball physics that are second to none, makes a huge difference in both the authenticity and enjoyment of the experience.
Another nice feature of The Pinball Arcade is the inclusion of a very helpful set of instructions for each table. Pinball tables can be a lot more complex than some people might imagine, and each one of them is quite different. Rather than mindlessly aiming for the flashing parts of the table — which certainly can be fun in its own way — more ambitious players can learn how to activate multi-ball, earn extra balls, which goals need to be accomplished to reach the table’s end game, and even how many points each specific game mode is worth. It’s a great feature that takes the guesswork out of learning to play each table.
The game also gives the player a series of goals to work towards. Each table includes five basic goals, plus five wizard goals. Learning how to complete each goal — especially the wizard goals — also goes a long way towards teaching you how to play. The three PlayStation trophies assigned to each table also tie into the goals system. There’s one for completing each set of goals, and another for scoring high enough to place into the top five preset scores. You’ll often get several of the basic goals the first time you play the table, but the wizard goals are much more difficult, and much more rewarding. Even if you don’t manage to complete all five for the trophy, it’s still a great feeling to accomplish a wizard goal that you’ve been attempting for a long while.
Still, while almost all aspects of the pinball gameplay are just about perfect, there are some surprisingly annoying issues with the the user interface, and some highly questionable decisions with some pretty basic design elements. These problems will leave you wondering how they made their way into such an otherwise amazing game. Thankfully, though, the developers have announced their intentions to fix or improve upon many of these issues with a full-menu overhaul that will hopefully make a huge difference. However, both because this is a review of the game that was released this week, and because a full list of changes hasn’t been announced yet, let’s spend some time looking at some of those issues.
We’ll start with a question. You’ve just downloaded the game, and you’ve wrapped your hands around the PS4 controller in anticipation of hours upon hours of amazing pinball gameplay. Now, which controls do you think should activate the flippers? If you said the triggers, you are wrong. The triggers do nothing. It’s the shoulder buttons above the triggers that control the flippers. But a quick visit to the controls menu allows you to use the triggers right? No, the controls menu is simply designed to show you a picture of the controls, which are apparently set in stone.
It especially doesn’t help that some people — myself included — are running into an issue with their PS4 shoulder buttons, where they sometimes get stuck and only come out partially after being pressed. It’s important to note that the buttons function every time they are pressed — even when they do get stuck — but the feeling of pressing the button is disrupted, and it can be distracting. While this certainly isn’t developer Farsight’s fault, it would also be a non-issue if they allowed both the triggers and the shoulder buttons to control the flippers.
What about all those amazing new lighting effects? While they do look quite beautiful, they really shine when you adjust the lighting for the table. By default, the table is set to use a moderate amount of virtual light that surrounds the table and lights up the playing field. Things arguably look much better when you turn the lights to a low setting, which really makes the table lighting effects shine. This looks better on some tables than others, so it would be best if each table remembered the last brightness setting. Instead, one brightness setting is used for all tables. Even worse, you have to enter the menu and dim the lighting every time you load the game.
Okay, so now you’ve just finished playing a great game of Pinball, and it’s time to enter your initials and compare your high score to your friend’s score. Well, first of all, don’t make any mistakes when entering your initials, because there’s no way to backspace and correct them. Secondly, I wouldn’t look forward to comparing your scores with your friends either, because you can’t.
In 2009, developer Farsight released a retail pinball game for the Xbox 360 and PS3 that didn’t allow players to compare scores with people on their friends list, and many viewed it as the largest shortcoming of the game. In 2012, Farsight released The Pinball Arcade for the Xbox 360 and PS3, and it did include a friends leaderboard to compare scores. And now, on the cusp of 2014, Farsight somehow manages to REMOVE the friends leaderboard from the game? That any modern pinball game was released in the first place without a friends leaderboard was somewhat baffling. But the same developer omitting the feature again, nearly two years later, after their most recent effort had fixed this problem? That’s just ridiculous.
And if platform-specific friends leaderboards were removed so Farsight could use their own cross-platform leaderboards, that was a mistake. I don’t care what some random person was able to score on their mobile device, or how many billions of points the highest score in the world across all devices is. However, I certainly do care that a friend of mine scored a couple of million points higher than my previous highest score. I would like to have the opportunity to know that, and attempt to reclaim the high score. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it’s objectively more important to be able to compete with your friends, rather than the best players in the world.
The issues don’t stop there either. Somehow, the sound is worse than the previous console versions, which is especially apparent with the awful sound quality of the intro theme. Even the tables themselves don’t sound as good as they did in previous versions. And while I personally keep controller rumble off when I play, I’ve read complaints from others that the game seems to be lacking the rumble feature which was available on other console versions. Furthermore, the table nudge feature also appears to be broken on several of the older tables.
One other thing worth mentioning is the pricing structure. Thankfully, there’s a completely free table that anyone can download to see what the game plays like and how impressive it truly is. However, to purchase the entire first season of 18 tables costs $29.99. While that’s a fair price for what you get, it would be nice to be able to buy only the tables you want. Instead, if you wish to purchase tables outside of the season pass, most are sold in packs of two. Charging $4.99 for each two table pack is also a fair price, but some of the options seem a little better than others, and it would be nice to just pay $2.99 for each table instead. If I decide to pay a premium to get only the tables that I want, I would rather choose the individual tables myself.
A good example is The Scared Stiff table pack. It includes both the Scared Stiff table — which was originally produced in 1996 — and Big Shot, a much older table that dates back all the way to 1974. To put that in perspective, imagine packaging an Atari 2600 game with a Sony PlayStation game. And that analogy is even giving too much credit to the timeline, seeing as the Atari 2600 wasn’t available in the US until 1977.
Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Twilight Zone should also note that those two tables are an exception to the pricing structure, and are purchased individually. Due to their higher licensing costs, they are each the price you would normally pay for a two table pack.
Because of this, I would recommend avoiding the table packs altogether, and instead simply buying the entirety of Season One. Just put in a lot of time with the free Tales of the Arabian Nights table and decide if you want a lot more from where that came from.
Even if you don’t know an in-lane from an out-lane, The Pinball Arcade is a great choice for anyone with even a slight interest in video pinball. The extensive tutorials, best-in-class ball physics and beautifully recreated tables are without equal. I’m also happy to report that Farsight has already promised updates for several issues, such as controller remapping and saving the lighting settings of each table. And as said before, they’re also working on a complete user interface overhaul.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided with.