Pinball and RPG are two genres that most gamers won’t place together by default. In fact, the only game I can really recall trying this out before was Pinball Quest back in 1989. It’s a combination of two styles that don’t seem to go together immediately, but I was still ecstatic to see just how innovative Phantom Games was going to be with this title. The problem, though, is that ingenuity alone isn’t enough to make for a great game, and at the end of the day, there are simply too many places where Rollers of the Realm falls short of being a great game.
I know the idea of a pinball RPG is enough to confuse most people, but it plays in a straightforward fashion. The story takes place as you and your crew of assorted characters go from one pinball game (or level) to another. While doing so, each of said characters is in essence just a different ball with some unique skills.
The Knight is a massive steel ball capable of doing more damage to enemies and breaking down barriers, while the Rogue is a smaller wooden ball that is capable of getting into tighter spaces and collecting extra gold. They all handle a little bit differently on the board, and each offers their own unique ability. The Knight can conjure a shield which protects the ball from falling into the sewer, whereas the Rogue can call on her dog to join as an extra ball on the playing field.
Switching between characters somehow manages to be both easy and cumbersome in practice. You simply have to trap the ball on one of your main flippers and cycle through the character portraits. It feels a bit sluggish, and trying to make a quick switch while also trying to keep an eye on the battlefield just doesn’t really work out. Some of the stages are essentially timed levels, so these few seconds of confusion can add up.
The RPG side of Rollers of the Realm is realized via character progression, but it’s still fairly barebones. You can collect or buy upgrades for your characters, which can make a drastic difference. However, a lot of these upgrades are locked behind party levels, which basically means completing enough levels to unlock the required experience. You’ll also need a borderline obscene amount of gold to unlock the items, and while you can feel their difference, it’s hard to really place what they are if asked point blank. Add in the fact that each character has their own items to be unlocked, and you’re going to spend a lot of time just trying to outfit your troupe.
As far as the actual gameplay goes? It’s definitely pinball. The balls and flippers react in the way you would expect, and the hazards do have a satisfying spring when you nail them. There will be baddies that you’ll need to kill by hitting them with the balls, gold to collect by hitting it with balls, and mana you can get by hitting certain hazards…with your balls. I’m not sure what else I can really say here. You know what pinball is.
The biggest flaw here is that the levels simply aren’t very interesting. Most tables contain some sort of hidden treasure you can unlock, but quite honestly, the puzzle is almost always “hit these torches to unlock the path,” which loses its luster almost instantly. A lot of the maps (especially early ones) are also on the smaller side and end up feeling extremely claustrophobic, while the larger ones can sometimes result in you not having enough control to hit enemies on the far sides.
The physics in Rollers of the Realm have a more “magical” feel to them, and this is definitely a video game first. You can pull the ball one direction or the other to help steer it, but it kills any sort of realistic pinball-esque feel they could have hoped to have created. It’s an interesting take on the mechanics, and one that was needed to help form a combat system, but it’s just not one that I particularly enjoyed.
On the visual side, the game looks fine, but doesn’t really hold up to the competition for either RPGs or pinball games. Everything has a cartoony look to it that’s bright and colorful, and the character portraits are often exaggerated and lighthearted. It’s not an aesthetic that will appeal to everyone, but I have to say that I enjoyed it for what it was.
Honestly, I had a hard time writing this review, not because I didn’t enjoy the game, but simply because so little of it jumps out as being memorable. I enjoyed playing it, but I never felt compelled to really lose myself in it either. That said, it’s a game that had a lot of potential, and I really do hope that it’s revisited down the road. The pinball mash-up genre could offer a lot.
At the end of the day, Rollers of the Realm is a fantastic concept that is never lived up to. It’s definitely more pinball than RPG, and bravely strides into uncharted territory, but I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. Pinball fans have dedicated games that are vastly superior, and RPG fans are going to find the offering meager at best. Right now, it just sits in some strange limbo.
This review is based on a PC version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
Rollers of the Realm just never lives up to its potential. Here’s hoping that this mediocre offering doesn’t spell the end for this genre, though, as I honestly feel we would be worse off for it.