Bringing traditional role-playing game elements to pinball introduces objectives beyond a high score in Phantom Compass’ Rollers of the Realm. And while the idea isn’t foreign to me, the implementation found me ramming my head against the game for a handful of hours before I stopped trying to simply keep the ball in play and learned instead to play with those elements the game offers.
Rollers of the Realm introduces a narrative that progresses over a series of areas, each providing a set of tables with specific objectives. This might begin with smacking the ball around to bump into wandering characters and thereby loot them of gold, but quickly shifts toward colliding with enemy units to drain their health points. Because many of these tables offer small areas where a group of soldiers can quickly send your ball flying into the gutter, the game can initially seem very frustrating before “just one more try” finally morphs into the obsession of “just one more game”.
The game starts players with a solitary “rogue” ball, but quickly recruits a familiar RPG party with characters such as the Knight and Healer, which has the immediate effect of adding more balls to your inventory, which in turn keeps players alive a little longer since the condition for failing most tables is simply losing all your party members down ye olde gutter.
While you can simply bat the ball around to pick up gold and mana while striking soldiers, the real game is in switching between party members to turn each unique board into a little game all on its own – and this is where I found myself caught on the game’s real hook.
Holding the ball on either flipper allows you to switch between available party members, thereby hitting a little harder at enemy units with the heavier Knight character, for instance. But while you’re doing that, enemy archers may just be firing arrows at those same flippers, damaging them and giving you less to work with. At this point you’ll need to switch to the Healer and keep that ball in play until the flippers have recovered and you can switch back to a heavy attack character to keep chipping away at enemies.
While all of this is going on, there are also objectives to strike at, or as the game progresses, a puzzle here and there to make sense of, while also making sure none of that distracts you from always keeping the ball in play. Add to this the ability to reclaim lost members and the game gets quit addictive when you get down to a single ball and then find a way to claw back your entire party and accomplish the objective.
Each party member also uses collected mana to provide a special skill, often in the form of an added attack element or calling in extra balls such as the rogue’s dog or a wolf I’m probably about to tell you more about.
The idea of accomplishing very specific objectives tends to make each table a short lived affair, always moving forward through a game that can be spun through rather quickly once you get the hang of. You can revisit any table, and I had to go back once to save a wolf that ended up joining my party, if for no other reason than only a monster would leave an animal behind – seriously, go back and save that wolf people. But the nature of the tables tends to discourage revisits, as many have points you’ll collide with that will consistently ask you if you want to move on rather than just leave you to bat the ball around in peace. To contend with this, the game offers an arena mode where players can go to town trying to score as much gold as possible to gain some for their party and for leaderboard status.
Gold can be spent at the port to buy equipment upgrades for characters and recruit a few more party members. There’s certainly the option to grind on areas to gain more experience and gold, and to juggle between characters with additional attack elements, such as the Hunter’s ability to fire arrows at enemies while in play. But while paying attention to these added elements makes the road forward easier, I honestly wasn’t long for reaching the final area simply by most often juggling between the Knight, Rogue, and Healer, while the rest of the party sat in reserve for unexpected emergencies.
Areas with layered objectives can provide some occasional frustration as well, as failing tables with multiple goals will find you skipping through familiar dialogue and scenarios for another shot at the portion you missed the mark on. And as it goes with very specific objectives, you may just get hung up on trying to accomplish one here and there in the way the game intends given the nature of precision aiming with a pinball flipper.
While I wasn’t enveloped by the game’s safe narrative, there’s a charm that shines through here, the most so in horsing around in areas, specifically in using the dpad to shift the direction of the ball – ideally getting it caught against the back of an enemy soldier to gain repeated strikes so that even weaker characters can score some kills along the way.
Where it hooked me most, though, was in the ability to claw my way back from a game-over, staying in play just long enough to regain party members and win the day. And while that Zen sometimes collided with a few multi-level areas possibly meant to drive me mad with repetition and the fact that the game can really fly by once you get the hang of it, it’s an interesting playthrough for the unique quirks of each area and a party swapping mechanic that deepens the intimacy of what may initially come across as some curiously cramped tables for play.
The nature of a more specifically objective based pinball game may lessen the longevity enjoyed by a traditional pinball experience, but the implementation here of bringing more to that table is the most interesting I’ve come across to date.