Review | Pinball FX
I've got balls of steel
Whether you used half your paycheck on trying to beat that elusive high score on the Terminator pinball at your favourite bar, or just spent hours on 3D Pinball Space Cadet, bored out of your mind at a work or school PC, chances are you very well-known pinball: a highly addictive, high score-chasing, flashy, noisy and immensely rewarding ball game that rewards skills, fast reaction times, and maybe a bit of luck when you most need it. Zen Studios, throughout three numbered episodes and various ports, have delivered increasingly detailed, polished and creative renditions of both real-life pinball machines and their original designs throughout the years, even scoring tons of IPs such as Marvel, Star Wars, Jurassic World, Alien and more. It’s time to press the reboot button and bring the franchise to a new generation of consoles though, one featuring new game modes, revamped graphics and physics and an already controversial monetization model: here’s XboxEra’s review of Pinball FX – which we’ll call Pinball FX (2023) to avoid confusion.
Not a lost art
I lived in Italy for most of my life, but your name may reveal my Hungarian origins, and indeed I was actually born in the capital Budapest. Not only the developers of this long-lasting franchise are located in said city, just outside of your typical tourist areas you can find the sensational Flippermúzeum, also known as the Budapest Pinball Museum. At an affordable entry price, you’ll have unlimited access and no coins needed to over 140 of history’s most famous pinball machines, from some of the earliest prototypes, going through the timeless Williams tables, all the way to surprisingly recent additions in an artform that may not be as mainstream as it once was, but it certainly is alive and… kicking (pun intended).
And while Zen Studios worked on other very enjoyable games, including the much addictive Castlestorm series, the pick-up-and-play Infinite Minigolf and the frankly underrated first person adventure Operencia: The Stolen Sun, it’s pretty clear their magnum opus has always been Pinball FX. Long-time fans of the franchise could play the previous installments on any device you can think of: previous-gen home consoles, handhelds, PC, mobile, you name it. As was the case for Xbox players as well, going back to the first installments on the Xbox 360, players who bought certain tables on the original Pinball FX or its sequel FX2 could always freely carry over all purchased content towards the next games, up until FX3. A few tables got stuck on older games due to licensing issues surely, but with Xbox One’s and Series X|S’ excellent backwards compatibility these can still be played by those who bought them at the time.
Perhaps understandably, this had to change one day. I certainly didn’t expect to carry over, game after game, tables I bought on sale for a couple bucks each over a decade ago. The ominously called “reboot” of the franchise, Pinball FX (2023), is available now as a free-to-play title and for the first time in a long time there is no way to carry anything over from other games. Not even cross-buy seems to apply between versions of this installment, as I bought a couple tables when the game launched into Early Access on Epic Games Store last year. Still, the folks at Zen Studios were generous enough to send us codes to have permanent access to various tables and a month’s worth of the much discussed Pinball Pass, with which I was able to play a lot of each and every table in great detail for this review.
We’ll get back to the monetization of the game, and trust me there’s a lot to say about that. What news and changes does this Pinball FX “relaunch” bring to the table (again, pun intended) that could not be done in the long-supported and much expanded Pinball FX3? For starters, this “relaunch” of the franchise features a new, unified platform with cross-play over its many game modes, shared leaderboards between all platforms, brand new game modes and more. It’s by all means a fresh new platform with its own new leaderboards, progression system, customizeable cameras and a lot more. And underneath all of that, an actual new backbone consisting of revamped physics and graphics.
Pinball FX 4.0
As someone who adores pinballs but rarely has the chance to play them on a consistent basis in real life, the physics in Pinball FX2 already seemed great to me, and they have been further improved in FX3. This new chapter brings even more refined hits and bounces, though I can honestly barely notice on most tables. Zen Studios did, however, branch out the physics into two distinct directions: their own Zen Originals and “fictional” tables have a very fast, bouncy, almost slippery feeling to it, while still feeling very plausible and fun to play. The recreations of the real-life Williams tables, however, feature a much “heavier” physics model, with the weight of the metal ball really coming through with a much more unforgiving simulation. Again, I’m no expert on pinball physics, but in this case the difference is extremely noticeable, giving the two styles of pinball tables in play a completely distinct feeling and identity.
The graphics also received a noticeable boost, pushing our favourite bouncing metal ball into true next-gen territory. Players can choose between quality and performance, but quality doesn’t compromise on the performance in a way most people will notice, as the game runs in buttersmooth 60 frames per second at 4K, with HDR and even raytraced reflections. Performance mode turns off the raytracing but pushes the game up to 120fps. It feels and looks excellent, though I had to tweak the default HDR settings on my Samsung TV a bit more than I usually have to in videogames, as at first the image felt way too dark. Despite the technical improvements that make the tables feel more real than ever, the additions of cartoony character animations, ball trails and such remain, keeping a very distinct “videogame look”.
Arguably however, slight graphical improvements of already massively spectacular tables and the physics changes alongside them won’t be noticed by the vast majority of the potential audience. Fret not, because there’s plenty of new features to boot as well. There’s now a total of 8 different game modes to play in local play – from standard modes, the Arcade mode reintroducing the power-up system from Pinball FX3, challenges such as getting the most points with a certain amount of flips or a time limit, all the way to a training mode and hotseat. There were talks of a Pinball Royale mode at one point but it doesn’t seem to be present as of yet – on the other hand, players can not only organize tournaments with their own rules and objectives, but even participate in weekly and bi-monthly official events where a Zen Studios-selected table and challenge offers a new, time-limited leaderboard with limited attempts by each player to compete. Winning these grants nice little trophies can expose in their virtual lobby, on top of other customization items in Pinball FX (2023)’s equivalent of a battle pass of sorts – yes, even a pinball game has a battle pass now. It’s the 2020’s after all!
Of course, Pinball FX (2023) is not just a fresh coat of paint on pinball tables we already played years ago, but offers various new tables already and will, naturally, provide more and more additions to an already large library. Plenty of exciting new Zen Originals, like the noir-themed Pinball Noir, the steampunk-infused Sky Pirates table, all the way to brand new IP collaborations such as Garfield, Snoopies, various DreamWorks movies and even My Little Pony. Some of the tables have also arrived to Pinball FX3, but most new tables are no longer appearing there as the current, ongoing supported title is Pinball FX (2023) obviously. Zen Studios promise they aren’t delisting anything anytime soon, with leaderboards and online modes in FX3 sticking around for a long time. Time will tell. These new tables, in the vast majority of cases, are about as polished, exciting and well-designed as you’d normally expect from the company, including the new Williams-tables which replicate the real-world physics better than ever, though perhaps we miss one insanely convoluted and deep table yet – something in the vein of FX2’s Epic Quest.
An expensive adventure
And now it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room: the monetization scheme and general pricing of Pinball FX (2023) is not great, and is an enormous step backwards from the previous games. As said, I understand that tables I bought over a decade ago can’t be carried over for eternity, but it would have still been nice to have some path to a discounted upgrade rather than having to buy absolutely everything from scratch. The classic tables introduced in prior games don’t cost too much anyway: most of the newer single tables go for 5,49 Euros (or your regional equivalent), with various 3-4-5 table bundles ranging from 10 to 15 Euros, which is honestly a very fair and competitive price for tables with 8 game modes, leaderboards, hot seat and such each. Some recent licensed tables are surprisingly expensive however, like The Addams Family table at 9,99 and the Indiana Jones table at a whopping 14,99 despite, for my tastes, not being that great of a table, as iconic as it is. Those who choose not pay a single penny on the game will have access to a Zen Studios-selected table each week, with some limitations on the game modes and unlocks for it.
And then comes the game’s own funny money, the in-game currency named Pinball Coins. Taking cues from almost any MTX-filled game of the past decade or so, you can buy the these coins for real money, which are then converted into in-game buys. These range from rather useless decorations for your “pinball room” that only you get to see during the menu browsing anyway, to the much discussed Pinball Pass. This offers players temporary access to nearly all tables, with currently a handful of Marvel tables and the recent Indiana Jones one missing for some reason, and can be activated at the frankly ludicrous price of 15 Euros per month or 100 Euros per year (or your local equivalent). Sure, real-life pinball is expensive and the tables are expertly crafted, but coming from the cheap and user-friendly prices of previous games, this sure is a culture shock of sorts. And of course, activating a 100 Euros yearly pass and then having to shell out another 15 for the Indiana Jones table alone most certainly will feel almost insulting.
Another surprising issue with the game seems to be the quality of the voiceovers on most of the new tables. The audio mixing seems to be all over the place, with some samples playing far too loud compared to others, with no way to turn individual sounds up or down. Even the quality of the recording and mixing is questionable on some of these new tables, as you can hear the faint echo and cracking microphone on multiple tables. It is perhaps most noticeable in Garfield Pinball, where on top of very poor quality voices there’s the fact that Jon and Garfield have practically indistìnguishable voices, with both frankly presenting a rather poor linereading for the most part. Some of the newer tables are fine, mainly the ones where the audio clips are extracted from movies or TV shows such as the Kung Fu Panda table, though the volume issues still often persist – My Little Pony’s energetic and squealy voices may perhaps fit the show, but they’re mixed so high up compared to the table that I had to turn the voiceover way down to make the table enjoyable. Just like there’s individual camera options for each table, it would be nice to have separate sound setups customizeable for each.
These flippers ain’t floppin’
But at the end of the day, thanks to incredible recreations of real-life tables such as the Williams classics and countless original creations that are generally of quite impressive quality and level of detail, Pinball FX (2023) remains the best pinball videogame franchise you can get on the marketplace. The improved physics and graphics feel nice, the new game modes and social aspects elevate the experience and add even more replayability, and the quality and release frequency of recent tables is practically a warranty of this platform’s healthy growth throughout the upcoming years – even with slight woes such as the audio mixing’s quality that is shockingly bad on some tables. If you are looking at jumping into the addictive world of pinball, look no further, as Pinball FX (2023) is the best the genre has to offer. But for the first time ever in the franchise, tables bought in previous installments can not be imported, so for players who built up a giant collection from Pinball FX, FX 2 and FX 3 may not find improvements meaty enough to buy everything from scratch, with the new monetization system that is quite poor. But in a vacuum, Pinball FX is for the most part a sensational pinball game, and to be fair the closest competition is Zen Studios own fantastic pinball games themselves – who, for yet another installment, remain the kings of pinball in videogame form.
Xbox Series X
- Best-looking pinball videogame ever
- Two distinct, yet highly polished physics models
- Boatloads of content
- Full crossplay and shared leaderboards across platforms
- The new tables are generally excellent
- Some (not all) of the prices are ludicrous
- Can't import tables from prior games this time
- Some audio issues on newer tables
- Tacked on F2P progression system
This is an amazingly in-depth review. Well done!
Thank you 🙂 It’s easy to take this franchise for granted but these games are insanely detailed and packed with content, and I felt it would have been a great injustice to just write off most things as “eh, it’s pinball”. Shame for the monetization, but surely there’ll be discounts down the line!