Rollers of the Realm is a lot like Puzzle Quest. The idea of a match-three Bejeweled clone with elements of an RPG sounded strange at first, but the game was an absolute blast to play. A role playing pinball game? How could that work? Only when you see Rollers of the Realm in action do you realize that the concept actually does work. This is not a one-to-one pinball simulation, however. The “true to life as much as possible” design of Zen Pinball has been replaced with something more “arcadey” which suits the game quite well.
Like any role-playing game worth its weight in character stats and +10 loincloths, Rollers of the Realm pits a party of heroes against a great evil. The main character, Rogue, lives in a medieval fantasy land torn apart by constant war. Long ago, an evil witch sealed away three powerful protectors of the realm and their disappearance allowed darkness to spread. While trying to make a life for herself, Rogue gets caught up in the affairs of the world and collects a following of unlikely heroes along the way. Rogue’s quest takes her to numerous locations across the world that are represented as pinball tables. Most of the tables are variations on classic pinball architecture with paddles and alleys placed strategically throughout the arena. Additional table elements, like bumpers, are replaced with non-descript citizens, enemy soldiers, barrels, wells and wooden crates. Other tables serve as transition stages that require guiding the pinball through a complex obstacle course. A healthy mix of table variants goes a long way to keep things interesting.
Rogue and her party appear as pinballs of different sizes, color, and ability. They each have a special ability that can be activated once they accumulate a certain amount of mana (earned by striking bumpers). Rogue can summon her faithful canine companion into play, which is a clever way to introduce a multiball session. The Knight can call up a shield that blocks the drain, and the Healer can revive lost characters and repair flippers. Pinballs can be switched out at any time on the provision that the balls are still in play and the flippers haven’t been damaged. In some levels, archers will take potshots at the paddles to disable them. The Healer can mend any damage by striking bumpers, and I never really felt like I was in immediate danger at losing them. Even with multiple archers on the table, they have a slow rate of fire and my modified knight could easily mow them down before they became significant threats. At full strength, switching out characters is as easy as bringing the ball to rest at one of the main flippers and moving the analog stick up or down. A common problem I ran into was accidentally switching characters. The analog stick shares the control to steer the pinball left or right. There would be times where I’d push the ball towards a paddle and let it come to a stop and the slightest, unintended movement upwards would be interpreted as a command to switch the character, causing a severe break in momentum. Playing the fast and agile Rogue ball after spending a significant amount of time with the slow and heavy Knight is incredibly jarring. It would be better if the ball select command was mapped to another button so as to eliminate this annoying issue.
Gold and experience points replace the scoreboard and serve as the primary means to upgrade the party’s skills. Purchasing gear from the shop offers stat bonuses inherent to a certain hero. Rogue, for example, can get items that make the ball more agile and the Knight can equip weapons that do more damage. Gold can be collected by breaking objects or bumping against NPCs to steal their money. Treasures chests offer gold and other useful items but require a key to open. In the shop, hired hands can be collected and used as balls, but I was put off with how expensive they were. With gold being a finite resource in each stage, the only visible means to strike it rich is to replay levels over again. That isn’t a much fun as it sounds.
The RPG nature of the game adds another layer of frustration. In normal pinball, there is no real punishment for failure beyond not capturing the highest score and losing a quarter. In video game pinball, this is even less of a problem. My reaction to losing a game in Zen Pinball fell along the lines of, “Bully! I appear to have lost my pinball in a most spectacular fashion! Perhaps my monocle needs to be adjusted. Righty-o! Time for another jolly round! Pip, pip! Capital! Excelsior!” Losing in Rollers of the Realm is more aggravating because “game over” means having to play through an entire level from the very beginning, clearing out the same number of enemies before the exit opens or the boss appears. The unpredictable nature of the ball’s trajectory can result in frustratingly cheap defeats and there’s no fun in having to play the same stage over and over (in one case, it took me nearly an hour to finish a level). Adding insult to injury is a “Game Over” screen which indicates how much gold and experience points you could have earned.
Pinball tables typically use a symphony of bright lights, loud sound effects and sampled music to part people with their money. Rollers of the Realm doesn’t have the same flash as real world pinball games, but its richness of character and personality are just as attractive. Strange as the concept my seem, Phantom Compass blends the action of pinball with RPGs mechanics so well that I wonder why no one did it before. In spite of some personal frustrations, this surprising concept promises some great fun.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.