By now it is surely no secret that Zen Studios knows how to craft magnificent pinball tables that vary from the unique and original, to many based upon some of pop culture’s most iconic franchises. During my review of the original Star Wars Pinball I was pleasantly surprised by the obvious about of love and hard work that went into making the tables feel true to the spirit of the films, a spirit it seems has been lost from the franchise a whole. However even I was thrown back when it was announced that Zen Studios was set to release a follow up subtitled Balance of the Force, sure they had managed to pull off the combination once, but twice? George Lucas himself ultimately failed to deliver a worthy trilogy to follow up the original series; how would Zen Studios be able to pull it off. At the start it seemed that everything within my subconscious screamed “it’s a trap!”, but now that I’ve poured countless imaginary quarters into the game I am both glad and ashamed that my lack of faith was disturbing.
Doing the impossible once more Zen Studios have managed to serve up yet another wonderful blend of nostalgic arcade action mixed with highly polished modern design. Not only does Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force excel as a pinball game, but it transcends its confines to deliver an immersive experience that thrusts the player into the Star Wars Universe. There are times when the pinball facade seems to fade away and you find yourself engrossed in the dramatic action that the studio masterfully lays before you. At every turn Zen Pinball seems to defy the odds, but as a famous man once said; “never tell me the odds!”.
Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force tows with it three new intergalactic tables, Starfighter Assault, Return of the Jedi, and a table based off of the most dangerous man in the galaxy; Darth Vader. Each one of these tables feels like a living and breathing entity, but of course it wouldn’t be Zen Pinball if the tabled were cold and mechanic. Whether you are playing through one of the many unorthodox missions, or merely watching the drama unfold in full 3d action above the table; there is nothing sterile about the experience. Apart from the digital additions tables are both gorgeously rendered and ingeniously designed.
Let’s begin with the table that will likely be the main draw for those who experience the first Star Wars Pinball; the one and only Return of The Jedi. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was unquestionably the best of the original spectacular trio, so I dove into this one with a high hopes. I’m happy to say that Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is a solid table that is able to channel the soul the movie. For a film that spans a diverse assortment of scenery and features a wide cast of identifiable characters, the table incredibly manages to incorporate every element on some level. The field is split between Jabba’s Palace to the left, a speeder bike to the right, and a landing pad at the top.
Another feather in this table’s cap is that is a stage for many of the signature scores and memorable sound effects found in the film. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the voice acting which is laughable at best. It is clear that these are not directly lifted from the films and instead are performed by voice actors. While they obviously try their best, their impersonations never quite manage to convince.
The feel of the table is unlike any other I’ve played before; the field is much wider near the flippers than it is near the top. While the difference may be small and perhaps even cosmetic, the table takes on a life of its own. When the ball is played in the north end of the screen gameplay can feel frantic and immediate, whereas play at the south feels like a test of accuracy and precision. Missions vary from infiltrating Jabba’s Palace, to the final confrontation between Luke and Vader. Of the three tables this is the weakest in terms of gameplay but it is in the cinematic quality that this table succeeds. At the end of my time with Return of the Jedi I found I liked the bells and whistles more than I liked the bike, which is ultimately why the table slipped away from being the star of the pack and wound up my second favorite.
I have to be honest, of the three tables included I was not looking forward to playing Starfighter Assault, and sitting down to play it I muttered to myself that “I’ have a bad feeling about this”. How could a table about space combat compete with Darth Vader and Return of the Jedi? Well much to my dismay I was wrong again as the table managed to steal my heart with its nonstop action and miniature space combat. Before launching into the table you are able to choose to play from either side of the conflict. Your choice of either Rebel Alliance squadrons or Imperial fleet even alters some of the aesthetic to reflect the side you are fighting for.
Each and every moment spent playing Starfighter Assault your eyes are glued to the screen trying to follow the absurd amount of content flying across the field. Most of the missions revolve around (you guessed it) combat, heck there is even Galaga-like mini game included. You’ll have to repair and upgrade your ship, increase your hyperdrive, and shoot down tiny TIE fighters. With all the ship management and aerial assaults don’t be surprised to forget that you’re just playing pinball.
The only caveat to this table is that when compared to the others included it just doesn’t have many of the iconic pieces of media from the series. Sure the X-Wing vs TIE fighter mix ups are a huge part of the series, it just doesn’t compare to the more cinematic qualities offered by its peers. None the less this is a thrilling and addictive table that will hold both you gaze and attention until your beloved PS Vita battery runs out.
Finally we have a table based on a character that needs no introduction; Darth Vader. The warrior of the dark side has always been a prominent figure in the Star Wars series, but in the prequel trilogy it was made clear that it was he who was the true star; and not original trilogy protagonist Luke Skywalker. I draw this paralleled because it is clear that Zen Studios have funneled a lot of attention to this board which walks through the entire life of the “chosen one”. A play through of this table is almost a brief biography of the character that spurts out not only famous lines from his arch, but also acts them out in front of you. You will relive key moments in Anakin’s life from the day he becomes more machine than man (and yes, the “Noooo!” scene is included) to aiding Luke and turning his back on the dark side. The only problem sound wise is that while everything Darth Vader about the table is incredible, the music can get quite annoying. I get that having a Darth Vader table requires the imperial march score to be played, but it loops ad nauseum and got on my nerves; especially when I was losing.
On the pinball front, this is easily the most punishing of the bunch. You have to be one step ahead of the ball and in tune with your Jedi-like focus at all times. While the layout lacks the cinematic flare found in Return of the Jedi, it seems as harsh and cold as the character it’s based upon. Missions vary from destroying a rebel base to re-enacting the iconic trench run from A New Hope from Vader’s perspective. This has to be the highlight for the table as the scene throws you into one the most famous action scenes in film from a viewpoint rarely scene.
All in all the entire Darth Vader table is as true to the character as I think a pinball game ever will be. Sure there could be tweaks to the general difficulty and the soundtrack could use a bit of variety, but there is still a ton of fun to be had. Admittedly it is my least favorite of the pack but that shouldn’t deter you from jumping in and spending some time with the dark lord.
When all is said and done Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force is a solid follow up to an already fantastic experience. While I have to admit that the package lacks a signature table, it makes up for it by being solid throughout. If you are a fan of pinball or Star Wars you need this in your collection, but there’s also enough here to warrant a visit from everyone else; though trophy hunters may want to steer clear as they are given out for completing tables in full which is no easy task.
Simply put you’d be hard pressed to find a better assortment of tables out there, whether they be physical or digital. Moreover the fact that are getting hours upon hours of gameplay and Zen Pinball’s famous online leaderboards for only the price of $9.99 is a steal.
I’d like to keep writing good things about Star Wars Pinball: Balance of the Force; but I’m going to go back to playing it instead.
May the force be with you.