Zen Pinball is a very standard game. It has four tables based around different themes (a car engine, a jungle adventure, electrical experiments and a tribal shaman), there is a somewhat limited online mode and it even has rudimentary inclusion of the Sixaxis’ motion control. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, but by the same token, it doesn’t really stand out in any way, and when the free pinball game that comes with Microsoft Windows is just as much fun, you have to question Zen Pinball‘s place in the market.
Crucial to pinball games is the design of the tables. ZEN Studios have taken a realistic route with regard to design and layout – there’s nothing here which couldn’t be replicated on a real pinball table. They feel a bit too empty and uninteresting for the most part – style aside there’s very little to differentiate them, and there’s generally little to keep the pinball busy, meaning it’s very often a case of hitting the ball up, scoring a measly few points, then having to hit it back again, because the damn thing just won’t stay up the table long enough to score any significant points.
It can also be extremely frustrating. Many of the tunnels and runners are aimed so a ball can quickly circuit the table and drop down between the bumpers, catching you unaware time and time again. It doesn’t help that the physics feel slightly off, with copious amounts of side-spin for no discernible reason and an unusually heavy-feeling ball. Thankfully, a ‘ball saved’ continue can be activated with a little effort, which comes in handy as it is very easy to lose.
There are a couple of online modes, catering for up to four players. You play simultaneously with the competitors in a race to reach the designated score first, and a little bar in the top corner shows everyone’s progress. This can be played in single matches or tournaments, which ZEN Studios will periodically run, although we weren’t able to try it out as there wasn’t one taking place at the time of review. The PS Eye camera can also be used while playing online to watch your friend’s reaction, which is a nice touch if you’re playing with pals.
Stylistically, Zen Pinball does a good job. The visuals on each of the four tables are chunky and distinct, and each has a different colour scheme and elemental framework to set it apart (i.e. bronze/stone, etc). ZEN Studios have mimicked traditional pinball styles competently, with cheesy voiceovers and neat little animations showing up on screen. The soundtrack is very good, and the sound effects decent, if perhaps not quite managing to convey the constant pinging and scoring that pinball machines do so well.
Menus are well-designed and clear, taking their design from a pinball machine’s buttons or LEDs, and there is a constant scrolling information bar on the main menu with updates on who has scored highly on what table. The Sixaxis’ motion control is used to pull back the spring and launch the ball, but it feels as though it would have been put to better use being able to nudge the table, rather than mapping it to the left stick. At any time whilst playing you can drop into the menu and look at the current ‘objectives’ you need to complete on the table, which is fairly useful as the tables tend to be a cacophony of flashing lights without much direction; as oppose to most pinball tables which tend to focus on specific parts to tell you where the big points lie. Only a little point, but one that causes some frustration.
There’s really very little to recommend Zen Pinball to any but the most ardent of pinball fanatics. It’s a passable title which really suffers from having just four relatively uninteresting tables and ball physics which never feel quite as accurate as they should. For any PS3 owners craving a game of pinball on the system, this is currently the best (and only) choice, that is if the much older but more dependable likes of Pinball Illusions don’t appeal.