As far as I’m concerned, these days, developers don’t really experiment with concepts enough anymore. Even on an independent level, where most of the interesting experimentation is happening, there are a few genres that stick resolutely to an already-established formula. RPGs are such a genre: though the independent market, and crowdfunding in particular, led to a resurgence of the ‘classic’ RPG styles, from a gameplay perspective, most RPGs have a very familiar feel. Rollers of the Realm, a game that releases tomorrow on Steam and the PlayStation Network (for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita), seeks to change that a bit. Developed by Toronto-based Phantom Compass and published by Atlus, Rollers of the Realm takes the standard pieces of an RPG and covers them all in a pinball-themed coat of paint. What emerges is a game that is surprisingly solid from both angles, and is, I think, a shining example of the marriage of two seemingly unrelated concepts.
In Rollers, you take on the role of the traditional party of adventurers, who become your pinballs. The story is nothing if not familiar: after her family was killed, a young girl is forced to strike out on her own, making her way in whatever manner she can. In this case, she becomes the prototypical rogue, fleet of foot and nimble of finger, picking pockets to keep herself going. A minor act of heroism leads to her becoming embroiled in a deeper conflict that she and her companions will eventually attempt to stop… if you’ve played an RPG, you’ve heard it before. It’s the presentation that’s novel here, rather than what’s actually being presented.
See, instead of the usual maps you’d explore to progress the story, each of the game’s areas are pinball tables – playfields, in the game’s terminology. You launch whichever party member you choose onto the playfield, and then use the flippers to guide them around to complete objectives that will, eventually, let you progress to the next area. That is, obviously, the pinball half of the game. The difference is that, here, everything that would raise your score in your usual pinball game offers something else instead. Some things on the board net you gold when you ricochet off of them, some add to your mana, and just about everything raises your XP, which will eventually increase your party level. You’ll even see enemies appear on playfields, and every time you hit them, you’ll decrease their HP. The gold you earn can be used to purchase new items for each character that raise their stats, and gaining party levels unlocks new items to purchase.
The thing that the developers touched on is that, on a fundamental level, both pinball and RPGs come down to numbers. In pinball, those numbers really only represent a score (what else is there in pinball, really?), but in RPGs, those numbers mean everything: gold earned, XP gained, damage dealt, it’s all numbers, and pinball tables have always been designed with numbers in mind. To add a little bit of complexity to the game, Phantom Compass threw in a few things that aren’t simply represented by numbers, just to keep you on your toes.
Each ball, for example, carries the characteristics that particular kind of character would hold in your standard RPG. The Rogue, for example, is quick with her feet and hands, so she is represented by a smaller ball that moves faster. Each ball can be influenced by pushing the analog stick to either the left or the right, and hers it the most responsive to these sorts of commands. She can also earn a bit of extra gold when she bumps into people (though not enemies) on the playfields. The Knight, in contrast, is a large ball, moves slower, and is less responsive to manual movement commands, but he does more damage to enemies, is more resistant to their attacks, and can smash his way through breakable obstacles much easier. Each party member also has a special ability they can perform at the cost of mana. The Rogue can summon her faithful dog, who is represented by a second, smaller ball that can be bounced around the playfield. The Healer can revive balls that have been lost. The Swordsman has a flaming sword attack the deals damage over time to whatever enemy he inflicts it on. Knowing which character’s abilities are most useful in a given situation can be a big part of successful progression.
The enemies that will appear on some playfields are the biggest obstacles. They can actually attack your flippers directly, and as the flippers take damage (which can be repaired by the Healer), they become smaller, making it harder to keep your active party member in play. When a ball falls out of play while there are enemies on the field, it is equal to that party member being unconscious, and they must be revived before they can be launched again. Losing all of your party members will force you to restart the playfield you are on, losing whatever gold and experience you had gained from it. Most of the time, when enemies appear on a field, they must be defeated before you can progress, but sometimes, they are just there to make the completion of other objectives more challenging.
That’s really all there is to the game from a fundamental level. The difficulty, obviously, comes from what objectives you are expected to complete on a given map, and what kind of resistance there is. If you are having trouble completing a certain playfield, you can return to those you have already completed to gain extra gold and experience, which you can use to purchase more items or hire additional party members that are not gained through story progression. Most of the playfields have different sections that you can access by finding the right hole, and extra treasure to gain by finding keys and opening chests. There’s also an arena mode, which basically lets you replay one of a selection of maps from the story mode with the goal of collecting as much gold as possible. Basically, it’s a high score mode.
The game is, as I said, surprisingly solid. The pinball and RPG traits blend extremely well, there’s a nice variety of playfields and the art style, which I haven’t really mentioned, is quite nice, especially the character portraits. I would never say that it gets by on novelty alone, because it does what it does very well. That said, though, there are a few issues I would like to point out.
The most notable negative that can be said about the game is that, even though it merges the two styles very well, neither is particularly deep. None of the playfields are really going to ‘wow’ anyone into pinball, even though, as I’ve said, the developer did a good job keeping things pretty varied as far as the overall designs. Likewise, the RPG mechanics don’t feel all that much deeper: every item you buy permanently adds its benefits to a character, and it can be a bit difficult to really feel the increases you’ve given them, especially as far as combat damage is concerned (when all you’re doing is reading the red number that appears over the enemy’s head, if that). What’s there works perfectly, but it’s tough, once finished, not to wish for a little bit more meat.
Other than that, everything else I had a problem with is quite small. Because it’s a pinball game, it begins to feel very familiar very fast: you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into after playing for the first fifteen minutes or so. It’s a game that I enjoyed much more in short bursts than in any extended sessions. I’ve found that true with pretty much all pinball experiences I’ve had, though. On a couple of the smaller fields, there was a higher concentration of enemies than what really felt necessary, which led to more than a few unavoidable ricochet deaths. One map in particular in a castle – I won’t say more – left me really frustrated, and took quite a few tries to get through. Each character has a few quips that they spout when they bump into an enemy or other object, and, as is often the case with quips, they are way too few, and repeat way too often. I’d also recommend you get a controller – as do the developers – because the keyboard layout is far from ideal.
Even though it’s not perfect – and, let’s face it, what game is? – I’d still highly recommend Rollers of the Realm. The novelty alone is worth giving it a look, but, as I said, it stands on its own merits even if you disregard that. It’s a very competent hybrid experience that definitely sets the bar admirably for anyone who might want to try this sort of thing again in the future, and I think it paves the way for other unexpected collisions of play style.
Here’s the Rundown:
- A really crisp, appealing art style
- Doesn’t need its novelty to get by, but has it anyway
- An excellent blend of RPG and pinball action…
- …though neither aspect is particularly deep
- Game begins to feel familiar quickly, and is best played in short bursts
- The clutter on some of the smaller playfields is often frustrating
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.
Rollers of the Realm was developed by Phantom Compass, published by Atlus, and will be released on November 18th. It is available on Steam, and as a cross-buy title on the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation Vita for the MSRP of $9.99. A code was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.