Review: Zen Pinball 2: Plants vs. Zombies (Sony Playstation 3/Sony Playstation Vita)

Zen Pinball 2: Plants vs. Zombies
Genre: Pinball
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Release Date: 9/6/12

While Zen Studios is likely most notable for their Marvel Pinball series when it comes to licensed tables, they’ve done their share of gaming franchise licenses as well. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and Super Street Fighter II have seen tables brought to the Zen Pinball franchise as stand-alone additions, so it’s certainly not a surprise to see Zen Studios reach out to another developer to make a themed table that gamers will be familiar with. That said, Plants vs. Zombies isn’t likely the first game people would think of when they think “this would make an AWESOME pinball table,” but here we are and here it is. The Plants vs. Zombies table attempts to take the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that made the tower defense game so notable and use that to make for an exciting table, and for the most part, Zen Studios has succeeded. What’s more impressive, though, is that Zen Studios has also managed to create one of their better tables overall in the process, making this a table that shouldn’t just appeal to fans of the license, but to pinball fans in general.

Plants vs. Zombies is a fully stand-alone table that basically takes the concept of the game and makes it into a pinball game: zombies want to eat you, and your objective is to use your plants and your pinball to defeat the evil Dr. Zomboss and his legion of undead. Thematically, the table is a treat for fans, as it incorporates a good bit of what makes the game itself so popular, including various different plants and zombies, using sunlight and coins, and of course, Crazy Dave and his car shop. As with most Zen Studios tables, Plants vs. Zombies makes good use of the fact that it’s not a real table, meaning that balls will change pattern when needed, zombies will frequently die on the table, and your ball will explode in Dr. Zomboss’ face a few times, since it’s not like the game can’t just make another. The physics of the table are, by and large, as good as Zen Studios can make them, and for the most part you’ll find them to be quite solid, as your shots generally go where they’re expected to. The table, as with others in the Zen Pinball franchise, can be played alone or with friends, on and offline, as players compete against each other for top scores, either simultaneously online or by taking turns offline, so you can get your pinball on with up to four players if you want, either by passing the controller/Vita around or by taking it to them online.

Plants vs. Zombies looks exactly as one would expect a table based on the game to look, as it faithfully recreates the aesthetic of the game and makes good use of the notable elements in the table design. The table itself is designed to look like various areas of the house, featuring the lawn and pool as the main play area and the roof toward the front of the table, and several of the table’s interactive elements borrow from the game, such as the sunflower that distributes sunlight, Dr. Zomboss’ gigantic robo-zombie in the background of the table and, of course, the zombies that pop up for you to destroy. The visual style is effective and captures the experience well, and the table is really cherry and vibrant, even with the (admittedly goofy) zombies poking around. Aurally, the table makes use of the music from the game effectively, changing up the background music as you take on missions and spawn zombies to fit the situation nicely. There’s also a smattering of voice work throughout the game, most of which is delivered by your helpful sunflower as she suggests options and congratulates your plants for a job well done, which is cute and inoffensive, though you’re likely to tune out when things get hectic. The table also features a good amount of audio effects from the game in addition to the normal pinball effects one would expect, so you’ll hear the screams, groans and evil laughter you’d expect from the various principles in the main game while you’re smacking the ball around the table. This all works together quite well, as the game feels like a surreal, silly sort of table when everything comes together, much like the game itself.

As with the various other tables and packages in the Zen Pinball series, the core gameplay in Plants vs. Zombies is very basic and easy to grasp: hold and release a button to fire the ball into the playing field, then press buttons associated to the left and right flippers to attempt to keep the ball in play and hit scoring areas of the table. You can also tilt the controller in the PS3 version, or the console itself in the Vita version, to perform actual “tilt” actions in the game if you want, though it tends to be easier if you use the stick. The table works equally on the PS3 and the Vita and the controls largely map identically from one to the other, so you’ll be able to jump between consoles with no learning curve if you happen to have both systems available to play on. If you’ve played any pinball table in your life you already know how the basics of the game work, and Zen Studios has managed to replicate the experience more or less perfectly. The ball physics, while not one hundred percent accurate to real-life pinball, are among the best around at replicating the experience, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the ball will react here, as with any other table in the franchise, so you can make shots that would work on a physical table and expect them to work more or less identically here.

Now, of course, pinball tables aren’t just about keeping the ball in play, they’re about what you can do with the ball to earn the highest score possible, and Plants vs. Zombies does a whole lot to allow the player the opportunity to do just that. The table itself is laid out in a mostly understandable fashion, odd aesthetic aside; there are three upward ramps, the two standard bottom flippers, a left flipper on the left center side of the table, and a right flipper on one of the upper ramps towards the table center. There is also a sunflower hole almost directly in the center of the table that, when a ball is hit into it once, wakes up the sunflower, and when the word SUN is spelled thereafter, generates sunlight to collect. The table offers two skillshots, for hitting a zombie in the pool when launching the ball and (should you accomplish that) for hitting the next zombie to appear with your next shot, as well as easily accessed kickbacks, ball saves, and extra balls (you can earn two per game through several different methods). Basically, the core pinball setup is pretty solid, outside of any specialty table gimmicks, and the layout isn’t complex or hard to work with in the least, so anyone can get into the table and do okay.

Plants vs. Zombies really shines when you take its gimmicks into consideration, though. As you knock the pinball around zombies will eventually spawn on the field, either through normal play or through enabling missions, and you’ll have to defeat them in various ways. Doing so rewards you with coins you can spend at Crazy Dave’s Twiddy Dinkies (the shop in the back of his car) by spelling CRAZY on the field, breaking his tail lights, and firing the ball into his trunk. You can buy seeds that can, in turn, be powered with sun collected from your sunflower, which will then sprout in a flowerpot in the bottom left, allowing the plant to help you out against zombies. You can also flip on the MAIL flag, which will allow you to catch balls in the mailbox, which then enables multiball if you collect three in the box for added mayhem. You can also enable various missions to fight zombies of various sorts, which all basically revolve around killing zombies on the field in some fashion or another. Clearing all of the missions kicks Dr. Zomboss into high gear, as he throws flaming and ice balls down on you to ruin your day, just for the heck of it. It’ll take some time to see all of the novelties the table has to offer, as you’ll have to make some pretty solid shots to unlock and complete all of the missions and such, but there’s a great deal of fun in seeing what the table can do, especially since it’s not even remotely rooted in reality. As such, pinballs explode and change color and ability, zombies pop up constantly, and it’s just a lively gimmick that plays the concept to the hilt.

Now, if you’re looking to get your name up on the metaphorical wall, you can take on the tables with their default settings, set your own high score, and compete with your friends and/or the world. The game also scores against your Pro Score and Team Score, with the former being a united numerical value that indicates your overall ranking across all of your tables, and the latter indicating your score combined with that of your friends’ scores across all of your and their tables, so, yeah, you’ve got three different scores to try and max out at once if you’re into that. For those who prefer to screw around with the pinball mechanics, you can jump into the Operators Menu, which allows you to adjust all sorts of settings on the different tables. You can play around with things like the tilt warnings, how many extra balls you have in stock, how many extra balls come out in some multiball sequences, how difficult the table is, what the pitch of the playfield is, and so on, depending on how involved you want to get in customizing the table to be easier or harder for you. This, however, disables leaderboard scoring, so bear that in mind. You can also, as noted prior, play the game on or offline with friends. Online play puts you up against one another simultaneously to try and either earn a specific score or the highest score after a period of time, and also allows you to punish players who lose a ball (since you have infinite balls to reach the time limit or winning score) with score penalties. Offline mode offers “Hotseat”, a simple “pass the controller” mode, similar to how a normal pinball table would handle multiple players, where you change player after a ball is lost, and split-screen play on the PS3 thanks to the Zen Pinball 2 suite. The Vita does not for… obvious reasons, however, but Hotseat is available all the same. Online play and Hotseat support up to four players, while split-screen offers two player simultaneous support, so locally and online you have lots of play options.

Plants vs. Zombies, as a table, honestly doesn’t have much in the way of bad, especially thanks to the physics engine fixes that Zen Studios has put into the game with Zen Pinball 2 that make the physics of the game a lot more reasonable, to the extent that I didn’t notice any significant issues during my time with the table. The table is a bit on the easy side, it should be noted; my first session I racked up an exceptionally high score relative to how I normally perform on other tables, and I consistently score high on the table, so it may not be a highlight if you’re looking for a harder pinball table. As with the majority of the Zen Pinball tables, also sometimes seems a bit overly impressed with its dynamic camera angles, and while you can change the camera view once you’re in play, it’s disorienting at first to flip from the plunger view to the main view when you’re starting out, though you do eventually get used to it. This is more noticeable on the Vita, as unless you’re holding the console sideways the camera has to move to keep track of everything, which can be disorienting at first. The tilt function also isn’t as useful as one would expect, on either the PS3 or the Vita, and you’re often better off going to the stick if you want to use tilt over relying on shaking the controller/console. Finally, as licenses go, Plants vs. Zombies isn’t an especially appealing one, and while the table itself is cute, it’s harder to recommend this over a Marvel themed table, albeit easier to swallow than one of the Zen Studios designed tables.

For three dollars, Plants vs. Zombies is one of the more interesting tables to come out of the Zen Pinball series, as it does a lot of really neat things with the franchise it’s based on in interesting ways, and while it’s not the most challenging table out there, it’s still rather fun. The table looks and sounds exactly how a fan of the game would expect, and the pinball mechanics themselves work just fine, as is the norm. Further, the gimmicks attached to the table are pretty interesting, and the table makes a lot of use of the concepts found in the game in interesting and unique ways that make the table really lively. There are also the expected modification options as well as multiple multiplayer options, locally and online, and the table works across the PS3 and Vita equally well for the most part. The table is a little bit easier to score on than many of the Zen Pinball tables, the dynamic camera angles can still take some getting used to at times (moreso on the Vita), the tilt functionality that uses the gyroscopic sensors doesn’t work as well as it could, and the Plants vs. Zombies license isn’t as appealing as some of the other licenses Zen Studios has picked up. Still, if you’re a fan of the game and pinball, Plants vs. Zombies is basically going to tickle your fancy, and pinball fans in general will find it a nice addition to their library, even if it won’t be the most challenging table in their library.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The Plants vs. Zombies table for Zen Pinball 2 is a solid table that’s worth the three dollar asking price, whether you’re a fan of the game or not, as it’s a well constructed and lively table, albeit a bit of an easy one to score on. The table makes great use of the subject matter both visually and aurally, and it plays as well as any table in the Zen Pinball series on both the PS3 and the Vita. The table makes use of some excellently implemented and imaginative gimmicks that fall in line with the game it’s based on that are a lot of fun, and the table offers the same excellent online and offline multiplayer options and customization options as other tables in the series to give it a good deal of life beyond playing the table on its own. The table, as noted, is on the easy side to score on compared to others from the company, the camera dynamics are a bit problematic at times, more so on the Vita than the PS3, the gyroscopic tilt options don’t work as well as they could, and the license isn’t as appealing as the Marvel tables or Street Fighter II in comparison. Still, Plants vs. Zombies fans will absolutely love this table, and anyone who enjoys a good game of pinball will have a lot of fun here whether they like the game or not; while the table can be easier than others in the series, Plants vs. Zombies is still a slick, well designed table that’s worth the asking price.

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