Review: Balls of Glory (Sony PlayStation 4/PlayStation 3/PlayStation Vita)

Balls of Glory
Genre: Pinball
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Zen Studios
Release Date: 10/20/15

We’ve been fairly big supporters of Zen Studios and their Zen Pinball series over the past few years, and it’s not hard to understand why: they have a good grasp on how to make a digital pinball table work, and they keep releasing tables based on franchises nerds love the heck out of. Whether it’s Marvel properties, Star Wars properties, or video game properties, the company has done everything it can to make digital pinball tables for people who love nerdy things, and when the tables work (which they most often do), it’s a fun time for everyone involved. Well, we’re back with a new package of tables to put through their paces, as Zen Studios has opted to revisit the “television cartoons” well that they hit with the South Park tables last year, in the Balls of Glory pack. However, this package is based not around one property, but four, in Archer, Family Guy, American Dad and Bob’s Burgers, which is… certainly an eclectic set. Thematically it makes some sense, as they’re all cartoons that are aimed toward a more adult demographic, and they’re all based off of cartoons that use heavily surreal humor over all else. The big question, obviously, is “how do the tables work?” but the one that struck me the longer I played was more, “Are these tables good enough to sell someone who’s only a fan of some of these shows?”

Balls of Glory comes with four tables, each themed after a cartoon franchise: Family Guy, Archer, American Dad and Bob’s Burgers. The franchises are all cartoons aimed at a more adult aged crowd, featuring insane and irreverent humor that’s absolutely insane more often than not, and it’s not hard to see how that could be an interesting pairing. Also, since the South Park table set did reasonably well, going to that well again but with different franchises isn’t a bad idea at all, and you might as well package them up together, assuming that anybody who’s a fan of one might well be a fan of the rest. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of one franchise or the other, or not even a fan at all, the themes also lend themselves to some very interesting table design concepts. This being a digital pinball table, the tables don’t exactly have to lend themselves to realistic design elements, so while the actual gameplay is all pretty much rooted in real pinball physics, you’ll see things like cars jumping into and out of the table and the various cast members performing activities during missions, which adds a life to the proceedings that real tables can’t quite match. Each table 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’ve got some friends who like it too.

The Balls of Glory tables each look authentic, as the various tables capture both the appropriate aesthetics one would expect of a pinball table and the visual elements one would expect of the characters. The Archer table has a heavy darker spy motif and has Archer and Lana prominently on display, while the Family Guy table has a lot of show iconography and coloration and features Peter, Stewie and Brian at various parts of the table. The American Dad table, meanwhile, is patriotic as all hell, as one would expect, and features some of the cast spread across the table, while the Bob’s Burgers table features a lot of yellow and some of the cast, including Gene in a burger costume, because why not? The game looks great in motion as well, as the different active elements of each table are incredibly well animated and very bright and colorful, as is befitting of the shows in question. The game is also technically sound as well, as there aren’t any significant technical issues visually, and the tables default to camera angles that make minimal use of the dynamic camera angles at this point so it’s much easier to follow along with the action. The game also sounds fantastic, as the different tunes for each table are immediately evocative of the characters associated, and the different voice actors and actresses used on the tables turn out great performances all around. The sound effects are authentic sounding as well, as the four tables make a great effort to sound like real tables, complete with various easily distinguished effects when you set off power-ups and bounce the ball off of environmental elements. The end result is a collection of tables that have both visual and aural personality to spare, which is, again, great for fans of all types.

The core gameplay of Zen Pinball in general, and the Balls of Glory pack in specific, is incredibly simplistic to understand: 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 console versions to perform actual “tilt” actions in the game if you want, you big cheater you. 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 percept 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 across all of the tables to your shots and scoring attempts. 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 each of the four tables has its own unique elements that make it fun and interesting in its own way. So let’s break down the individual tables a little bit:

AMERICAN DAD – The American Dad table is a middle of the road table in terms of difficulty, partly due to its layout and partly due to its aesthetic design. The color scheme of the table is honestly very busy, and it can be hard to follow the action on the table without spending some time warming up because of this. Once you get used to the aesthetics, though, the table is a bit easier to follow, fortunately, so if you spend a lot of time with it you should find that to be less of a problem. There are eight primary missions on the table, all of which are associated to a drophole under the fishbowl at the top of the screen, including Fun ‘N Gun (a shooting gallery), Tearjerker (a target shot mission), Stan’s Night Out (a target shot mission) Bullocks to Stan (hit ramps and bumpers to make Stan beat his boss up) and more, and they’re all fairly easy to trigger once you’ve got their targets down. The table also has a bunch of special scoring options, including the Threat Level spinner (the higher it is, the higher you score, but the less time you have for missions), several complex multiball events, a mission that involves shooting at poisonous wiener boxes, and a Wheels and the Legman loop-based case solving mission. The table, all in all, isn’t too hard to score on, thanks to the Threat Level spinner and the variety of missions in play, and the Skill Stop isn’t bad either once you get the hang of it. The Kickbacks, on the other hand, are rough to activate, and this table leans medium to high in terms of overall difficulty, so while you’ll probably find it provides your highest scores, it’ll also be a challenge to master.

ARCHER – The Archer table is an interesting table, in that it has a surprisingly friendly layout, but is also one of the harder tables in the set. The visual aesthetic of the table has a cooler look to it thanks to the heavy blue aesthetic, and while it’s busy in places, you can mostly keep track of things well. There are five mission types (Krieger’s Experiments, Danger Zone, Archer Modes, Bumper Modes and Woodhouse Hurry-Ups), with three missions per type, most of which are ramp missions (though there’s another shooting gallery in here for fun), for those who prefer those in their table. The table also has a couple of oddly designed (by the table’s own admission) multiballs, all of which require locking down balls in order to use them first, which may be a challenge for newer players. In what is perhaps the most inspired mechanic, though, the game offers an Operations Fund where, if you hit the black titanium credit card, the Spy Targets and the Armory, you’re able to buy table upgrades, like multipliers, Ball Saves and Kickbacks, so everything is condensed to one place. The table can be a bit of a challenge to score on, as there are a few timing-heavy mechanics here, and the Operations Fund setup can make turning on Kickbacks and such challenging. As such, this table skews higher overall, in terms of difficulty and challenge toward scoring, until you learn how to utilize the Operations Fund effectively. It’s an interesting premise, but there’s a bit of a learning curve attached to it, so as long as you’re willing to commit to that you’ll be fine.

FAMILY GUY – The Family Guy table is just silly with ramps, as the upper half of the field is nothing but ramps, and there are a whopping seven of them to shoot for here, making this the easiest table to score on of the lot as a side effect. The visual aesthetic is very Family Guy, with lots of pinks, blues and greens atop a show logo for a fairly easy to follow layout that you’ll not likely be too confused by. There are six primary missions on the table, based on each member of the family, and all of which involve either shooting the ramps or targets that pop up on the table to score points and complete the mission, so this is probably the easiest table to really understand mechanically as a result. The table also has some dual character missions that pop up post Wizard Mode for those who can progress that far in a session for fun, as well as a bunch of side missions involving secondary show characters. In fact, a lot of this table seems geared toward pinball neophytes, as everything’s fairly easy to do, from activating Kickbacks to scoring to keeping the ball in play, and this table, more than any other in the set, seems to be the one geared toward easing players into the experience. As such, if you’re fairly unskilled at pinball this is probably the table to start with, which only helps considering Family Guy is probably the most popular show of the lot here.

BOB’S BURGERS – I had some serious Iron Man flashbacks when I first started playing this table, but it’s probably more accurate to say that this table is one part Iron Man and one part Blade. What this means for those who didn’t play the Marvel tables is that the table has a whole mess of ramps and a day/night cycle, and it’s a fairly hard table to adjust to and score on. On the other hand, while there are also an extensive variety of missions to complete on the table, there are only two that really matter for the purposes of completing the Wizard mission, so if you can get those down it’s actually not too hard to get a good score here with practice. It’s also a visually busy table, though not so much so that you can’t work with it effectively and even score well on it, as it’s fairly easy to get used to it after a play session. The interesting thing here is that, while completing the Wizard challenge is surprisingly simple, you’ll want to jump into the plethora of other missions on the table, because they all modify the Wizard scoring in some way, and the best scores will come from those who modify the score to its maximum capacity, so there’s a real chance to get some huge scores here. The day/night cycle also adds some real complexity to the setup, as switching between the two opens up new scoring missions, and in some cases you can unlock missions during the night cycle by completing day missions for added depth. The Skillshot and Kickbacks are also reasonably accessible to activate. All told, Bob’s Burgers is definitely a table for advanced players, based on its complex mission setup, and while it’s not the most difficult table of the lot, it’s definitely the one advanced players will get the most out of.

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 is 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, depending on the console you play it on.

Honestly, there’s not a lot bad to say about Balls of Glory; for ten dollars you get four solid tables that are fun to play around with and well developed overall. Each table has a decent challenge to it, and while three of the four tables lean higher on learning curve, only Archer and American Dad skew higher on the challenge curve, so you can have fun with the tables no matter your skill level for the most part. There’s a bit of an odd appeal concern here, though, in that while most other table packs are united around a set franchise and are likely to have unified appeal, this set is united around four different franchises, so if you don’t like some of them, you might find this off-putting as a package deal. Also, while the physics generally work quite nicely overall, the tables can have their own odd quirks that hurt them a bit, such as the loud color scheme of the American Dad table, or the fact that (for reasons I cannot understand) the ball went into the Kickback lane in the Bob’s Burgers table more than all other tables combined during play. Also, the American Dad table seems to have an issue with obviously repetitive dialogue; in other words, I heard the explanation for who “Wheels and the Legman” are far too many times during play, which is an issue no other table has presented so far.

The bottom line is that Balls of Glory is as good a digital pinball experience as prior releases, featuring four tables that are fun and thematically interesting, and while there are some spotty issues here and there, it’s a great pack for the price if you’re into pinball or all four cartoon shows. The game offers four solid tables to play with that feature instantly recognizable characters, the tables look and sound great, and there are all sorts of cute touches for fans to marvel at. The game is easy to play and the pinball physics are mostly accurate to real pinball, the table designs are mostly interesting, and there’s a good variety of challenge across the four tables so that newbies and diehard pinball fans can have a blast, both alone or with friends. That said, only Family Guy can be considered really newcomer friendly, as the other tables have a strong learning curve and Archer and American Dad are outright challenging, so newcomers might find this a big learning experience. Further, the tables are quirky in places, the American Dad table in particular is visually loud and aurally repetitive, making it kind of a tough experience unless you’re a big fan of the show, and you’ll really want to be a fan of all four shows to get your money’s worth. Still, for ten bucks, even if one of the tables isn’t for you, the pack still justifies its asking price overall, and even with the quirks, Balls of Glory is a strong entry into the Zen Pinball 2 library for show and pinball fans alike.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Balls of Glory is a solid table pack for Zen Pinball 2 if you’re into the franchises it’s offering, and while there are some odd layout and appeal hiccups, on the whole it’s worth the ten bucks for the tables offered. For the price, you get four tables, featuring recognizable franchises like Archer, Family Guy, American Dad and Bob’s Burgers, each with their own unique elements and designs. The tables are mostly aesthetically pleasing, both visually and aurally, and are filled with little details that are sure to please fans of the shows. The game is as simple to play as regular pinball and offers all sorts of fun extra features, like the ability to upload scores online, play around with the table mechanics, and play on or offline with friends, that add a lot of worthwhile depth and substance to the experience. The tables tend to skew higher on the difficulty curve, so while Family Guy is accessible for all skill levels, the others tend to be for intermediate to advanced play levels, and the American Dad table is visually distracting and repeats its audio frequently to the extent that it’s the weakest of the tables, but it’s still playable all in all. If you’re a fan of at least most of the shows in this package, the Balls of Glory table set is worth the ten bucks, as the tables are generally all top notch, and while there are a couple more hiccups in the product here than Zen Studios is used to, the end product is still pretty outstanding.