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Pinball FX

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Simulation
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: Feb. 16, 2023


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Xbox Series X Review - 'Pinball FX'

by Adam Pavlacka on June 9, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Pinball FX is hitting the pinball space with Pinball Royale, Career mode, Challenges, a Clan system, enhanced visuals, and more.

The console release of Pinball FX was supposed to be a fresh start for the franchise. Instead, it's been more of a rough start. Between the input lag, excessively long load times, and frustrating monetization options, a lot of the positives were overshadowed. It's improved since it first debuted in February, but it still hasn't eclipsed Zen's prior release, Pinball FX3.

Dropping the number from the name for the new release was supposed to indicate something of a "reset" for Zen's iconic franchise. Everything was rebuilt from the ground up, in Unreal Engine, and designed to be extensible. In a general sense, Zen absolutely succeeded on that front. The virtual pinball machines look good, and there are plenty of tables available to buy. There are tournaments and events, and there are shared leaderboards. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of rough edges.

The biggest, and most persistent issue, with Pinball FX is the input lag. To be fair, it has improved since launch, but it hasn't been eliminated. The game has added warnings to use game mode on your TV, but even on a fully optimized setup, noticeable input lag is still present. In a vacuum, you may just think you suck or have poor reflexes. Swap between Pinball FX3 and Pinball FX on the same table, and it's like night and day. Fish Tales (one of the freebie tables) is an easily reproducible test. On Pinball FX, it was a challenge. On Pinball FX3, where it has the same pro settings, I was reliably hitting intended shots.

Oddly, the Steam version of Pinball FX doesn't seem to be affected by the lag issue — at least not to the same extent as the console. I downloaded the game there to compare, and it was a night and day difference. On the PC, every pinball table I tried was playable. I hopped back over to the Xbox Series X, and it was back to lower scores and unreliable shots.

Another bit of frustration comes down to the UI. There is no consistent design language used for the UI, which means your first attempts to navigate are likely going to involve wondering why the cursor isn't going where you want it to go. There are also elements that aren't clear. For example, in the events section, there are events that require paid tables and events that are free. The free events work with trial tables (essentially giving you a chance to play full games on select tables that you don't own), but there is no direct indication of this if you don't happen to have those trial tables installed.

Other UI quirks include an inability to save display settings (you have to apply the owned filter to the table display every time you start the game if you want to select from your tables), and there's no option to default to friend settings for the leaderboards. I love pinball, but I'm merely an OK player. I'll never hit the top of the leaderboards, so I don't really care about random players. I would like some friendly competition with my online friends, though.

In addition to the UI navigation issues, I also ran into random bugs. The first time I ran through the tutorial, I never got the one-day promo Pinball Pass. In a later game, I ended up having the collectibles tutorial randomly restart when I tabbed through the collectibles option, but it was in a partial state. I couldn't cancel and didn't have prompts telling me what to do. I just had to fumble my way to completion (killing the game and restarting didn't fix the issue). Another odd bug was the introduction of an invisible selection between My Tables and the Tournament option in the menu. That one just required an extra button press to get out of, but it made the game appear temporarily broken.

The Pinball Pass is a way to try most (not all) of the tables without purchasing them individually. It's also a perfect example of how Zen doesn't seem to know how to monetize Pinball FX and is just throwing things at the wall.

For the previous games, Zen had a policy that if you bought a table once, you wouldn't have to re-buy it for a future engine release. Prior to Pinball FX's debut, Zen announced that policy was changing with Pinball FX, in part because of the work required to rebuild everything in Unreal Engine. In April of last year, Zen's COO told Polygon that another reason for not migrating prior purchases was that Zen wanted to take control of entitlements, so tables would be cross-buy. Sadly, that didn't happen.

Without cross-buy, the table pricing can be a hard sell. Select tables can be as costly as $15 each, while others are only available in bundles. There is no guarantee that the table you want to buy is available individually. You can buy Zen's in-game currency (Pinball Coins) and then use those to purchase the Pinball Pass, but you can't use the coins to buy tables. Aside from the Pinball Pass, the only use for coins are cosmetics for your virtual game room. As for the pass itself, one month costs the equivalent of $15, while a year works out to $100. Again, that does not even include all of the tables. It had me wondering why the Pinball Pass (or at least a version of it) wasn't part of Game Pass.

Maybe I'm not hip to the demands of the market, but I don't see the value in cosmetic items, especially if I'm paying full price for tables. If Pinball FX is supposed to be the definitive way to play these tables, I'd prefer to have development time spent on giving players access to all the options. Pinball FX allows you to select from some preset game modes, but it does not allow you to access the operator menu on any of the machines. You also can't set the angle of the table or adjust the side lane bumpers. Not having any of that seems like a big miss.

Finally, there's the loading time. It's long on an Xbox Series X and even longer on an Xbox One X. Pinball FX3 loads quickly by comparison.

One area where Pinball FX does do something better than Pinball FX3 is having support for rotating the display on a console. That's right, you can rotate your screen 90 degrees and play in a traditional pinball orientation. Assuming the lag issues can be resolved, that's a fantastic use case for an Xbox Series S and a spare monitor.

The console release of Pinball FX promises a lot, but it doesn't have the polish needed to wholeheartedly recommend. There are some good ideas, but it doesn't feel cohesive. If Zen can fix the technical issues and give us access to all the table configuration settings, it'll have a winner. Make table purchasing more attractive (the previously discussed cross-buy would be a real value-add) and add a museum mode with historical details, manuals, and development information, and it would be the definitive pinball collection.

In its current state, the Xbox version of Pinball FX still feels like a work in progress and isn't an improvement from the prior version of the game. For a product that targets a niche market, that's a hard pill to swallow. I really wanted to like Pinball FX, but every time I fired it up, I found myself switching back to Pinball FX3. It's best to wait for improvements before investing a lot of money on upgrading and rebuying tables you already own.

Score: 6.0/10

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