The critically acclaimed first season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead (hence forth referenced as Season One) invades the best version of digital pinball currently on the market, Pinball FX2, and the results are quite impressive. This closely-coordinated effort between Telltale and FX2 developer, Zen Studios, comes hot on the heels of the Guardians of the Galaxy pinball table, which we claimed to be one of the “most accessible tables of the Marvel Pinball lot.” Because The Walking Dead Pinball raises the stakes, both thematically and gameplay-wise, can it manage to accommodate the broad range of skill levels that both it's source material and Guardians has been able to?
Zen Studios has done a flawless job nailing the signature look and feel of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. The cell-shaded art style, the voice work performed by the cast of Season One, and a litany of locations and references plucked directly from each of the five episodes come together for an entirely authentic experience. While a couple sound clips can become repetitious, and the very subtle score is almost non-existent at times, these are ultimately rare distractions barely worth mentioning. If you’re a massive fan of Season One and want to revisit the story in a celebratory, less-emotionally-draining fashion, the presentation is reason enough to invest.
As a pinball table, The Walking Dead also hits almost all the right notes. Anyone should be able to pick up the controller and have fun without any prior relationship to pinball, but it should be said that this is a table more suitable for the skilled players. The main form of scoring and progression comes from activating missions based on individual episodes from Season One. Before each one of these begins, you’ll be faced with a choice. Would you like to save Doug or Carley, side with Kenny or Larry, or do you prefer to beat or spare Danny? These decisions don’t affect the goal of each mission, but they do cause different events to unfold between the characters (mostly Lee and Clementine) onscreen. Of course this means there are many plot spoilers here, so if you still have any Season One episodes left unfinished, you should probably wrap those up before plunging the ball into play.
But that’s not the extent of the missions. For example, there’s a standalone event that finds Lee and Clementine kicking a soccer ball back and forth across the bottom of the screen, and the goal is to send the pinball through the flashing lanes in an effort to make Clem smile. It’s a more subtle moment that pays tribute to those intimate scenes between these two characters from their episodic journey together. There’s even a mini-game where you’ll snipe zombies out of windows and doorways by moving crosshairs left and right with the same buttons that manipulate the flippers. This isn’t a particularly challenging event, but it’s fun, and it makes for a nice break from standard play. Most successful missions payout between 2.5-5 million points, which is part of the reason why this table requires skill. To put up a high score, you’ll need to do a lot of winning and survive for a while.
That brings us to our only weighty complaint, which is how frequent and common it is for the kickers to fling the ball straight into an outlane. In some situations a simple nudge will be a total ball saver, but there are instances where there’s no chance at a recovery. We understand that ballouts are a part of the game, but we prefer that we feel to blame when they occur. Another very minor criticism can be drawn with a mission that darkens the screen and forces the camera to zoom out to an overhead view. You’re tasked with hitting ramps or lanes that are intermittently guarded by another ball, but because of the visual conditions, aiming shots can feel...off. Luckily this is a small portion of what the table has to offer, and it is possible to become more efficient at it in time.
And as you learn how to adapt and survive in the most dire of circumstances, you'll notice the parallels to the source material. You’ll need to beware of treacherous lanes determined to dump the ball into the drain if hit at the wrong speed, and you'll learn that slowing down to calculate each shot really is the best way to stay alive and rack up points. Undoubtedly, reaction is an integral element of play, as it is with pinball in general, but being prepared for the worst is what'll keep you alive long enough to see a new day. And even if you find that you don't possess the skills to infect the leaderboards right out of the gate, no one says you have to perform in outstanding fashion to have a good time. That’s the beauty of pinball.
The Walking Dead is an excellent piece of fan service and a tightly-crafted pinball table that’s sure to be especially pleasing to those looking to further advance their skills. It’s not just very well-rounded when it comes to gameplay diversity, but it also teaches players to learn the intricacies/fundamentals of the game and forces them to practice if they want to survive long enough to bite into any high scores. Depending on your personal preferences, there may be a hiccup or two on a rare occasion that doesn't sit well, but these shouldn't be sizeable enough to take away from what is easily one of Pinball FX2's best tables. Now let’s hope Season Two gets the FX2 treatment sooner rather than later.