One of the many things that we appreciate about Zen Studios' work with their Marvel Pinball tables is their commitment to acknowledging characters and properties that don't have as much mainstream appeal as, say, Spider-Man, Iron Man, or Captain America. For every Fantastic Four and The Avengers, we've had Doctor Strange and The Infinity Gauntlet. Heck, even Moon Knight has his own table. If you're a Marvel Comics fan and you happen to like pinball to any degree, Pinball FX2 arguably provides the best fan service of any video game out there. And now, fans of the wall-crawler and perhaps two of his most dangerous foes, Venom and Carnage, have something juicy to wrap their tongues around. That's right, Venom is the latest and greatest addition to Pinball FX2.
Getting straight to the point, this table isn't about immediate rewards. That means, if you're interested in mindlessly flipping around the pinball and scoring decent points despite your lack of commitment, you might want to check out Guardians of the Galaxy instead. Because of the compartmentalized layout here, it's going to take some effort to really dig into things and discover what makes Venom such an interesting and rewarding pinball table. At first we felt that the two-tier design — with its various offshoots and ramps — wasn't welcoming any sense of cadence. But, after spending a little bit of time digesting the intricacies and experimenting with various strategies, we'd learned that wasn't the case at all. Venom very much has a rhythm, and it's one that largely stands out from other Pinball FX2 tables. It might take time to figure out, but it's there.
Because the table is divided into two sections with numerous ramps littered about, you'll want to slow the ball down and carefully aim your shots. Straight above the drain is a wall made of targets that can reflect the ball in troublesome ways. This wall will need to be used to your advantage, but it can also be crippling if you're flipping wildly. The upper half of the field is where Venom himself can be found bouncing around from one perch to the next. When he's by the bell tower, hit the ramp to sound the bell which negatively affects his symbiotic suit. Fire is also no friend of the symbiote, so when Venom is near the Statue of Liberty, you can hit the ramp and engulf him in flames from the torch. Anyone familiar with the character should be well aware of these weaknesses and the significance of these locations.
The highlight of the table, for us at least, is the presence of Carnage, Venom's twisted and murderous offspring. Freeing Carnage from his containment unit in the center of the board causes a mission to commence, and this is where you can earn serious points. All of the action takes place in its own mini-playfield, where you'll have numerous chances to hit targets and trigger a jailbreak. It's a nice break from the norm and serves to add variety to the table. Another highlight is the cinematic camera that intensely frames the characters when missions are triggered. Some folks may see this as a distraction when they just want to play some pinball, but we'd be remiss if we didn't admit to finding it wonderful. Seeing some of our favorite comic book characters represented as they are here had our inner child smiling wide on more than a few occasions.
But there were a couple things that we didn't like that we should address. First, and this might not be a complaint for most people, is that the electronic music doesn't match the edgy and aggressive tone of these characters. We found it to be quite distracting, honestly. Luckily, this is just a matter of preference, and we imagine that most players won't even take notice. (The voice work for Venom, Carnage, and Spidey is pretty top notch though, so that's a plus.) The other very minor complaint we have is with the aesthetic. Presentation-wise, there's a lot of restraint in the way the table is designed, and that ensures that it's easy to keep an eye on the ball without losing it amongst a cluttered playfield with too many moving pieces. But on the other hand, that means the presentation isn't quite as striking as other Pinball FX2 tables. There's also the matter of the table requiring real skill if you want to put up a high score, which means the learning curve is steep — but we've already addressed that well enough, we think.
The absolute best feeling you can experience with Zen's pinball tables isn't necessarily earning that high score you worked so hard to get. What we look forward to when jumping into each new table is that ah-ha moment. That moment you realize major scoring opportunities that didn't seem to be there seconds ago; the moment when you grasp how a table is meant to be played; the moment participation becomes about patterns and strategies, and not just reacting to the unexpected. If you can sympathize with those sentiments, then Venom is an essential purchase. It's not a perfect table, but it does feature enough new tricks — spider-sense ball save opportunities, distinct two-tier design, the opportunity to store a spare ball — to keep the circumstances always interesting. Fans of Spider-Man's symbiotic foes should, at the very least, be satisfied with what's brought to the table, while the dedicated pinballers will relish in mastering its ins and outs.
Venom is challenging, rewarding, and does more than enough to distinguish itself from other Pinball FX2 tables. At first it might give the impression that it has little flow or rhythm, but once you become familiar with how to navigate the two-tier playfield, it's obvious that's not at all the case. If you're someone that likes to turn their brain off and flip a ball around without considering every shot to be critical, then this table probably won't be for you. However, for everyone else — especially Spider-Man fans — Venom is a big winner. Symbiote-suit up, true believers!