Developer: Phantom Compass
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: ?
Score: A- (90%)
While it may seem like a super-easy casual game at first glance, don’t let the either the art style or offbeat hybrid concept fool you one bit. Rollers of the Realm offers up a serious challenge to pinball aficionados and is one of the bigger indie surprises of 2014. However, you really don’t need to be a pinball wizard to fully enjoy what’s here. The game offers up enough fun to get pretty much anyone who picks it up pulled into its unusual blending of genres. Developer Phantom Compass gets some decent mileage from its medieval fantasy epic setting, dedicated voice actors and yes, the all-important element of making the gameplay both fresh and rewarding…
For those with zero sense of imagination or wonder, wrapping their brains around the very idea of the playable characters here being represented as metal balls of assorted size and abilities and the environments they travel in as not “tables” or “boards” different maps might be a stretch. Just roll with it and things will be just fine (pun intended, of course). Anyway, the timeless tale of disparate wanderers meeting up to tackle an evil medieval overlord and his minions is pretty much as old as the hills, but the solid gameplay is the brilliant saving roll. You start the adventure out as a swift rogue with a dog that’s kidnapped after the pair help out a drunken knight about to be rousted out of a small town.
That knight is your second character/ball and soon, you meet up with a healer, archer, swordsman and wizard, all ready to aid you on your quest. While five characters join you automatically as the game progresses, four optional characters become available that you can hire for 5000 gold each. Now, you may not think you’ll need a barmaid, farm boy, monk or alchemist as potential traveling companions, but each is a fine fighter with talents to spare that come in handy during your adventure. Besides, in true pinball form, the more balls you have, the longer you’ll last when the going gets truly tough. And the game does get truly tough as you travel through some treacherous ground on your way to the final showdown.
Gameplay is pure Pinball 101 in that you need to knock your selected hero or heroine around each map while trying not to lose all your balls. Each character gains mana from hitting objects in the environment or collecting a certain pickup and that mana is used to activate a special attack or assist power. The rogue’s dog is an added ball that attacks enemies, the knight gets a temporary shield against those center and occasionally side ball-killing pits, the healer can revived downed characters and repair damaged flippers and so forth and so on. Of all the characters, both the archer with his multiball animal companions and any offensive magic users can really turn the tide of some battles.
While you can make do with a keyboard, the experience is much better with a good compatible controller. In addition to drop targets, ramps and assorted bumpers (all presented as parts of the scenery), there are a few enemy types to deal with. Some are pushover minions, some are tougher shielded warriors and yes, there are some tough bosses that can make for some tricky situations if you’re unprepared. You earn experience from hitting enemies, targets and bumpers and gold from unlocking chests, hitting objects in the environment and occasionally from random pickups that appear on a map. That rogue also gains a nice gold collecting bonus and can pickpocket NPC’s she bumps from behind, so there’s a bit more loot to gain in using her when you need extra funds.
There’s only a limited amount of gold per map, but mana and experience can be racked up considerably from the beginning. In some areas you can trap a ball or balls by using the left analog to keep them bouncing endlessly off a corner bumper or between other bumpers, but Phantom Compass made sure that the experience you get drops off by half after a certain number of hits. Still, gamers with patience to spare can spend a while doing nothing but leveling out their party early on.
Additionally, each main character has special items that need to be found as you play that will require finding a key to unlock a specific chest. Chests and keys are usually located in tricky shot areas that have you tilting the left analog stick right or left to give some “English” to your shot. This technique also comes in very handy for locating secret areas and can even save a ball from certain doom that’s been parried straight down the middle of a map. There’s a shop in a port where you can enhance each ball with stat boosting gear, some of which allows skills used by some balls to be shared with the others. As noted, gold isn’t exactly raining from the skies during much of the main game and thankfully, this isn’t some cheap or free app where you can simply buy your way to an easy and hollow victory with real money. As you gain entry into new territory you’ll also unlock five Arena maps that challenge you with getting as much gold, mana and experience as possible with only five balls. Here, your total scores are posted online to a leaderboard so you can compare them with scores on your Steam friends list and you’re rewarded with bonus gold to spend in the main game.
The map layouts are superb, offering up opportunities for each character’s skills while also being highly replayable. As each character is a different size and weight, physics come into play in a neat way. Early on you’ll discover that the larger knight can’t fit into smaller spaces most of the other balls can, so it’s up to the lighter ladies to take on foes. That burly drunkard is best at close range combat and situations where you need bashing power in a hurry. Also, you’ll see and feel the difference in physics when using more than one ball type on a board. Things can get extremely hairy on a smaller board where the speedier balls can zoom past your flippers to their temporary demise and it’s the slower, heavier knight’s or more melee focused swordsman’s job to make shorter work of enemies and obstacles.
In the main quest, losing all your party members is an instant Game Over that also costs you any gold and experience collected on the map you failed to clear. Thankfully, your other stats are saved, but retrying some of the harder areas can be a tad frustrating if you lost your last ball during the latter portions of a tough multi-tiered map with a pack of hard enemies or a specific challenge that needed to be overcome. The game’s maps range from single straightforward areas to some that stretch a few screens tall and contain plenty of enemies, traps and puzzles to figure out. There’s a nice strategic element to the game as you gain access to more characters and their new skills. While it’s entirely possible with practice to clear some maps with a single character, you’ll absolutely want to use every single character type just to see how well the game was programmed.
Presentation is great overall, with stylized character art and maps and a tone that blends melodramatic and comedic elements quite well. I noticed that my review code defaults to an unchangeable resolution of 1280 x 720 (windowed or full screen), something that higher resolution fans might gripe about. This isn’t the most graphically intensive game out there, so it’s no big deal that fiddling with options is limited to three detail quality settings, v-sync and anti-aliasing. There’s a great soundtrack that fits the mood perfectly and as noted above, all the voice acting is well done. Sure, some quotes are repeated a wee bit too much, but this isn’t a game where you’re expecting each character to deliver deep and meaningful soliloquies while bashing a room full of guards.
I didn’t come across any major bugs to speak of in the PC version, but it’s recommended that you have a speedy connection if you decide to play online to track your scores on the leaderboard. My well-aged laptop runs the game perfectly offline, but as my home connection is a dinosaur, I get a bit of lag when connected to Steam. As I’m writing this review in a place with a zippy connection speed, I see that the game runs beautifully with that connection. There’s no traditional competitive “hot seat” multiplayer here otherwise, but that’s due to the map designs and gameplay structure than the developer’s unwillingness. That said, the game deserves some sort of update that adds hot seat play or even better, a sequel that’s got the option for it.
There have been a handful of pinball/RPG hybrids made over the past few decades, but I’d bet most modern gamers have never heard of Kyuutenkai Fantastic Pinball, Pinball Quest or even Dragon’s Revenge. Atlus and Phantom Compass have all those oldies beat with the new king of the sub-subgenre, Rollers of Realm, which is more than worth the ten bucks it costs on Steam or PSN. Get it and get ready for some pinball dreams of gold and tales of old…
Speaking of PSN, I’ll have a review of the Vita version up tomorrow or Wednesday. Expect the same thing score-wise with a few tweaks, as I just looked down to see the Vita game updating to a new version as I type this. I’ll check out the fix(es) and get back to you with some words. Until that update, I didn’t encounter anything game-stopping at all. But I’m only about halfway done with the Vita version, so I guess I’ll see what’s up when I hop back into the game this evening…