The pinball and role-playing genres aren't an obvious match, which might explain why Pinball Quest on the NES came and went without inspiring a slew of developers to imitate Tose's unique eight-bit fusion. A quarter-century later, though, Rollers of the Realm has arrived on the scene with a similar blend. The fresh attempt would be exciting news indeed if only the results weren't so messy.
You can try your hand at two modes: a campaign and an arena. The former option is the star of the show, telling the story of a thieving young girl who doesn't have time to worry about ancient legends because she's too busy scrounging for coins. She arrives in a port and soon runs afoul of the local militia, which is in service to a wicked blacksmith who in turn serves an even less pleasant baron. Separated from her precious pooch, the sassy heroine takes up with a growing number of allies, and together the heroes fight to right various wrongs on their way to an epic showdown with evil.
In a sense, the characters from the story are all playable. This is a pinball game, after all, and the heroes are the balls. They all possess unique traits that you utilize as you knock them around a given table. For example, the gruff knight is larger than the others and can smash through obstacles more swiftly. A mystic woman restores health, a mysterious archer knocks rodents out of his path with projectile shots, a sorceress weaves powerful spells, and so forth. You meet new friends regularly as you advance through the campaign, and you can hire additional allies once you acquire enough gold.
Gold is in distressingly short supply, though, and the junk you can buy with it is underwhelming. A helmet might allow a ball to deal more damage when it collides with an adversary, or some boots might permit faster movement. This is a neat idea except that you mostly have to take the game's word for it; the impact that any single item has on a corresponding ball is difficult to spot even when you're looking for it. Since you must outfit each individual hero with increasingly costly accessories, efforts to improve your character mostly amount to busy work.
Another problem is that the core physics system doesn't feel right. Balls don't seem to have any proper weight to them, the way they do in typical pinball games like Zen Pinball. Instead, they fly around the screen like pigeons on caffeine, destroying obstacles or speeding toward openings along the bottom of the table in a manner that doesn't feel especially pinball-ish.
The tables are also bland, offering too little variety and too few secrets to be interesting. Many of them contain a hidden treasure, but all you generally have to do is light a few torches on the wall to reveal a key and then bounce the ball against the locked chest to raid its contents. When enemies appear, they wander about briefly before settling into a position that is likely to bounce the ball in a direction you won't like, but you can hit them a few times and then they disappear. Some foes throw up shields to nullify frontal attacks, but that's more annoying than anything. You can always come at them from behind, after all.
The above description might make Rollers of the Realm sound easy just by virtue of its simplicity, but that's not entirely true. Enemy units often can fire projectile shots at your paddles, slowly (or much more quickly in later stages) chipping away at them so that they are considerably less effective. You can sometimes restore those paddles by rolling a ball over a potion or by activating a character's heal ability, but that's only possible if you haven't lost said hero to a bad bounce. If your helpful mystic is gone and you don't have another medic in the wings, you'll have to wait until you can fill a mana meter (by smacking against objects positioned around the current table) and revive your favorite friend. Then you can swap her into the battle, provided that you're able to bring the active ball to a rest against one of the main paddles. Switching one ball for the next quickly gets tiresome even though it takes only a few seconds with a supported controller, and performing the task often enough to safely clear the later stages is downright tedious.
Gold is in distressingly short supply, and the junk you can buy with it is underwhelming.
The game also stumbles where production values are concerned, but not consistently. Character portraits feature unevenly drawn eyes and distorted features, which can't entirely be explained away even when you remember that they are elsewhere represented by pinballs. The voice actors for some characters--particularly the heroine and the knight--do a great job, while some others fall flat or come across as caricatures. The music is suitably stirring but never memorable, and sound effects are both generic and unlikely to remind you of any pinball table you may have ever heard.
The aforementioned arena mode might easily have offered some additional depth, but instead, it is content to revisit a few familiar tables once you advance far enough in the campaign. They're no more interesting the second time around than they were the first, unless you are especially anxious to show up any of your friends who may have posted a score to the leaderboards. Your secondary prize for playing in an arena is additional gold that you can then spend in the campaign, but you only get to keep a tiny portion of your earnings, which is just irritating.
One final problem is the possibility that you will be left high and dry right near the end of the campaign. Difficulty progression is uneven throughout the experience, but it's still not terribly difficult to advance to a late stage. You can easily backtrack to previously completed areas to gain the experience and gold that will allow you to recruit additional team members and outfit them with the best gear. If nothing else, doing so gives you a few extra chances at a tough table. However, you might be tempted to avoid the hassle until an unexpectedly challenging event or two suddenly comes along, at which point you no longer are allowed to retrace your steps.
Like Pinball Quest before it, Rollers of the Realm is good enough at what it does to prove that a pinball and RPG mashup has potential. This isn't the game to live up to that promise, however. Its flaws are too numerous, and its strengths seldom manage to work in concert. The end result is more disappointing than it is entertaining, which is a real pity if it means another 25-year delay before someone takes the next crack at doing the concept justice.