You hear the moaning first. A dull, primal tone which sends a prickle skittering over your skin. Next comes the rattling, as the nearby drain grate is pushed and pulled ferociously by grey, decaying hands. The stress is too much for the rusting metal and it bursts open, a shambling husk of a corpse dragging its way up and halfway onto the street. There is no aggression in its lifeless eyes as it stares at you, just a desire to feast on your warm blood.
And then a massive metal ball smashes it in the face and you’re awarded 100,000 points.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Pinball, a game based on a game based on a comic book; if we were to go any more meta, the internet may explode. Suffice to say, Zen Studios have treated the franchise with the reverence afforded to its previous titles, including Marvel and Star Wars, and whilst from a functional point of view the end result is a polished, structured game, the overall experience may leave you feeling a little hollow compared to Zen’s previous offerings.
It should be said from the outset that if you haven’t played Telltale’s excellent first season of The Walking Dead (something we strongly urge you to rectify immediately) you should probably avoid this game. There are some key scenes touched upon which ultimately turn into significant spoilers, so if you have any intention of dabbling in the award-winning interactive story in the future, head in that direction first.
As with their other franchises, Zen have done a wonderful job of melding the atmosphere and essence of their chosen subject with the fast, frenetic mechanics of pinball. Everything from the bleak brown post-apocalyptic palette through to actual lines from the original first season are included here. Locations such as episode one’s treehouse, episode two’s dairy farm, and episode three’s motel are in place, as are many of the cast such as Kenny, Larry and Duck. It’s Lee and Clem who take centre stage of course, at either side of the flippers. The launcher is, aptly, an axe.
If you’re wondering how a narrative-based point-and-click can transfer to a genre which involves juggling silver balls onto ramps and into holes, you’ll be surprised at the ingenuity on show. Modern pinball games invariably have a series of challenges to complete and some may offer some sort of story - or at least, graduated links - to tie the objectives together. Here is no different, but The Walking Dead benefits from having a five-episode structure which ties in nicely with the table’s main arc of five missions. Each mission, once you manage to ping the ball past the zombie and into the mission hole, serves up key choices directly from the episode it relates to and asks you to use the flippers and launch button to choose one of two outcomes. Do you save a person, or leave them to their fate? Do you talk someone down from their angry mood, or beat them up? When your decision is made a new task will be presented, such as taking out some zombies on the board, hitting a number of ramps, or launching a minigame where you take control of a sniper rifle in first-person view, and have to shoot a number of zombies which pop up around a town complex in a fairground-style challenge.
At first, this looks to be an exciting integration of the story into the pinball mechanics, until you realise that the choices you make have absolutely no bearing on anything. Each chapter will present you with a number of different couplets to decide between, but every time the outcome is going to be identical: one of the same two challenges assigned to that episode, and no further reference to the choice you just made. It’s as though Zen got halfway through the development of the main objectives and decided just to end them all abruptly with a few million points chucked your way. The sniper minigame in particular becomes an irritation after the fifth time of playing it, as it’s clunky and more importantly, just not that fun.
That said, there are still some lovely touches throughout. One favourite in particular is triggered by completing the word SMILE, which turns the silver sphere into a football and prompts Lee and Clem to enact their own passing game on the bottom of the screen as you try and hit various ramps to complete passes. This is accompanied by a melancholic loop of audio from the series, recognisable immediately to anyone who has played it, and sets a tonal peak which isn’t matched anywhere else during the time you blast your three balls around the table.
As for the gameplay itself, if you’ve played a Zen Pinball game before, you’ll know what to expect. Solid flipper action melds effortlessly with slick ramps and a weighted silver ball which feels and acts pretty much identically to the real thing. A plethora of targets, bumpers and spinners are on offer for you to activate, and the table itself feels quite fair overall, with the exception of the right kickback which the ball has a propensity to veer towards. A host of different views are available which can bring you into the thick of the action or provide a bird’s-eye view, and everything in between. At times the number of flashing lights on the table at any given time can be bewildering, but Zen have helpfully included a table guide which walks you through a large portion of the targets, scoring and bonuses, and lets you focus on your objectives in-game.
Whilst not quite in the same league as Zen’s endeavour into the Star Wars universe, mainly due to the table feeling far smaller than its predecessor, The Walking Dead is a fun blast for a few hours and a great introduction to the table range for newbies. Fans of the adventure game may come away a little disappointed that the integration of the story didn’t stretch as far as it could have done, but it’s merely an accompaniment to the main course of solid, enjoyable pinball.