Review: Portal Pinball (Zen Pinball 2)
By: Don Walton, Jr.
This week, Zen Studios teamed up with Valve to bring us a pinball adaptation of one of the most acclaimed videogame series of all time, Portal. If you haven’t played Portal yet, stop reading this and go play it NOW. It’s a puzzler, it’s a first-person platformer, it’s an action game, and it’s got one of the most well crafted narratives of any game ever made. AND it has an almost equally impressive sequel (Portal 2), that against all odds didn’t really disappoint anyone.
Alright, so from here on out, this review is going to assume you have played and completed ‘Portal’ and (hopefully) ‘Portal 2’. The actual title is a little misleading, because this table is steeped in ‘Portal 2’ aesthetics and references. Wheatley and GlaDOS narrate the game from start to finish. Wheatley offering backhanded compliments and praise, while GlaDOS is...well, she’s GlaDOS. The ultimate goal here is to defeat her and navigate Chell safely out of the testing environment. Zen did a good job including many references to the series; cake, lab rats, gel pumps, turrets, laser cubes, P-Body and Atlas have their own multiball mode and I think I even spotted a Companion Cube at one point. You won’t find any potatoes or Cave Johnson or explosive lemons, but the environment looks like it was pulled straight from ‘Portal 2’. There are overgrown sections (including the shooter lane), broken panels and the playfield art recalls the very large bottomless areas from ‘Portal 2’.
As far as layout, Portal Pinball isn’t a huge deviation from the norm. You’ve got three pop bumpers, four flippers, a raised playfield shot reminiscent of the loop on ‘No Fear’ and Zen Studio’s own ‘Ghost Rider’ table, there’s a couple ramps, but the way Portal integrates actual portals into the layout makes it hard to nail down how to actually define some of the shots. While I was hoping for a very large scale fantastical ‘Portal’-themed table with multiple areas and incredible use of the portals interacting with ball physics (a la the PS2 Capcom game ‘Flipnic’), what you get is a fairly standard layout with the use of portals sprinkled in here or there. For example, the skill shot is actually very tricky. You start at the base of a ramp, with three panels ahead of you and a portal that moves from panel to panel every few seconds. You have to balance timing and launch power to get the ball into the portal, and doing so scores a skill shot and places the ball above the miniplayfield flipper to hit a loop shot for a super skill shot. Plunging the ball to soft has it landing in the overgrown brush and dribbling out, plunging too hard causes the ball to ramp right over all three panels. Very tricky, and one of the better uses of an actual ‘skilled’ shot in quite some time. Other than that, a portal might pop up in front of the lock lane, or in a loop and odds are the ball will be released above that miniplayfield flipper. The rules are fairly standard Zen fare, but land closer to their recent Star Wars Rebels release than the more difficult (and boring) ruleset of another recent table, Avengers: Age of Ultron. You don’t often have a timer staring you down, and modes seem achievable and fun, if still not much of a deviation from the ‘hit this then hit that’ formula. There are a couple instances of an lower miniplayfield coming into play, but the physics feel weird. The ball feels smaller and lighter, like a bagatelle ball (think the miniplayfield on Stern’s Family Guy/Shrek machine). The lower playfield is fairly forgiving of drains, but there isn’t much to do there and it feels like something we’ve seen in previous Zen tables over and over.
The game modes are fine, and it’s fun to damage GlaDOS as you play, or choose different test modes to complete, but I would have liked to see the portals used in a less conventional way. Like the ball entering a portal and coming out of a portal on a tilted surface, rocketing it across the playfield. Or dropping into the table like a gobble hole, or passing right through a ramp or slingshot. As is, it’s certainly a lot of fun, but follows the similar gameplay mechanics and table layouts that Zen have perfected over the years. We’ve been critical of the far outside shots on recent Zen releases, and I’m happy to report that the tip-of-the-flipper shots here feel much easier to nail. I was a little disappointed that the leftmost shot (think the catapult on Medieval Madness) starts a hurry up, but also leads around a long loop into the pop bumpers, giving the ball timer lots of room to time out before the ball is even returned to the flippers to make a follow up shot. It’s those little things that I’d like to see fine tuned in future Zen tables.
Overall, if you’re a fan of the series, Portal Pinball is a no-brainer. If you’re unfamiliar with the series...SERIOUSLY, GO PLAY THEM. Portal Pinball is a fine addition to the Zen library and is easy to enjoy for all skill levels, I just hope the next Portal Pinball entry is a little less conventional.
Four out of five stars