|Developer||Square Enix, ARZEST Corp.|
|Platforms||Xbox One, Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PC|
|Release Date||March 26th, 2021|
Announced last July, Balan Wonderworld is a whimsical new platformer from Yuji Naka, the former head of Sonic Team, and Naoto Oshima, the creator of Nights Into Dreams. With those industry legends behind it Balan Wonderworld has no place to go but up. By all accounts, the game should be fantastic. But is it? Read on to find out.
Violence: There are costumes where you can dress like a mantis and shoot blades, water, bubbles, and more. Though, most of this violence is within the realm of what you’d see in Mario games. There is no blood or gore of any kind.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None whatsoever, this is a family-friendly game through and through.
Language/Crude Humor: Most of the humor is situational like character randomly dancing throughout the levels and every world ending in a dance number with the main protagonist and the person whose heart has just been freed of darkness.
Spiritual Content: There are little magical creatures you feed gems to in order have them build a tower. While this tower isn’t explicitly to worship them the game never makes clear whether the creatures view you as a god-like figure or if Balan is supposed to be one or anything like that really. Beyond that, there aren’t really any references to God or religion.
Where Nights Into Dreams and Sonic Adventure were both games that were years ahead of their time, Balan Wonderworld feels like a game that exists outside of time itself with no real identity or sense of purpose. It pains me to say this as Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima are absolute legends in the industry but Balan Wonderworld is not a good game. While it does include some interesting new ideas for the platformer genre, made so prolific in part by Naka and Oshima’s work, it contains gameplay that would’ve felt out of date even a decade ago.
Though, the visuals are hit or miss and the music feels like you’re hearing the same track played on an endless loop for each level, there is still some charm under that top hat. Balan has a lot of intriguing features, like a Chao Garden-type system where you feed cuddly little creatures called Tims between levels to have them grow and build things. The problem is players are never told what these creatures are, why they’re there, or what purpose the structures they are building actually serve. They also cannot be cared for outside of the game as there is no Visual Memory Unit(VMU) like with Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, which effectively turned the Chao into virtual pets that you could continue to look after even when not directly playing the game. Back then, the Chao Garden and VMU features were years ahead of their time, now it just feels outdated.
Another intriguing feature that isn’t found in other platformers is that there are multiple ways to attack and deal damage to each world’s boss. There are three possible types of attacks in each encounter and discovering these will reward players in various ways. But as with the Tim Garden, none of this is explained to the player beyond a short blurb explaining the mechanic during the first major boss encounter.
The lack of meaningful tutorials for the new ideas introduced here could be forgiven if not for the complete lack of storytelling or any indication of what the main protagonists Leo and Emma are actually supposed to be doing. The game starts with our aforementioned pair stumbling upon mysterious (and honestly very creepy) Balan, a seemingly half man, half hat wizard who whisks them to his world where they must travel between locations to repair the darkened hearts of others.
The explanation I just gave is never explicitly stated in the game but it’s what I was able to piece together. What little voice acting there is comes from Balan as most of the voices are either gibberish, like something out of The Sims or simple grunts/whines, laughter or sadness from the people you’re supposed to be helping.
This brings us to perhaps what is the glaring issue with Balan. The cutscenes that play before and after each boss encounter have the same feel and quality of a Pixar production. The problem is, with no voice acting and no real overall plot to follow ( as it’s never explained who these people are or why you’re helping them) players will watch these scenes and be left wanting to know more about those characters and the world they just played through.
For example, the first world features a farmer who loses all his crop to a harsh storm. After navigating a farm themed world and freeing the “heart” encased at the end of each of the two levels, players face off against a corrupted “negative” version of the farmer. Once defeated his heart is restored ( I guess? Again, the game never explains any of this.) and the world is completed. Then the newly restored farmer and Leo/Emma (whoever the player chooses at the start of the game) engage in a dance number to celebrate. The 2nd world has a similar situation where a little girl befriends a dolphin that she often swims with but then one day the dolphin suddenly turns on her and smashes into her while on a dive and suddenly has darkness surrounding it and glowing red eyes (there is never an explanation for what caused the dolphin to turn on it’s friend or what corrupted it).
Once the first world boss is defeated, there is no scene showing if the farmer has ever met Leo before or if he was from the world they lived in before arriving in Wonderworld. It’s just boss defeated then an inexplicable, awkward dance number. And don’t get me started on how each “costume” players can find are just randomly dancing in the different levels. Approaching these characters will cause them to just disappear and fade from existence. It’s very strange and honestly made me laugh each time I saw it as the game is essentially a collectathon outside of the boss battles.
Moment to moment gameplay consists of navigating through each of a dozen worlds, with two levels each, where players will do some light puzzle solving, very light combat (just jump on their heads IF equipped with costumes that even allow for jumping), and a few minigames like soccer and golf which allow players to earn more gems to feed their Tims. Gold Balan Statues are another collectible and to the game’s credit these are cleverly hidden in each world, about 8 in total, and some even required specific costume abilities to access. I could tell you what collecting all of them does but I never felt the urge to go back and seek out the ones that were missed during my first time completing each level.
The third type of collectible players can find are Balan hats which will allow them to control Balan in a QTE mini-game where he channels his inner Chris Redfield to punch boulders and other obstacles into oblivion. There is a villainous counterpart to Balan who sometimes appears in levels and these QTE sequences but I couldn’t tell you his name as I’m not even sure the game does.
Lastly, there are keys to be found in each world and these are required to unlock new costumes which often times are required for players to proceed to the final goal in each level. For example, the 2nd world is water themed so there is a jellyfish costume which allows for electric attacks and swimming through blocks of water to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Other costumes in this world allow players to create bubbles which can then be used to navigate across large gaps. Failing puzzles or dying in combat has no immediate consequence though players can back themselves into a corner if they have a limited number of these costumes to choose from and die to often as they’ll effectively be “out of ammo” and unable to complete the level without going back to an earlier world to collect more costumes.
This is the strangest thing about the gameplay in that Leo/Emma cannot jump when not in costume. In fact, they can’t do much of anything. Certain costumes allow players to jump, or double jump, swim, fly, breathe fire, and a whole lot more. Where this becomes an issue is that gameplay is ultimately handle by a single button most of the time. LB and RB are used to switch costumes but any button on the gamepad essentially does the same thing which is whatever the assigned ability is for the currently equipped costume. Some abilities happen automatically, like swimming through the water blocks in the 2nd world.
When combat does occur it’s always in the same area. Enemies don’t appear while in the middle of a puzzle sequence, like they might in other games, nor do they present any real challenge. Ultimately I am unsure who this game was made for. Nostalgic fans of Sonic and Nights won’t find alot to love here as it just contains the worst elements of those franchises and it doesn’t appear that the same love and care was given to Balan as it was to Sonic and Nights. While there is split screen co-op and the game is clearly marketed as a family-friendly platformer I am not sure there is much hear that would keep two players entertained beyond the first level. It’s already shamefully easy playing solo. I can’t imagine the lack of challenge when playing co-op.
While Sonic Adventure was years ahead of it’s time, mostly thanks to the innovative features of SEGA’s late Dreamcast console, like the aforementioned VMU which allowed for continued gameplay with the Chao using the console’s memory unit, Balan feels like a game lost to time. It struggles to find it’s place among other, vastly better platformers aimed and children and families. Much like the game fails to explain any of its systems, mechanics, or story, I have trouble explaining why anyone should play this.
The Bottom Line
It pains me to say this, but all the color and character in the world—and even the legendary pedigree of developers Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima—cannot save this outdated, uninspired, and just plain boring platformer.