Balan Wonderworld was revealed to plenty of fanfare back in the Summer of 2020, but quickly saw excitement quell away after the recently released demo underwhelmed a lot of gamers. It was clunky, a little dated, and lacked the imaginative spark seen in plenty of other modern 3D platformers, with the revival of the genre bringing with it plenty of fresh innovations that seemed to be missing in Square Enix’s attempt at joining in on the fun.
It seemed that the development team took some of the feedback on board though and promised an improved experience when the game actually launched. It was implied that the best of the game wasn’t featured in the demo too, with plenty of surprises in store for players who actually gave the full release a whirl.
Well, it has finally come out now and with little reviews on offer and some sour early impressions, things hadn’t been looking too good for Balan Wonderworld. You know what, though? I’ve actually had a really fun time with Yuji Naka’s quirky adventure. Sure, it’s guilty of being both simple and dated in a lot of elements of its design, but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable experience that both fans of the genre and younger gamers will be able to appreciate.
Balan Wonderworld’s narrative revolves around the two young protagonists Leo and Emma, each of whom have their own little problems in life that they’re trying to deal with. Fortunately, they find themselves uncovering the mysterious yet magical Balan Theatre, which is run by an eclectic top hat-wearing fella by the name of Balan. Sounds a little sinister on paper, doesn’t it? Fortunately, he’s actually a cheery guy who wants to help the pair out, so sends them to the titular Wonderworld where they’ll be able to work through their own problems and also help out other folk with theirs along the way.
It’s all very wacky and whimsical in design, with the cheery vibes of the game’s world often bearing a stark contrast to the struggles of each character you meet. It’s a very feel-good experience overall though, with the plights of others shown to be overcome and then celebrated throughout.
I’d be remiss not to mention the cinematics, which were absolutely top notch. It feels like any Japanese-developed video game associated with Square Enix brings with it some outstanding CGI sequences and Balan Wonderworld certainly continues that trend. Whilst the narrative may be a little simple AND convoluted (in that aforementioned wacky sort of way), it’s hard not to be wowed by the manner of its vibrant presentation.
Of course, the narrative is rarely the crux of a platforming adventure, with the gameplay the most significant aspect in the genre. This is the area where Balan Wonderworld might prove the most divisive amongst gamers.
Playing as either Leo or Emma, players will make their way through Balan Wonderworld’s twelve worlds, with each bringing with them individual levels and a boss battle. Making your way through levels is easy enough, with each made up of simple platforming challenges, obstacles to smash, enemies to beat up, the occasional mini-game… that sort of thing. You’ll have to collect special statues along the way that are used to progress through the game, whilst the boss encounters challenge you to do something a little different in order to exploit each one’s move set. You won’t see anything that you wouldn’t have seen before in most other 3D platforming adventures, but the level design itself is creative enough to keep them interesting.
The thing is, whilst you’ll be tasked with clearing all sorts of platforming challenges, both Leo and Emma are only able to do a simple jump. How are you supposed to reach that extra high platform, climb that web-covered wall, or smash through an obstacle blocking your path if you can only jump? That’s where Balan Wonderworld’s costumes come in, with unlockable costumes littered across each world that grant the protagonists an array of additional abilities.
Each of these costumes are based around different creatures (and some are certainly unique in design), but it’s the abilities they offer which are most important. The ‘Pounding Pig’ allows you to slam down onto the ground to activate switches for example, whilst ‘Elastiplant’ can stretch its body in the air to grab hard to reach collectibles. ‘Telepotter’ is able to teleport its way through the environment, whilst ‘Double Jumper’ can… you guessed it, double-jump. ‘Pumpkin Puncher’ is able to dish out some rocket punches, whilst ‘Floaty Flower’ is able to glide their way towards hard to reach areas. ‘X-Ray Ape’ can catch a glance of invisible platforms, whilst ‘Air Cat’ is able to walk through the skies momentarily. See what I mean about the unique array of abilities?
There are well over seventy of these costumes available across the whole game, with each world bringing with them new ones that will typically allow you to conquer the challenges in that area. You can only equip up to three costumes at a time though, with the player able to flick through them with a quick button-press when they want to swap out abilities. You can re-equip costumes that you have collected in your inventory at checkpoints in-game, so you’re able to switch them around if you come across a challenge that will require a costume that you don’t currently have equipped.
This actually ties in with one of the most enjoyable aspects of Balan Wonderworld. Each level contains six collectible trophies; some of which you’ll be able to grab on your first run through a level and some of which will be inaccessible until you have the necessary costume to reach them. Re-visiting levels when you have a new costume that will help you grab those previously elusive trophies was really satisfying, as was figuring out which abilities you’d need to reach them. It adds an almost puzzle-like layer to each level’s design, whilst the incentive to find them certainly adds to the overall replayability. The collector in me kept coming back for more, but it never felt like a chore – it’s something that can be owed to the charming nature of each level, but also the fact that they’re so simple to get through.
However, that just so happens to be one of the problems with Balan Wonderworld. Whilst there are plenty of different costumes to collect and all sorts of environments to explore, everything about the game is INCREDIBLY simple in design. Heck, you’ll only ever have to use one face button on the controller through the whole game, whilst most puzzles require very little thought to figure out once you realise what abilities each costume has at its disposal. I never EVER felt challenged throughout the game and, as mentioned, I never came across anything that felt distinctly unique as far as 3D platformers are concerned.
The stand-out mechanic of Balan Wonderworld comes with the costumes, though even they have their downsides. Find yourself getting hit when wearing a costume? You’ll lose it and have to replace it with another from your inventory. Don’t have a spare one? Well, expect to re-visit the level that you previously got it from to grab it again. This could prove to be a bit of a pain when re-playing previous levels to find all statues, even IF it is generally easy enough to re-obtain lost costumes again… it’s just unnecessarily time-consuming.
Speaking of time, I also noticed that switching between costumes saw a momentary pause to the action. Now this is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, but having to wait even briefly broke up the flow of the platforming a little. I’m nit-picking, sure, but it was noticeable and would have felt a lot slicker if it was seamless.
It’s clear that Balan Wonderworld has its flaws and feels a little dated and simple in design, but you know what? I still had a lot of fun playing it. I loved uncovering different costumes and seeing what they did (even if there was a lot of ability repetition and a few duds) whilst no level of the game ever felt boring in design. It’s just a nice and easy-going platforming escapade, with plenty to keep players busy as they uncover the next obstacle in their path.
I’ve got to give a shout out to the Tims too, with the adorable little creatures nurtured by Leo and Emma in-between levels to grant them abilities to help you out during the game. Whilst there wasn’t a lot of depth to the system, it felt like a bit of a throwback to the Chao Garden featured in the Sonic Adventure series… it seemed like a nice little nod from the mind of Yuji Naka.
Presentation-wise, Balan Wonderworld is packed to the brim with colour and creativity, whilst the costume designs are very reminiscent of the early 3D Sonic the Hedgehog titles (which makes sense when you consider series artist Naoto Ohshima is also involved in the game). Despite this, there’s also something very dated about the game’s visuals, with it easily looking like it could have released on the PlayStation 3. Don’t get me wrong, it looks sharp in-game and there’s some cool visual effects on show within the environmental design, but it’s not as rich in detail as the likes of Crash 4: It’s About Time.
The music, though? Outstanding. Every piece featured in the soundtrack suited the whimsical and charming vibe of the adventure perfectly and even now I still have a few of the tunes stuck in my head. It’s definitely a banger in that regards and I’d recommend those who appreciate some good platforming beats checks out the soundtrack, even if they’re not planning on actually playing the game.
Balan Wonderworld will be divisive, but I actually had a pretty fun time exploring its whimsical levels and using the creative costumes to overcome its platforming challenges. The level design itself is on point too, whilst the wonderful soundtrack and addictive nature of grabbing all of the collectibles kept me coming back for more.
Of course, there’s no doubting that it’s VERY simple in design, whilst a lot of elements of the gameplay and its visuals are pretty dated too. There was nothing on show across the game that you wouldn’t have seen done before by plenty of other 3D platformers over the years, with Balan Wonderworld falling very short of the evolution of the genre some gamers might be hoping for in 2021.
Still, there’s no doubting that there’s still a good time to be had in the game, especially for younger gamers or those who appreciate the genre. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but Balan Wonderworld still offers a wacky yet wonderful escapade that might pleasantly surprise those who give it a try.
Developer: Square Enix, Arzest, Balan Company
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PlayStation 5 (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Click here to visit the official website.