It’s hard not to talk about Balan Wonderworld without bringing up the game’s director Yuji Naka; and that said it’s hard not to mention Naka’s claim to fame as the programmer of Sonic the Hedgehog.
But is Balan Wonderworld a good game in its own right? Divorced from Square Enix and the name of Yuji Naka, is it really something that’s enjoyable?
The world of 3D platformers is fraught with faulty level design, asinine mechanics, and poor controls. How many faults (if any) can be found in this latest foray into the festive game Balan Wonderworld?
Developer: Square Enix, ARZEST Corp
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Release Date: March 26, 2021
Price: $59.99 USD
Balan Wonderworld takes place in the titular “Wonderworld”, some kind of pocket dimension of which Balan is the maestro of. Players take on the role of either Leo Craig or Emma Cole, two youths with their own share of problems.
Balan invites the two into the Wonderworld in order to “fix their hearts,” but there’s more going on than what it seems. As either Leo or Emma, the player explores the various zones in the Wonderworld, and encounter landscapes inspired by its corrupted denizens.
For instance the first world is based around a farm, and we learn through the story that the final boss of the zone is a farmer whose crop was ruined by a storm. His heart, consumed by negativity with the help of the game’s main antagonist Lance, becomes a tornado monster.
The other bosses appear to have similar stories; normal humans consumed by some kind of trauma or negative emotion. Whether that emotion is fear, rejection, despair, or frustration; the Wonderworld appears to be some nexus of human hearts.
It sounds convoluted, but frankly it’s no more confusing than Kingdom Hearts when it waxes poetic. I actually have a soft spot for whimsical themes and settings, and suffice it to say I wasn’t disappointed by the storytelling in Balan Wonderworld. It’s whimsical, nonsensical, and doesn’t really have a lot of depth. But that’s what makes it fun.
The gameplay is where we start to run into issues with Balan Wonderworld. The game progresses in a somewhat non-linear way. Chapters are unlocked behind “statues” which are hidden across stages. It’s entirely possible to do stages out of order, and come back to them later.
Each stage takes place over two acts and a final boss fight. Statues are hidden either physically on the stage, or behind vague objectives like killing all the enemies in an area. Exploring the stages and finding the hidden statues is the main focus of the game, and it is honestly a refreshing take on similar platformers.
It’s less objective-driven than A Hat In Time, and more of a puzzle-platformer with more traditional mechanics. Many of the statues require timely use of costume powers, which can be found throughout stages and also act as your character’s health.
You can also switch up costumes at checkpoints located throughout the stage; which is particularly useful when you have to use a costume from a different stage to access a secret area in the current one.
But there’s one fatal annoyance with this system; you have a limited amount of costumes based on what you’ve picked up and swapped out of before. That means you have to spend time hoarding costumes, picking up keys, picking up costumes, and running back and forth so you can have them ready.
Frankly, you should be able to use any costume you’ve discovered when you hit a checkpoint, and it would make the game less frustrating. The only thing forcing players to actually hoard the costumes and go back to previous stages does is artificially inflate the length of the game.
This isn’t necessary, as taking costumes from later stages already compels the player to backtrack in a way that isn’t frustrating. The costume “inventory” is just redundant and disappointing.
The stage design is fantastic, and the developers really went all out with making each level vibrant and fun to explore. With the amount of secrets each stage has, there’s a lot to hold the players attention so long as they have the right costumes saved up.
The mechanics leave a lot to be desired though; seemingly in a misguided effort to make the game more simple, just about every button is the jump or action button. What this means is that costumes with active powers generally speaking cannot jump.
In the first stage you’re given a dragon costume that can spit fire, but you’re bound to the ground unless you switch. It’s a limitation that feels pretty unnecessary, even if stages were designed with it in mind.
This will also sound like a good thing to some, but the game refuses to hold your hand in just about any respect. This can be fine for puzzle solving, but the fact is that the game is so janky that it’s difficult to tell when I just don’t have the right costume yet, or if the game is so poorly designed that it’s just not working properly.
The game is so unpolished, there’s a palpable lack of trust in the stage design. It’s to the point where I simply assume I somehow cheesed every stage and boss fight rather than did them how they were intended, because frankly I don’t know what was intended.
All the issues with the gameplay and stage design are a shame, because Balan Wonderworld has every right to be an amazing game. It should have been an amazing game. It just… Wasn’t.
I’m not going to touch on certain controversies surrounding the music, but it’s subpar also. It’s either a repetitive tune for the stage (and based on how it’s a puzzle platformer, you’ll spend a lot of time on a single stage) or it’s really weird vocal songs sung in what sounds like a made-up language.
The only really good song is the big band tune that plays during “Balan’s Bout,” a minigame of Quick-Time Events that multiplies your current gems and grants you a statue if you do it perfectly.
Balan Wonderworld is a game that suffers from high expectations. It’s not half-bad if you come into it with the same expectations you’d hold for an indie title. But with names like Yuji Naka and Square Enix attached, the game is more of a broken promise.
But for better or worse, Balan Wonderworld captures the feel of a PlayStation or Platation 2 era platformer. With its clever (albeit scuffed) stage design, colorful list of costumes and powers, and whimsical aesthetic, players will feel nostalgic for older platformers like Spyro the Dragon, but will ultimately come out disappointed.
You’ll have fun if you like puzzle platformers, but you’ll lament what Balan Wonderworld could have been, and deserved to be. I do want to close out saying that I did enjoy Balan Wonderworld, but I can appreciate the fact that it’s an unpolished game oozing with wasted potential. I just have a soft spot for 3D platformers.
Balan Wonderworld was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review code provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.