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Balan Wonderworld Review: A Little Wonder, A Little Blunder

Games like Balan Wonderworld are often such tough nuts to crack. With so much of their appeal firmly rooted in 90s nostalgia and the revival of genres long thought extinct, it becomes very difficult to determine which parts are purposely clunky, so as to emulate the charming jank of yesteryear, and which bits are just, y’know, bad. By accident or on purpose? The line can easily become blurred.

By the same token, this can lead to lofty expectations – nostalgia, after all, is a heck of a drug – and subsequently unfair criticism. A prime example was that of 2017’s indie platformer Yooka-Laylee. Touted and funded on the basis that it was a recreation of the sort of 3D collectathon that Banjo-Kazooie pioneered on the N64, players were somehow bemused when that was exactly what they got. “Give us a retro collectathon, warts and all!” cried the internet. “You got it,” replied developer Playtonic. “What?! Why is it a retro collectathon, warts and all?!” followed the internet, comically oblivious to the irony. For the record, I thought Yooka-Laylee was pretty ace.

In the case of Balan Wonderworld, then, we find much the same issue, albeit with the added dimension of this being somebody’s personal passion project. Just to make it that bit harder to rip on. The brainchild of SEGA legend Yuji Naka (and of his Sonic bedfellow Naoto Ohshima, who leads the art direction) Balan Wonderworld heralds his return to the platforming world after several years of being more or less relegated to a handful of producer credits elsewhere. He’s teamed up with industry giant Square Enix for the project, and has spent the better part of two years hyping it up, strutting about in foppish cosplay for the cameras. You just can’t hate the guy.

Balan Wonderworld promo
That headpiece would put even Hershel Layton to shame.

The intention, presumably, was to create a harmonic blend of old and new; fans of retro SEGA and forgotten franchises like NiGHTS, which the game is overtly mimicking, would dig the presentation, while those with more modern tastes would appreciate how the aging format is being brought up to date. After sinking a considerable amount of time into the thing, what do I think is the net result?

Honestly? It’s somewhere in the middle. Both camps will find things they like, but also things that will make them wish Balan had stayed in his dang Wonderworld and not bothered. The game attempts to make concessions to the past and the present simultaneously – a tough if not nearly impossible task – and in doing so hovers around a strange territory where nothing is outright terrible, but there are also just enough confusing design choices and creative false starts to prevent a recommendation to everyone but those with a high tolerance for its specific brand of faff.

A Wondrous Beginning

Balan Wonderworld’s strongest suit – and I’m not talking about the snappy white number he’s wearing in all the promo art – is in its initial presentation. Right off the bat you’re asked to pick one of two charming young people, Leo or Emma, with a bit of minor customization to boot in the form of picking a skin tone and the hair colour that pairs with it. It isn’t much, but it is a lesson other franchises like Animal Crossing took too long to learn, and which is sure to make a lot of folks very happy.

The real magic, though, comes right afterward, as you’re treated to an absolutely gorgeous CGI intro that adapts itself based on your customisation choices. Leo and Emma will look and sound exactly the way you ordained, and given that this is a fully rendered, high-budget CG cartoon rather than an ingame cutscene, that’s pretty swell stuff. By my count, given the number of available skin tones, that’s a total of eight different versions of the same intro they had to crank out, which is an insane amount of effort for something most devs would consider a pointless extra. Mad props to Naka.

Balan Wonderworld cutscene
In any other context, this would be absolutely horrifying.

Through this feast for the eyes, we learn that each kid has some major anxiety issues going on: Emma, who lives in an orphanage (or a convent? Or a haunted house? Or a casino? I couldn’t really tell, but it’s fun to guess) is afraid the other girls are talking about her behind her back, while Leo is recovering from a fallout with a friend, attempting to win him back with some poorly mo-capped breakdancing. Predictably, this fails. Cheer up, Leo. I hear Threshold Animation is hiring.

Dejected, the duo wander the streets at night, eventually coming across the ‘Balan Theatre’ into which they are beckoned by a strange grinning man in a white coat. The way this is framed is a little uncomfortable and defies pretty much every ‘stranger danger’ message we try to impart to our kids, but thankfully before Balan can become of interest to Chris Hansen it’s revealed he’s a pretty cool guy, and is most certainly not to be confused with a certain other Yuji Naka creation who rhymes with ‘lights’.

Balan, it seems, runs this theatre, which only appears when someone has sadness in their heart. Its purpose is to put on shows for the depressed and downbeat, allowing them to rediscover their joy by quite literally recovering missing pieces of their heart. Balan may be a master showman, but subtle he ain’t. He demonstrates this further with an explosion of light, colour and gymnastics that likely made the animators faint when they saw it in the storyboard, but for us is really, really lovely.

A Rude Awakening

So far, so good then. Unfortunately, we now smash cut to the actual game. And let me tell you, as much as I am loathe to make this dead-horse comparison, not since Sonic 2006 have I experienced such a jarring downgrade from the opening of a game to the visuals proper. Now, to be fair here, I am playing the Switch version, and as a battered Nintendo fan of many years you become accustomed to their hardware drawing the short straw when it comes to ports. I’m sure the fancy PS5 and Xbox versions of Balan Wonderworld look far better. But this…good Lord.

You are dumped with little fanfare and no explanation into a barren green field that looks like it’s been steamrolled several times over. This is the Isle of Tims, the game’s hub and Balan‘s answer to Sonic’s beloved Chao Gardens. Bluntly, it’s atrocious. The grass consists of flat, jagged textures. There is no shading. The skybox is monochromatic, pixelated and unconvincing. Far from ushering Naka’s trademark quirkiness into the next generation, one’s first impression is instead of a 2007 Wii game. My brain was at this stage drawing visual comparisons with Ninjabread Man. Which is never – NEVER – a good sign.

Balan Wonderworld main hub
Just look at it. Not even JK Simmons could give me this kind of whiplash.

Things only worsen in Balan Wonderworld when you snap out of your disbelief and pick up the controller. Your character animates like they’re hooked up to a car battery, waddling about with all the grace of an arthritic penguin with boats for feet. Their jump feels decidedly off, and there seems to be little correlation between the direction and momentum of your input and the actual length of the leap. Doing literally anything other than walking in a straight line also tanks the framerate, dipping below 25 with alarming regularity; a persistent issue throughout but again one which is probably exclusive to us paupers locked to the Switch version.

I can’t even let them off for these control issues using the Yooka-Laylee Excuse either, as 90s platformers had pretty much cracked 3D movement by the turn of the century: Mario 64, Banjo, and hell, even Naka’s own Sonic Adventure, while not perfect by any means, had their controls and physics basically sorted. They felt good to play. Balan Wonderworld, coming in over two decades later, has no reason not to measure up. The camera isn’t great either, swinging wildly around once you get into the stages, but I am actually prepared to give them a pass on that one since it’s a beast even Nintendo has never been able to fully tame. Looking at you, Vertigo of the Wild.

Off Menu

You’ll also quickly discover the single most baffling choice made for Balan Wonderworld’s control scheme: all of the controller buttons do the same thing. Face buttons, shoulder triggers. All of them, excepting the bumpers. This has some nasty side effects gameplay-wise which I’ll get to, but right away it feels amateurish and smacks of the game maybe being intended for mobile at some point.

Even in the menus, there’s no way to deselect or go back since all of the buttons are mapped to confirm – instead you have to manually navigate to the exit button. At first I had no idea what was going on as my thumb instinctively gravitated towards the B button to undo a menu selection I’d made, only to have it selected again. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a game for ages and made me feel like I was constantly wrestling with the interface of all things. Text based adventures in the 80s had this figured out. Come on, guys.

Balan Wonderworld costume change
Not pictured: the terrifying giant farmer lurking just offscreen.

Onto the levels. Balan Wonderworld‘s hook is that each chapter, accessed via very cool stage door portals, centres around someone from the real world who’s down on their luck due to a series of increasingly ludicrous circumstances  It starts benign enough, with us helping a farmer whose crops were ravaged by a storm, but soon enough you’re dealing with a bug-obsessed outcast, a woman who suspects a dolphin may have betrayed her, and my personal favourite thus far, a bloke whose mental stability is being put at risk by hallucinations of giant chess pieces. His zone is titled “The Former Champion Obsessed With Past Glory,” which frankly hits a little too close to home. All told though, I can think of a much better place where the staff dress in white coats for these nutcases to go.

I’m joking, of course. This wackiness is the result of Lance, the game’s resident villain who feeds off the negative emotions in people’s hearts like a slightly more dapper Dementor. Our task, then, is to fend off Lance’s Negati army and restore balance to these poor folks and oh my gosh I’m just realising as I type this: Balan + Lance = Balance. Yuji Naka, you sly dog.

Exploring the Wonderworld

In the stages, the game’s charm becomes far more apparent and it starts to come more or less into its own. It’s business as usual for veterans of the genre: you run around a non-linear area themed to the plight of the person you’re helping , doing some basic platforming and solving rudimentary puzzles in your pursuit of the game’s collectables, golden statues of Balan. There are a handful of these per chapter, and for all the wonkiness of the controls there is a simple, visceral pleasure to be found in hunting them down. It’s not that the movement has gotten any more competent, just that the stages feel designed to accommodate it.

Very rarely was I asked to do anything remotely resembling precision platforming, and even when I was, there was more often than not a block or two of land placed below where one would usually expect to find a bottomless pit. This will no doubt cheese off purists, but is a fine measure to ensure the difficulty never becomes overbearing for the young crowd Naka is clearly going for.

Endless Ocean in Balan Wonderworld
Even the mandatory water zone puts in an appearance. Endless Ocean has nothing on this.

You’ll be tasked with a wide range of challenges depending on the area – time trials, stealth sections, climbing up spider webs – and I found myself getting sucked into the excitement of seeing what would be thrown at me next. Imagine my glee when I, a classic Wii Sports nut, happened upon a bowling minigame out of nowhere. In the grand tradition, there are even a few QTEs called ‘Balan Bouts’ wherein Naka outright stops pretending this isn’t NiGHTS 2.0 and has you timing button presses to a flying Balan.

I certainly can’t fault the variety, and while none of it is all that original, the formula works just as well as it did way back when. The first farmer stage alone had me leaping across giant ears of corn and navigating crop circle mazes to nab the shiny little things, and pretty soon my childlike sense of exploration had kicked in, which is a big deal for someone usually as cynical as I. Things are helped by a sweeping orchestral soundtrack that bounces along with a carefree, innocent vibe. I’m a huge fan of the ‘statue get’ and ‘stage clear’ jingles. Jiggies and Pagies just might have some competition.

Suited and Booted

The most prominent mechanic, however, is the costumes. These were made a huge deal of in all the Balan Wonderworld marketing, and it isn’t long before the game starts shoving them at you one after another. The idea is simple: throughout each map are crystals containing either a random or predetermined outfit, one of over 80, that’ll grant Leo and Emma special abilities needed to grab some of the statues. On paper, this sounds fantastic and thematically appropriate for the stage show setting. Unfortunately, the execution is Balan Wonderworld’s biggest misstep.

The flower suit’s appendage-stretching abilities remind me of that one other game. What was it again? Oh, yes: WAISTS.

First, it isn’t always apparent where each one is needed. Often, you’ll find a suit at one end of the map, only to find it isn’t actually useful to you until near the end, and so you’ll have to trudge back to the crystal to swap it out for the one you had before. But it isn’t that simple: the original spot might not have the costume you wanted anymore, and so you’re off to find whichever crystal in these often-vast lands the game has arbitrarily decided holds the cosplay you’re after. Complicating matters is that you need a key to open the crystals, which are single use only but respawn constantly, and always in the same place, making them feel redundant as it would come to the same thing whether they were there or not there. Why couldn’t we just pop the crystals open, Mario Galaxy style? It’s pure added busywork, and in a game where wandering about feels woolly at the best of times, it’s no fun.

On top of all this, you can only carry a grand total of three costumes at any one time. Picking up any extras will remove the third one from your inventory, leading you to have to constantly keep an eye on which one is occupying the third slot in case it gets accidentally kicked out (which, again, would necessitate a scavenger hunt for a replacement). Getting hit during one of the game’s totally rote combat sequences, which see you anaemically bopping half a dozen of Lance’s goons, also wipes out your current costume, adding to the frustration since it doesn’t always feel like your fault given the floaty physics and bad framerate.

Cosplay Conundrum

In fairness, there are visible steps Naka has taken to alleviate these issues in Balan Wonderworld. Hanging around the entrance to a level allows you to enter a fitting room where your costumes can be managed before you set off, and in places where a specific garment is needed, a few dancing NPCs wearing said outfit hang around to give you a clue. People sure loved to harp on these guys in the demo, and I can understand why since they inexplicably vanish from existence on approach, but they’re genuinely rather helpful. Overall, though, the costume system is pretty wretched, and severely drags the entire package down due to just how axiomatic they are to the experience. Just a little longer in the oven would have done wonders for its accessibility.

It’s such a shame too, because a decent chunk of the costumes are actually quite genius. Aside from looking cute, they all serve a unique function that makes sense for the animal or object they represent. Need to make a long jump? The kangaroo costume is your best bet. Statue out of reach? Slap on a plant outfit and extend your stems. Need to stick to walls? Spider-Leo does whatever a Spider-Leo can. My personal favourite is the Acro Bat, which grants you a totally-not-Sonic homing attack that trivialises combat and most platforming sections.

Why yes, that does indeed look like a homing shot.

However, there are also way too many duds in the mix. The clockwork Cog is completely situational and puts you at an active disadvantage. Fox Box is utterly useless, doing nothing but flinging you off in a random direction ‘when it feels like it’. I can only assume this was meant to be a joke. Guess what, Square? When you’re inches from the last platform in a tricky sequence and it decides to activate, it’s not funny.

Many more of Balan Wonderworld‘s choices are well and truly scuppered by the aforementioned ‘one button for everything’ setup. If a costume has an ability that doesn’t involve jumping, for example the dragon which shoots fire, that ability will replace your jump wholesale. That’s right. They leave you unable to jump. In a platformer. Now do you see why we give you so many buttons to pick from, Naka?

The sheer diversity in the costumes does lead to experimentation, albeit not in the way they intended. One early segment had me using an inflatable sheep outfit to ride fans to reach a far-off area. Instead of doing this, I found it entirely possible to exploit the awkward Unreal Engine physics to find seams in a nearby wall using the Wolf’s high jump, then just glide over the entire challenge. It’s hard to imagine the developers wanted me to be doing this, and it feels a bit broken as a result.

Tims at the Deep End

I should note that, despite the relative complexity of all these systems, Balan Wonderworld explains precisely none of them to you. There is no tutorial, no guidance, hardly even any context behind what you’re doing. The gameplay loop is pretty baffling at the outset. It isn’t made evident how the statues and the minigames affect your progress, nor are there any other NPCs to interact with.

Ever wanted a fusion between the Chao Garden and a ‘wait to win’ mobile game? Well, here it is.

After a stage, you’re returned to the Wasteland of Tims, where you can feed them what appear to be bits of sweetcorn you collect in the levels. Apparently these are ‘magic drops’ and the little fluffy buggers will demand tons of them. Once fed, they can be chucked into a wheel which, over time, clocks up rotations and erects ‘The Tower of Tims’. The purpose of this is not made clear at all, and if the Tims really were meant to rival the Chao, they’re a colossal failure.

There is no depth to raising them. They just follow you around, demanding food like whiny toddlers, and then let you put them up to hard labour. I’m sure something more exciting might happen eventually, but given the fact the rotation counter is now informing me I need to repeat the process over 200 more times, I think I’ll sit that one out. The only useful thing I’ve found the tiny nuisances doing is occasionally launching themselves at enemies during stages, but this happens at random and is so sporadic I’m not sure it’s deliberate.

After clearing all the acts of a world, you’ll fight a boss. These are manifestations of the despair Lance has wrought on the poor common folk, and usually appear as some sort of corrupted purple beast. They all look absolutely spectacular – in fact, Naoto Ohshima’s design work is top-class across the board here, though that should come as no surprise – but are a NiGHTmare to actually battle. They are all either painfully easy or frustratingly obtuse, never in between.

Sometimes you can just stroll up and smack them to win, other times you can’t, and there are no visual cues as to why something that worked 10 seconds ago suddenly doesn’t. Balan Wonderworld litters random costumes around the arena that I suppose are meant to make the fights easier, but I don’t see it. Why am I being given the pig outfit, which limits me to a rubbish ground pound, when the boss isn’t weak to this? Perhaps if I waited around for 5 minutes he might suddenly develop a porcine allergy. Who knows?

Balan Wonderworld Final Thoughts

And so we come to the end. Balan Wonderworld is an odd game indeed, odder than anything I’ve come across since the 2000s. But perhaps that’s what they were going for. For all its next-gen sheen evident in the cutscenes and aspects of its stage design, it remains defiantly shackled to a bygone era. All the typical shortcomings of the 3D platformer genre are present and correct, in a manner that’s almost comforting. If you’re able to look past that, great, give it a shot.

Devotees of retro Naka goodness will find a lot to love, and may well consider this a smashing blast from the past that conjures fond memories of the Saturn and Dreamcast days. What they likely won’t be able to look past, however, are the original problems Balan Wonderworld invents all on its own, like the clunky costume system, monobutton control scheme, and disorienting flow. It’s not a 90s thing. It’s a Balan thing.

Gamers who have never tried anything from this genre need not apply. There are far better jumping on points for them to choose from.

And considering this title is Yuji Naka’s ‘one shot’ at continuing to work for Square, that’s… less than wondrous.

[Balan Wonderworld is available now on Amazon. RRP $59.99]

Bobby Mills

Motor-mouthed Brit with a decades long - well, two decades, at least - passion for gaming. Writer, filmmaker, avid lover of birthdays. Still remembers the glory days of ONM. May it rest in peace.
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