From the moment I saw Balan Wonderworld I was interested in it. The visuals reminded me of my childhood playing Sonic and more notably Nights into Dreams on my beloved Sega Saturn. A lot of this stemmed from director Yuji Naka, who is credited for creating Nights and co-creating Sonic, leading to instant excitement. With years of development and seemingly endless amounts of charm, Balan Wonderworld looked to offer a new take on familiar worlds. Naturally, with expectations rather high, does it pay off or does it fail to make use of nostalgia? Here’s our review of Balan Wonderworld.
Balan Wonderworld is not very forthcoming with details, information, or really any explanation as to what is happening in the story. The core story is two kids enter Balan Theater, where they meet Balan, a mysterious creature that looks reminiscent of Nights, and it starts them on a path of self-enlightenment. Essentially, Balan Theater is drawn to those who feel distraught as a way to cope and face their problems, with his counterpart, Lance, attempting to bring people down to the darkness forever.
Like I said, this is the core idea of what happens, though most of the adventure is told in a rather obtuse way. For example, earlier trailers revealed the second world would focus on a girl who loved to swim but an accident with a dolphin left her afraid. Both levels offer a fascinating dreamscape of the girl, larger than life, along with cheering sea creatures and other things going on, ultimately leading to the final confrontation. Before fighting the boss, players see a brief scene that largely explains what happened, before fighting a monster and… you guessed it, a dance number complete with choreography, backup dancers, and a song. Once the number finishes the story gets some kind of resolution, in the case of the girl she gets over her fear and plays with the dolphin again. None of the stories venture far from this structure, though some handle it much better than others, leading to the next person to help.
The story is, unfortunately, the least of Balan Wonderworld’s problems. Levels are designed in a woefully poor way. The challenges are non-existent, objectives simple, and depth minimal. Most levels are designed in a rather rudimentary way. Each world has its own mechanic you’ll commonly see, so breakable boxes in the first world and waterways in the second, with powers designed to make the most of these elements. Where Balan Wonderworld attempts to make things interesting is by creating puzzles that need powers not found in that location.
Depending on your skill, these mechanics will either be fun or frustrating. In addition to being able to pick up and retain power, players can bank and retrieve them from checkpoints. What makes this tiring isn’t just having to go, find the power, bank it and then return, each power is finite. So if you don’t make that clear that gap in stage one act one, the power is lost and unless you have multiples, it’s back to the previous world to reclaim, bank, and then attempt this again. It also doesn’t help that powers, as a system, feels mismanaged.
On paper, giving players 80 powers sounds really cool and complex, though a lot of the powers feel needless or provide minimal value. There is nothing that dainty dragon can do that tornado wolf can’t, outside of giving players a ranged attack, though wolf has the distinct benefit of reflecting tornados and jumping. Elastoplast, it lets you extend your body higher, largely exists because it’s whimsical, a trait that is likely true for a lot of these costumes, but it makes things bloated and in some cases needless. Merging some of them would simplify the process and make a more cohesive game design than having a character that can climb, swim, jump, break boxes, and so forth.
These powers are also helpful against the woefully easy bosses. Balan Wonderworld attempts to change things up by giving each boss three distinct ways to take damage, oftentimes a powers unique elements. These are somewhat telegraphed by including two powers during the fight, typically two that have mechanics behind them, though the actual encounters are really underwhelming. The first boss I beat in a couple of seconds, without really even understanding what was happening. Never a good sign when you win without taking damage or understanding what you’re doing. Later attempts, where getting all the damage types will add a slight bit of depth, though they’re largely underwhelming.
During levels, there are crystals to collect and these can be fed to Tims, a small creature that is considered a guardian of happiness, to essentially make more Tims to help expand the main area. They’re cute to interact with and offer an amusing distraction, though contribute much to the core experience.
In a lot of ways, what makes Balan Wonderworld so frustrating is that it isn’t a clue who this game was made for. In terms of 3D platformers, it’s painfully easy with minimal depth. Even the alternate costumes/powers only add so much and oftentimes they have narrow and specific uses. Enemies are hardly a challenge and any moderately skilled player will likely never take damage from them. Throw in boss fights that are over before they began, mini-bosses that can be defeated without even trying.
Balan Wonderworld Review – Verdict
In so many ways Balan Wonderworld feels like a weird game that hopes the concept will make up for execution. With extremely little to see, a minimal story to explore, and visuals that honestly do little more than remind me of simpler times, it’s hard to suggest what value Balan Wonderworld adds. It certainly isn’t engaging, interesting and so many of the elements are painfully basic. Throw in needless costume-changing animations (I don’t need a three-second animation every time I swap), extremely small worlds, and minimal… well, everything and it’s hard to be optimistic.
[Editor’s Note: Balan Wonderworld was reviewed on PlayStation 5 and a copy was provided to us from the publisher.]