When Balan Wonderworld was announced last year, it was a game that seemed completely up our alley. It checked all the boxes for what we look for in a platformer. Unique abilities, colourful worlds, and personality busting from its seams. With the talent involved and being lead by Yuji Naka, the creator of classic franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog, it seemed like a sure win. Even when the lacklustre demo launched earlier this year, we held faith and hope that buried somewhere in there was a great game. Unfortunately, if anything, the demo highlighted the best parts of Balan Wonderworld, as it only goes downhill from there.
The game is a hard experience to explain, due to the fact that we're not entirely sure what's going on ourselves. At the beginning, you're presented with a very basic character selection which leads to a sad backstory. Then, you stumble across Balan Theatre, ran by the mysterious (and to be honest, kind of creepy) Balan. What unfolds is a journey across several worlds, helping people who are downtrodden, before an inevitable evil presence appears.
First off, the narrative is used to very little effect. The idea of having damaged children be the central theme and narrative draw is actually a really interesting concept, but it's utilised in absolutely no way outside of the intro and ending to the game. Platformers such as Psychonauts perfectly married their narrative into the gameplay, as each world works to further flesh out the world and characters. By the end of Balan Wonderworld, we'd learned nothing about our protagonists and the adventures we went on resulted in little other than a tiny bit of narrative context. With studios such as Pixar bridging the cap between complex stories and children, this could have been the perfect opportunity to use the video game medium to tell something interesting. Instead, everything falls flat.
You could probably sit down and attempt to pull back the curtain on Balan Wonderworld and see what message each world is trying to convey, but honestly, doing that gives it more credit to what is actually there. Instead, we found ourselves wondering why the dancing wolves disappeared as soon as we went up to them. Why was a colossal farmer staring over us with a menacing gaze? And why, oh why, do we have a group of Furbies following us around each level? When you're asking yourself existential questions such as these, the ball has been dropped somewhere.
We'd be willing to forgive this if the other components were stronger. Games such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro hold very little in terms of plot, but manage to perfectly engage with their simplicity and pitch perfect gameplay. Along with its mess of a narrative, Balan Wonderworld does very little to engage the player in even the most basic of platforming challenges. Many were critical of the demo for feeling slow, sluggish and unresponsive, and to Square Enix's credit, the game does seem a lot smoother and faster. But considering this is made from the minds who concocted heroes such as Sonic the Hedgehog, it's shocking just how dull the game is to play.
There could be an argument made in the game's simplicity relating to its younger target audience, but it often feels like it insults the intelligence of even that play group. Remember the platformers from your youth? You're probably thinking of classics such as Rayman and Crash Bandicoot - neither of which dumbed down their ideas for the audience. Balan Wonderworld constantly feels as though it's leading players through each of its magical worlds, removing direct control in a game in which its central gameplay hook is platforming. It's ironic that it released alongside It Takes Two - a platformer which manages to handle beautifully and is accessible for everyone. By comparison, it just makes the game look considerably weaker.
Alarm bells start ringing when you take a peek at the control scheme. Balan Wonderworld uses very few buttons - the thumb sticks, bumpers, and any face or trigger button is all you need. You use the thumb sticks to move and control the camera, the bumpers to switch between a variety of suits you find throughout the world, and basically any other button to jump and use the suit's ability. That's it. That's the game. Having both your jump and suit ability mapped to the same button is a bizarre choice and takes so much control away from the player in a game where every action should matter. There's no double jump or any sort of evolution in your natural abilities - it all relies on the suits.
There are over 80 suits in the game. Some allow you to swim through conveniently placed paths of water, while others will turn you into a box at random. No, we're not making the latter one up. Each suit has a single use and never requires any experimentation. It doesn't help that swapping between the suits puts you in a painfully slow animation, instead of an instantaneous switch. We hate to comment on what a game 'could' be, but with the recently released Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, which utilised special abilities in a rapid and fun way, it's an absolute slog to sit down and play this.
The uninspired level design doesn't help matters either. There's very little in terms of challenge and the same template remains the same from beginning to end. Each world has two levels and a boss - complete them all and move onto the next. Again, this would be fine if each level demanded any sort of thought from the player, but most can be progressed by simply moving forward and not straying off the beaten path too much. The only incentive to occasionally explore is to maybe find a new suit to progress. These are locked in gems and a key is needed to obtain them. Luckily, the key is usually a few steps away, providing no challenge whatsoever outside of adding a few seconds of playtime. Other reasons are to find collectible statues used to unlock further levels, which are hidden away or locked behind boring mini-games, which may be a simple quick-time event where you press A every 20 seconds, or could have you kicking a football at stationary targets. It's as fun as it sounds.
Balan Wonderworld shows its most potential in its boss battles, which actively encourage you to use multiple suits and abilities against the big bad foe. You're even rewarded for experimenting and finding three unique ways at damaging your opponent. It's really the only time the game shows any sort of creativity and is a painful reminder how uninspired everything else is. We wanted to see more of this love and passion in the rest of the game, but instead, we're only teased with glimpses of what could be.
Outside of all this, you can kick back and relax on the Isle of Tims. Wondering what that is? We still are too, to be honest. What we do know is you can drop all the gems you've found in levels for these Furby looking things to eat, while a number in the middle slowly goes up and builds a tower. Outside of that, we have no idea what it functions for. These furry friends follow you in each level and appear to find eggs they bring back to the island, which adds more to the confusing mess. None of it is really explained and can be absolutely ignored if you want to (you probably will).
Tying this all together, however, is a wonderful soundtrack. Credit where credit is due, the music is absolutely lovely. Each area ends with a musical sequence and often feels like a Disney movie coming to life. Even the ambient songs that play through each level possess a nice degree of charm. Is this enough to recommend the game? Of course not, but at least if you have Spotify or YouTube, you can find some good work music.
With a price point of $60, it's hard to recommend Balan Wonderworld, especially when other platformers (and even collections such as Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, which contain multiple games) are a lot cheaper and are much better. The ingredients are all there for a great game, but everything has gone off and rotten. What's been cooked up is a bland, uninspired trip into a world that should have been anything but. Balan Wonderworld feels like bargain bin material that should be avoided at all costs... at any discount.