Balan Wonderworld is definitely an odd one. After all, 3D Platformers are a niche genre, with many being dropped in favor of more trendy genres like Metroidvanias. Admittedly, I really like the look of Balan Wonderworld- Balan’s design is one of the best mascots in recent years, having that Sonic-esque level of charm to it. That being said, a sexy hat man does not a videogame make, and the overall product we got definitely left me wanting.
So Balan Wonderworld’s premise is actually really good. The Balan Theatre is a magical place that appears before you once your heart is off-balance. Run by the mysterious Balan, he takes you to Wonderworld- a magical realm where you travel through other peoples hearts defeating monsters called Negati and saving them from the negative emotions that plague their hearts.
I’m really a sucker for this kind of story, especially the way Balan Wonderworld presents it. The characters you save have relatively wholesome stories- there’s no torture porn here. Each character’s arc being them overcoming their fears and doing what they love is really wholesome, and it definitely makes the game feel like a project someone wanted to make, rather than just a game for the sake of making one.
The designs in the game are also pretty solid, with Balan definitely making one of the best game mascots in recent years. The enemies, the Negati, also have a great Kingdom Hearts-esque design to them too. Unfortunately this is pretty much the end of my praise for the game, since it has way more problems once you overcome this.
Like we covered in our demo preview of the game, Balan Wonderworld is a 3D platformer, much like previous big titles like Sonic Adventure and Mario 64. The problem with the 3D platformer genre is that it’s actually pretty niche- the only ones people remember are the near-legendary successes, like the aforementioned Mario series, Banjo-Kazooie and Sonic Adventure. The problem is that people just don’t remember the middle-of-the-road ones, which makes games like Balan look much worse in comparison since your only point of reference is the best of the genre.
The controls don’t feel particularly good- this was a problem in the demo as well, with the characters jumps feeling like they could have used a couple more coats of polish to feel really tight. This is a huge problem for a game that’s built entirely on jumping, and it’s not like it’s a growing pains problem- Super Mario Odyssey is a contemporary pick in the genre and moving around feels great in that.
I think part of it comes down to the animations. There’s a weird disconnect, with the animation looking like something more at home with the Sonic series but with the movement of Mario if he was really sleepy. The game just feels like there’s this lack of directive cohesion, which is a shame since, as mentioned, so many titles in the genre have that down pat.
Explore To Your Heart’s Content, Mandatory
One thing I really like though is the core loop of the games. The game wants one thing of you- to explore everything the Wonderworld has to offer. It does this by locking progress behind Balan Trophies, which you’ll only get by doing everything in the level. You don’t need to 100% every stage to unlock the next one, but the levels are definitely designed that bee-lining it for the exit is going to lead you short on Trophies to get to the next area.
You can go back to a central hub, where you’ll be able to replay any past stages as well. This is a really important feature, since exploration was clearly how the developers intended you to enjoy the game.
Aside from that, you’ll also need to explore to find the game’s costumes. These affect your abilities, with your character needing to find keys first to then unlock the costumes, which means two layers of exploration. Some stages will straight up have problems you can’t solve until you progress the story to unlock more costumes to backtrack and get them, which adds another layer of stuff to do since you’re now probably taking note of every impasse hoping for a future solution.
As someone who enjoys Metroidvanias, this isn’t too bad a feature to include in your game. Like I said, it’s a great way to promote the experience you want players to have with your games. After all, what better way to promote exploration in your games than to make every problem solved by just flipping over every rock? Personally though, I feel like adding keys to costumes was maybe one layer too many, but that probably boils down to player preference.
On the other hand though, the levels feel really well designed for the tools you get. The costumes you get are all based on the themes of the stage, with the fireman stage having fireman-themed costumes, et cetera. You can also carry over costumes from previous stages, which plays into the backtracking portion of the game. I really like the fact that the main problems of every stage are built to be solved by that stage’s costumes- it’s a simple enough part of game design but it just feels cohesive.
They’re also pretty unique, with each stage having its own gimmicks. The water stage, for example has pillars of water you can swim up, while another windy stage has you doing Sonic-style divebombs to platform over gaps. Something about it just feels well planned out, and I’ve got to give the game props for doing that.
The only failure on this end is the previously mentioned polish issues. I’d be way more inclined to explore the levels if, you know, moving didn’t always feel off. Think of it like if your left show always slid a little forward with every step you took. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but you would wear those shoes less since moving in them felt so weird.
I think your enjoyment of Balan Wonderworld is also going to hinge greatly on how well you react to the game’s costumes. The stage-mandatory costumes are great- interacting with the stage’s mechanics in an amazing way that makes the game feel well thought out. The problem is for every two really cool costumes, there’s a third one that just makes you question why it’s even here. The earliest example of this is the Box Fox, whose entire schtick is turning into a box. At random.
The other problem with the costumes is that they are your action button. What the action button does is entirely dependent on the costume equipped, and you have no universal mechanics outside of this. This is easily where the game is its most frustrating, because it doesn’t feel like there’s a reason for it other than the idea they didn’t want players to make jumps with the wrong costume.
Of course, don’t get hit if you like your costume- costumes are also your rings in Sonic, with each hit taking out your active costume. This gets into the frustrating part of the game loop- turning over every rock in the game in a fit of frustration not because exploring is fun, but because you needed a jumping costume but lost it due to a bad jump.
Being able to stockpile costumes is good, but like I mentioned above having it be a two-step process of finding keys first just makes collecting all the costumes feel more like a relief than something that’s supposed to be fun.
Every stage ends with you facing off against a boss, born of the corrupted hearts of the stage’s host. The bosses look really cool, looking like an amalgamation of all the costumes you get. They’re pretty simple overall, however, usually just requiring you to know which costume to hit it with to win the fight.
See, I think once you get to the bosses, you really understand the crux of why Balan Wonderworld does what it does. In a sense, the game’s simplicity has its plus points- it’s incredibly accessible for children. Bosses have bursts of time where they just don’t do anything, and that’s a great time for a younger kid to sit back and think about what they need to do to clear the stage.
But I feel like it’s almost patronizingly long, especially since its not like Mario was only aimed at elite fans of the series. Platformers in particular have done really well at having simple controls without feeling patronizing about it- I mean just look at Little Nightmares 2. It almost feels like an outdated school of game design, where someone believed that younger gamers can’t handle managing more than two buttons at once, needing 30 seconds to decide which of the two buttons to hit.
One feature I do like though is the inclusion of Boss Trophies. You get them for approaching the boss differently, and give good reason to replay the bosses. It’s a great way to encourage more exploration against the bosses, even if they’re ultimately pretty easy to figure out.
More Show Off-Stage
One thing you’ve got to give the game is that there’s stuff to do outside of exploring the Wonderworld. Each stage has hidden Balan’s Bouts- minigames where you get to play as Balan, completing quick-time events for better scores. These are just kind of fun breaks from exploring, where you also get to enjoy the great music of the game. Admittedly, Balan’s Bout is kind of overly simple, even visually- it uses the same stock background for every bout, and it took about two of the bouts before they just melted into yet another thing I’d have to do to unlock the next stage.
On the plus side there’s some element of randomness to it- sometimes instead of inflicting your will on random debris, Balan will get to fight his counterpart, Lance. It does nothing to the minigame, other than slightly contextualize what you’re doing by giving it a villain.
The other feature they’ve added is the Isle of Tims. Sonic fans might recognize this for its similarity to Sonic Adventure’s Chao Garden. The cute little Tims can be fed with droplets collected while exploring Wonderworld, with each color improving your character somewhat. Functionality aside, messing around with the Tims is genuinely fun- they’re adorable creatures, and messing around with them as they chase you around the stage is loads of fun.
You can even build a Tower of Tims, which is just a really fun side objective to work towards. It doesn’t seem to do anything meaningful, but at least it’s fun to mess around with the Tims while they make their adorable legally-distinct-pikachu noises.
I really wanted to like Balan Wonderworld. especially since it’s visually one of the most interesting games I’ve seen in a while. Instead I can’t decide if the game either needed more time in the oven, or if a directorial decision was made to have the game be simple to the point it feels boring.
On the plus side though, it’s decent as a game that’s absolutely fine for kids to play. The co-op lets you play as the two main characters, and the game design is so safe I don’t think you’ll have to worry about any of your children appearing on ScrubQuotes playing the game without a serious case of sibling rivalry.
Ultimately though, the game almost does harm to the 3d platformer genre, having all the kid-friendly visuals of its best titles but none of what mechanically makes the genre so compelling.
Game reviewed on PS4, review copy provided by Square Enix.
- Pretty solid music
- Great character design
- Almost patronizing levels of gameplay
- Unrefined controls
Forgettable At Best