Release date: March 26, 2021
Developer: Arzest / Balan Company
Publisher: Square Enix
When Square Enix revealed Balan Wonderworld to the world in 2020, I immediately felt that fans of 3D platformers would soon be experiencing something special. Not only did the game’s trailers exude a bold sense of style and charisma that felt genuinely endearing, but the game was also being helmed the creator of the Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights franchises. I was sold on the concept before I had even seen any gameplay – after all, with such an industry heavyweight leading the game’s development, what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is: just about everything. Balan Wonderworld is, frankly, a fundamentally broken game in almost every way, and it’s one of only a handful of 3D platformers – one of my favorite genres, mind you – that I have no desire to finish. Not only does the game barely run on the Switch, nearly every component of its gameplay and level design feels unfinished at best. I cannot recommend this game to anyone – even diehard fans will find extraordinarily little to love here.
The strongest parts of Balan Wonderworld are its infrequent but extraordinarily detailed cinematics. The opening movie for this game depicts a young girl who is, apparently, incredibly sad – although I’m still not entirely sure why – stumbling into a magical theatre run by a mysterious figure named Balan. He’s a tall, sharply dressed figure with an off-putting smile and a top hat that covers most of his dark, furry (yes, furry) face, and upon entering the theatre, he transports the young girl to the strange cartoonish universe where the game actually takes place. Between the aura of mystery and the flashy production values, it’s an intriguing sequence that sets the stage well and made me feel like I was about to watch a crazy theatre production.
But that optimism I felt – that hope that I was about to experience something unique and special – immediately disintegrated the moment the actual game began. As I began controlling my void-of-personality cartoon character with uncomfortably large hands and feet, I was surprised at how horrible it felt to just move around the environment. Walking or running in any given direction lacked a strong sense of momentum and control and jumping felt imprecise and difficult to control midair. It wasn’t a great start for a game in which running and jumping are basically the only things that happen!
Balan Wonderworld’s levels are split across twelve worlds with two stages each (more stages open up after beating the game), with everything connected at a central hub world called the Isle of Tims. Each world has a theme that ranges from farms to underwater environments, and you unlock new worlds by collecting Balan Statues that are hidden across the environments. There are also multicolored floating gems to collect called Drops, which are all but pointless for reasons I’ll attempt to explain later. Each world also has a couple varieties of enemies to fight and concludes with a boss battle.
I was hopeful that gameplay would feel more satisfying within the actual levels, but if anything, it just became more frustrating. That’s for a variety of reasons, most of which come down to poor level design. Unlike games such as Super Mario Odyssey in which there’s almost always a way to reach the top of nearby structure, Balan Wonderworld is filled with obstacles that seem short enough that you should be able to jump atop them, but for some reason cannot. Similarly, jumping from platform to platform feels like an exercise in patience due to poor telegraphing of distance and a jump arc that feels inconsistent. Levels also generally don’t flow very well – they sometimes feel slightly maze-like, which isn’t inherently bad on its own, but a lack of visual variety in each level combined with poor signposting on the way to your next objective makes getting from point A to point B an exercise in patience.
A big component of Balan Wonderworld’s gameplay is its selection of over 80 costumes which, presumably, exist to make navigating through these levels more interesting. I’ll give credit where it’s due – some of these costumes have creative and quirky designs. One of them, for example, turns you into what looks like a pig and gives you a fun and silly ground pound ability. Another gives you a telescoping neck that lets you collect Drops that would otherwise be too high up, and that springs you into the air upon releasing the “A” button. But it quickly became apparent that most of the game’s costumes simply provide a different way to jump or attack, and the novelty of finding and switching costumes quickly wears off and becomes a chore.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Balan Wonderworld provided your character with a default move set that was actually fun to use, but without a costume equipped, all you can do is jump (not remarkably high) and move. There is no long jump, no double jump, no means of attacking – unless you equip a costume. It makes it feel like your move set has been limited to justify the existence of the costumes in the first place, which is a mistake. Unfortunately, because each costume grants you only one ability, that feeling of being limited is just exasperated. You might equip a costume that lets you attack, for example, but then you can no longer jump unless you switch to a different costume. But then, in the same level, you might stumble across a costume that gives you a jump that is also a spin attack – negating the usefulness of your other costumes. Having so many costumes just adds bloat to the experience and makes playing the game actively less satisfying.
Once you do find a set of costumes you like (you can carry a handful of them on you at once, and store more in a dressing room that’s accessible at checkpoints), though, you better not get hit by a single enemy or fall off any cliffs. Taking damage will cause you to lose your costume altogether, sometimes making you unable to proceed through the rest of the level. At best, you will have to backtrack through the stage to find the costume you just lost again – at worst, you’ll have to completely exit the level, go to whatever level you originally found the costume in (if you can remember), find it again in that level, and then return to the level you were originally trying to beat in the first place and hope you don’t lose it again. It is a horribly planned out system that negates any of the fun that the costumes might have created – that is, if they had even been fun to use in the first place. (They aren’t.)
Combat is ridiculously simple. Most enemies can be either jumped on or attacked with one of your costumes, and they’ll generally go down in a single hit. There’s really no challenge involved – you rarely have to use a particular costume to beat a specific type of enemy. Unfortunately, combat also lacks any feeling of physicality, so it always feels hollow and unsatisfying, and became something I generally tried to avoid. It doesn’t help that enemies almost immediately respawn upon backtracking through a level, which just made me feel like exploration wasn’t really worth it.
Occasionally you’ll find special floating hats in the levels that start a minigame called Balan’s Bout. These are essentially short, linear sequences in which you have to hit a button in time with the prompt to make Balan dodge or attack an enemy as he flies through the air. Doing a good job will also double the amount of drops you currently have in your possession. I actually found these fun the first few times I did them, but I quickly realized there are only a handful of different sequences, so they quickly became repetitive and boring, just like the rest of the game.
Speaking of Drops – which are Balan Wonderworld’s take on in-level collectibles – remember how I said earlier that they were pointless? Well, at first glance that’s not entirely true – but what exactly they do is really poorly explained. See, upon completing a level and returning to the hub world, you’ll have the opportunity to feed your Drops to these little colorful puffballs called Tims. Doing so will cause them to get bigger, and then eventually they will transform into an egg and become small again for reasons the game never explains. Then at the center of your island is a structure called the Tower of Tims; one of your sub objectives is to help this tower grow by… feeding your Tims drops? See, I’m actually not one hundred percent sure how this whole mechanic works because the game never explains any of it. What are Tims? What is their purpose? How does feeding them affect building up the tower – and why should we care about building the tower in the first place? What is the significance of the different colors of Drops – if there is any? I don’t have the answers, and I’m frankly unsure if even the developers themselves know.
All of this is assuming the game even runs well enough in the first place that you’ll want to continue playing – which, for me is not the case. The frame rate in Balan Wonderworld is about as smooth as a gravel driveway, and pretty much anything makes it drop – moving, turning the camera, any onscreen animations whatsoever – it is that bad. The game never crashed on me, but there were a few instances when I was worried it was about to, specifically when I would start recording footage and everything would come to a halt. The game’s visuals are also poorly optimized, with a total lack of antialiasing on most surfaces, turning the game into a jagged mess. Combine all of this with the poorly executed jumping mechanics and you have a game which seems to actively fight the idea of you playing it.
It really is a shame, because there are glimmers of something here that could have been special. The idea of an interactive musical is bizarre, but just strange enough to work, and the first time an actual musical number popped up I was delighted by the absurdity of it all. The theming of each of Balan Wonderworld’s worlds also at least attempts to tell stories of resilience and overcoming your sadness. Even though the execution is an utter mess, I appreciate that the team at least tried to tell a story in this genre. And the music in Balan Wonderworld often approaches true greatness – as much as I despise this game as a whole, I’ve caught myself humming its main theme several times throughout the past week or so, and the in-level music has the perfect balance of quirkiness and mystery to really make you feel like there’s an epic adventure coming your way.
Disappointingly, there isn’t.
Balan Wonderworld is not worth your time. The game fails to execute any of its gameplay systems properly, is functionally a pain to play, and barely runs on the Switch at all. There are some decent ideas here, but none of them are ever really explained in any way, and what is there is shallow and lacking substance. The Switch is filled with great 3D platformers that are joy to play – if you’re considering trying Balan Wonderworld, just go play one of those other games instead.
Review copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.