‘Balan Wonderworld’ review: a beautiful tragedy

Visual flair can’t save this pretty platformer from its mechanical failings

Balan Wonderworld is 2021’s first big disappointment, and it’s a crying shame because there was so much potential here. We’re talking about the major creative minds behind the original Sonic The Hedgehog combining forces to create a new 3D platformer IP. Sounds like a match made in heaven, but the experience of playing Balan Wonderworld is ultimately infernal.

In the past, Balan Company Director Yuji Naka put his name to influential and experimental games like Nights Into Dreams, Sonic Adventure and Phantasy Star Online during his time at Sega. Character Designer Naoto Ohshima often worked alongside Naka, bringing characters such as Sonic, Dr Eggman and NiGHTS to life with his inimitable art style. I grew up with the duo’s games and characters and still hold them fondly, which is why I was so excited when they revealed their next-gen creative adventure.

But in thinking of ways to describe Balan Wonderworld, I’m left with oxymorons. The two sides of its virtual brain really aren’t talking to each other. When I previewed the game I called it a “wondrous fever dream” and a “wholesome platforming acid trip” and those descriptors definitely hold up. The game’s aesthetics are unique and fascinating, as you might expect from the talent behind it. From O’Neill Cylinder farmhouse levels that unfurl before your eyes to the innards of an ancient tree, you’ll platform through level after gorgeous level across 12 worlds, looking for 80 intricate costumes to help you solve puzzles. This is all complemented by a catchy soundtrack full of quirky, themed bops.

It’s lovely to experience as an observer, but as soon as you put your hands on the controller, it’s game over. I imagine many will compare the way it controls to the turn of the century platformers that Naka contributed to, but I feel fairly confident saying that, even today, those golden oldies feel better to play than Balan Wonderworld. I wouldn’t recommend jumping from a modern platformer like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time or Super Mario 3D World to Balan Wonderworld, because the whiplash will be intense – it’s a gnarly step down from modern standards.

Balan Wonderworld
Balan Wonderworld. Credit: Square Enix

The story is as bonkers as you might expect, following two forlorn kids as they help fight “Negati” monsters afflicting humans with worry. Each world is defined by a non-playable character with a problem that you help solve by liberating the darkness from their dreamscapes. It’s charming, but it lacks the narrative nuance of a game like 2005’s Psychonauts, which touches on similar themes with greater depth, but actually feels good to play, too.

The protagonist feels like a lifeless puck as they throw themselves around levels, constantly shouting “Toh” or “Tah” every few seconds like the *good* old days. But what really startles me is that there are only two inputs in this game, without any movement tech attached to them. You move or you jump, and when you can’t jump, the same button uses your costume ability. Beyond that, you can swap between your three active costumes with the shoulder buttons in order to meet a puzzle with the correct outfit. Wonderworld’s commitment to old-school platforming is almost admirable, but any nostalgia fades away quickly as you realise that its new ideas are all just so frustrating.

Balan Wonderworld
Balan Wonderworld. Credit: Square Enix

The concept of a costume platformer isn’t exactly new, but the way it’s presented here is unique, and the mechanics attached to each costume can be clever. You’ll float on bubbles to cross gaps, activate lanterns to chart a path through darkness and crawl up spider webs based on what you’re wearing. It’s fun to figure out which costume goes where, but it’s immediately brought down by how annoying it is to wear, lose and swap between them.

You get new costumes by finding keys and walking into crystals, but the UI experience of swapping in a new costume doesn’t make any sense. Instead of choosing which costume to replace it will always replace the last one in your lineup, which means you can easily ruin your costume lineup by mistakenly walking into a crystal. No big deal, you might say, surely you can just get that costume back?

Well, to change your lineup you need to enter special checkpoint zones and wait ages for a dressing room to appear. Once it appears, you go inside of the dressing room, find and swap the costumes and leave. All of that rigmarole to fix a mistake, or access a new puzzle within a level. It’s absurd! And I’ve not even touched on the fact that you will lose the costume you’re wearing if you miss a jump or take damage from any source.

Balan Wonderworld
Balan Wonderworld. Credit: Square Enix

If you’re still willing to overlook the above, here’s the final nail in the coffin for me. Progress in Balan Wonderworld is gated by the collection of Balan Statues in levels, and the requirements are quite steep. This means that you need to backtrack deep into old levels with costumes you get from later worlds to solve platforming puzzles and get new statues. Let’s say you got a costume from 3-2 which you plan to use in 2-1. Imagine you get close to the puzzle in 2-1 and you slip off a platform, maybe through no fault of your own. You’ve now lost that costume, and you need to go back into the other level to get it and take it all the way back through to get your statue. Especially when the actual platforming isn’t airtight, this gets old fast.

It’s a brutal artificial difficulty mechanic in a game that feels like it has been built for kids to enjoy. Overall, there’s not much left to praise about it. Amid the levels you’ll find dull QTE side missions and good-looking but boring boss battles. I really think Balan Wonderworld could have had potential if it made the costume mechanic less punishing and added some very basic quality-of-life tweaks to its platforming. If it was just a linear old-school platformer with cool costumes, I’m sure it would have found a retro audience, but the confusing design decisions rip holes in its striking aesthetic canvas. What boggles my mind is that such love and care has been given to how this game looks, but it is being fundamentally let down by the gameplay.

Balan Wonderworld is now available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, PC and Nintendo Switch. 

The Verdict

While the visuals of Balan Wonderworld are inspired and vibrant, they can’t pull all the weight in this mechanically dire platformer. Its admirable artistic vision has been undermined by the systems that power its minute-to-minute gameplay, meaning it’s not worth a look at full price unless you’re a die-hard fan of the development team, or prepared to wilfully ignore scores of pressing game feel problems.

Pros

  • Naoto Ohshima’s magnificent character designs are wonderfully realised
  • The striking visual style of the game’s cutscenes and worlds will stoke your imagination

Cons

  • The shallow platforming is not fun, especially by modern standards
  • So many confusing game design decisions
  • The intentionally wordless story lacks weight

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