I don’t think there’s a right way to start talking about something as enigmatic as Balan Wonderworld, but let’s kick things off with the hallucinatory opening cutscene, which whisks players through the premise. The main character I picked in Balan Wonderworld is called Leo Craig, a downtrodden breakdancer from New York who has lost a piece of his heart.
He runs into an eclectic maestro called Balan who seeks to remedy this problem, and he takes Leo to a surreal, otherworldly place called Wonderworld. There, Leo can explore the dreams and inner worlds of characters who are clouded by negativity and worry, and try to soothe their troubles. Haunting these dreamscapes is a malicious character called Lance, who wishes to trap Wonderworld visitors inside their own hearts, summoning hostile creatures called Negati.
So once that’s over, you land on a floating garden called the Isle Of Tims, which is covered in fluffy baby chicken creatures… called Tims. When you bring gems back from the demo’s missions, you can throw them inside tufts of tall grass on the isle. This will summon more eggs to crack, and the genetic code of the Tims inside will change depending on the resources you’ve gathered. It’s an utterly bonkers mix of Pikmin and Sonic Adventure 2’s Chao Garden – and it’s not even the meat of the game.
Returning from one level, I managed to create a bright pink chick sporting bunny ears with my special gems. What does my new friend do? I couldn’t tell you, honestly. The Tims just seem to follow me around levels, making up a very noisy but ultimately adorable entourage. After a few missions, I realised that there was a ticker in the bottom left corner of the screen whenever I visited the Isle Of Tims, which mentioned that these creatures had architectural demands. It turns out that if you stand next to a certain contraption in the centre of the island, the Tims will leap inside of it and power it like a hamster wheel.
You can just stand there and watch as they rack up the numbers, and eventually, you’ll unearth a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine, the ‘Tower Of Tims’ which you can filter the chickens through – a tremendous pinball machine that makes the number rise faster. I feel like I need to stop myself because I sound like I’ve totally lost the plot, but this is the reality of Balan Wonderworld. Trust me, the game doesn’t get any easier to convey when I move on from my overbearing fluffy children.
You can visit various worlds from the island base, all of which contain short platforming missions where you have to find keys to unlock special dispensable costumes that you lose when you take damage. You can become the Gear Prince, for example, who can open doors with his mechanical torso. There are over 80 costumes available – so maybe you’d like to play as the Aero Acrobat, who can leap and dart at enemies and boxes, exactly like Sonic The Hedgehog in the old 3D games. There are pumpkin punching pals and soaring sheep to find too, and even a footballer costume that opens up a short penalties minigame. My favourite is probably the Box Fox, which turns the player into an invincible iron box at random intervals. The fact that this absurd outfit is a feature in the game gave me so much respect for its creators. I’ll have what they’re having!
The character designs for each costume are wonderfully inspired, which makes sense when you consider the ex-Sonic Team talent powering them. Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima are one hell of a creative tag team, and Balan Wonderworld’s best export is its inimitable aesthetic. The first hub is based around a distressed farmer, with giant pumpkins and corn stalks sprouting from the ground, set against a beautiful deep blue sky. I loved marvelling at all of the character art in this game, which is why it’s a shame that NPCs fade into nothingness when you approach them.
The map in the first few missions folds in on the player like a Mobius Strip when you walk around, which creates quite a staggering (if not a little nauseating) effect. It’s a good job that the game is so striking because the gameplay is extremely simple. There are only three major inputs available to the player: jumping, using a costume’s ability and switching between costumes. You need different costumes to solve puzzles, and the replayability of the levels is bolstered by the fact that each mission contains puzzles that can only be completed if you are wearing a certain costume, one that might not even be available in the current level. Because you lose a costume after taking one hit of damage, you’ll find yourself juggling outfits between worlds to uncover all of the secrets.
Within missions, you can retrieve Balan Statues, which feed into a wider progress bar beyond the completion of the level. Once you get enough statues to fill the progress bar, you get a cutscene where Balan arrives on a steam train – and I’ll take a rain check on the importance of this sequence. If you find Balan’s hat in any mission, you can also take part in Balan’s Bout, a quick-time event mini-game where you have to line up transparent renders of the character as they kick massive clods of dirt. Again, I don’t think I caught the context for this one either.
Antagonist Lance will appear within missions to introduce the very rudimentary combat against the game’s main enemies, cool-looking evil seahorses called the Negati. You’ll have to use your different costumes to fight them, but there is no specific combat button that is static between outfits, so good luck beating one without any offensive abilities. The platforming itself feels extremely old-school, reminiscent of the late ’90s and early ’00s in a way that is both frustrating but oddly charming if you’re nostalgic for that era. The checkpoints are pretty horrendous though, especially given that you can fall from the top of the map to the bottom and have your progress reset. At least there’s a dressing room every time you find one, where you can reassign costumes to fit the area you’re in.
Completing the first act (which is called ‘The Man Who Rages Against The Storm’, for the record) gives you a cutscene where you get to see the haunted character’s world brighten now that you’ve liberated them from negativity. In my case, I watched a once-distressed farmer engage in a minute-long dance-off with myself and the Tims, after being tentacle-speared by antagonist Lance. To call it a fever dream would be doing it an injustice. I nipped my arm to check if I was still awake – in that sense, the dreamlike atmosphere Balan Wonderworld is trying to curate is clearly effective.
I really don’t know what to tell you about this flabbergasting game. I’m not convinced it’s an essential purchase at full price, given how barebones the gameplay feels. It’s inherently old-school in the game feel department, in such a way that I don’t think modern players will be too keen on, given the decades of quality-of-life iteration that stand between it and something like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time.
However, it could certainly find an audience on the basis of how it looks. That and the pedigree of the development team were the reasons I was looking forward to it, and while I’m fundamentally quite disappointed in how it plays, I’m still intrigued, in almost a morbid way, about what is around the corner when launch rolls around in March. The demo is free, so I urge you to check it out for yourself. It’s a game that needs to be played to be believed – and while it might not be something you end up buying, it is, at the very least, going to colour your forthcoming dreams with a lacquer of pure imagination.
‘Balan Wonderland’ launches on March 26 for Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC.