If the names Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima ring a bell, that’s because these guys are the duo responsible for the now iconic Sonic the Hedgehog character, as well as a hidden gem from the Sega Saturn days called Nights into Dreams. You can imagine how the announcement of their latest project, Balan Wonderworld, became a pretty big deal simply because of their background.
Balan Wonderworld is an upcoming 3D platformer developed by Balan Company and published by Square Enix, which is scheduled to release in March. In it you control one of two characters, Leo Craig or Emma Cole, as you traverse different levels all under the watchful eye of the titular maestro Balan. Being the latest project from the minds behind Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights, and their first collaboration again after so many years, you can’t help but be a little curious as to what they cooked up for the current gaming generation.
Well, there’s a playable demo coming out on January 28 for everyone to try, but we’ve had the chance to take an early look at it and here’s what we think of the latest from Naka-san and Oshima-san, Balan Wonderworld.
A World of Wonder
There’s very little in the way of a story explanation from the demo but basically, Leo/Emma are shown to have been invited by the mysterious Balan to “find their heart.” Your avatar is rather unsociable and dreary prior to meeting Balan, so the game has the makings of a tale of bringing back some life into the characters. The premise is nice and very wholesome, so those looking for a change from all the doom and gloom of recent games would appreciate this.
The game has a very old-school 3D platformer feel to it as it immediately reminded us of Super Mario 64 from 1996, sans the polygonal models. The graphics are pretty simple (and clean), and while the graphical leap to next gen consoles isn’t mind-blowing, the vibrant colors and characters in the world will more than make up for it.
As either Leo or Emma, you start from a central hub and you visit different worlds where you must help what the game refers to as ‘Lost Souls’, or people who have been corrupted by a mysterious being that looks to be a rival to Balan.
Gameplay will have you running around large stages with lots of room and platforms to jump around in, with the end of the level being a large flower-like structure that will automatically tally your performance once you touch it. In each level there are numerous colored drops that you collect, along with a certain number of Balan statues. If all of this sounds like your basic platformer game, that’s because it is, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As with similar games, exploration is highly encouraged to collect everything, with the Balan statues serving as the tougher items to collect that will sometimes require some puzzle solving and platforming to reach. You’ll need to collect them though, as they are needed to unlock further levels in the game. There are also gold hats that will let you enter a QTE mini-game called Balan’s Bout, which is quite weird and quirky.
To help in collecting all these? Costumes!
Dress to impress
Costumes are a key feature of Balan Wonderworld as each one grants you different abilities that will help you clear the various challenges per level. The Elastiplant, for example, lets you stretch your body high up, allowing you to grab out-of-reach items. On the other hand, while the Dainty Dragon costume prevents you from jumping, it lets you shoot fireballs with which you can dispatch enemies on the field. From the demo, costumes are either of the platforming or combat variety and each was distinct enough in terms of abilities and appearance.
Replaying a level is encouraged, as some will have areas that can only be accessed using a costume from a later level. The game actually stores costumes that you obtained and it’s possible to put together a combination before restarting a level, provided you have that costume in stock, so there’s some semblance of strategy in here. You can also switch between costumes on the fly, and you’ll get to keep up to 3 costumes as you go through a level.
Particularly, for the PS5, each costume has a different adaptive trigger setting to it. It doesn’t add a huge amount of variety and immersiveness to gameplay, but is a welcome addition for PS5 owners wanting that extra bit of difference while playing.
In-between levels, you’ll also spend some time in the central hub itself. Called the Isle of Tims, the world is populated with these chick-like things called Tims where the colored drops you collect in the levels are used to feed them and grow their numbers. In other words, there is a “breeding” mechanic of sorts because these cute little Tims can actually accompany you in a stage, each having a different ability depending on their color (Red helps attack, for example).
Local multiplayer is also available, which allows for further exploration as there will be some areas and paths that will not be accessible without the help of a second player. Multiplayer will allow for costume experimentation and combos, offering some level of replayability to the game.
A Mixed Bag
The demo will last around 2 hours give or take, with only a few levels and a boss battle to play through along with the central hub area. Although short, it is substantial enough to give an idea of what Balan Wonderworld is all about, which is a bit of a mixed bag.
For something that’s released during the time of the current (PS5 / Xbox Series) or even previous (PS4 / Xbox One) consoles, the graphics looked pretty dated. The cinematics were impressive and vibrant, but the same can’t exactly be said about the actual gameplay and visuals. From a spectator point of view, it could easily be mistaken for an early PS4 title. Some games make it hard for you to differentiate cutscenes from actual gameplay but Balan Wonderworld shows a stark difference between the two, which is quite a disappointment.
The gameplay itself is pretty basic platforming fare, which provides fun as you explore all nooks and crannies in a level to find those statues and hats. Unfortunately, some of the level design feels uninspired, lacking the charm and personality of something like an Astro’s Playroom, Sackboy, or even Crash Bandicoot. The controls are rather weirdly configured as well, so this may prove to be a minor issue for some.
Some questionable design decisions also plague the game, specifically the part about needing a key to pick up a costume. In the demo, you’ll need to pick up a key first before you get the costume. Nothing too complicated, but the fact that sometimes, the key is literally beside the costume, is questionable. Maybe it was just in the demo, and some of the later levels may indeed provide some sort of puzzle opportunity to acquire a key for a costume, but this seemed like a pretty bizarre mechanic for us.
Boss battles are also replayable, as you can finish them off in a different manner and eventually gain a Balan Statue for all your troubles. You can discover different ways to beat a boss and even discover attacks from the boss, which does sound like an interesting feature of the game.
Gibberish voices aside, the music is top notch in Balan Wonderworld, as each level had some pretty catchy tunes that might get you tapping your feet. From each level to the boss and even to Balan’s Bout, the potential for an amazing soundtrack is quite evident.
Balan Wonderworld has the makings of a great platformer that could challenge completionists out there. Visually, it isn’t the best looking title, but the simple gameplay and puzzle mechanics will be something that can be appreciated by even the younger audience.
It’s also too early to tell if the Tims breeding system will have more impact in the final game, because it wasn’t really the most engaging thing to do. They’re cute! But that’s about it.
A playable demo of Balan Wonderworld will be available for download on January 28 and the game will be released on March 26, 2021 for the PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One & Series, Nintendo Switch, and PC.