When we last encountered Balan Wonderworld, we weren’t exactly thrilled by the game. The demo was a mixed bag, with crude looking graphics and frustrating gameplay. It did have some unique character designs and catchy music, but not enough to outweigh the cons. With Balan Wonderworld being the latest project of the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams, we did see some potential from the demo and waited on the final product to see if it can change our minds. After waiting for the final release, suffice to say that it did not have any wonder at all.
Finding your Heart
In Balan Wonderworld, you play one of two children: Leo Craig or Emma Cole. Both have different circumstances but are still similar in the sense that both lead a troubled life, leading them to encounter Maestro Balan, the mysterious overseer of the Balan Theater.
From here, Balan brings the pair to Wonderworld, a fantastic realm created from memories and hearts where Leo and Emma will embark on a journey, meeting other troubled souls and healing their hearts, all while learning to deal with their own troubles. Along the way the pair and Balan are opposed by the similarly mysterious Lance, who commands the Negati, monsters born from darkness.
In terms of the story itself, the game has a very positive, though pretty generic message, and it’s that sort of uplifting and positive feeling that could appeal to a lot of people. Unfortunately, the execution lacks weight and depth that the overall narrative becomes somewhat forgettable. Pair it with drab cutscenes and an incoherent dance number everytime you beat a boss and it suddenly feels like a tired and unevenrful noon time show. While it was enjoyable at first, it gets boring really fast and you’ll be skipping these sequences by the time you reach level 3, maybe even earlier.
In case you didn’t know, a novel and manga was released to supplement Balan Wonderworld’s story, and various PVs are there to introduce you to the game’s characters. While I’m all for accompanying materials to enrich the narrative of a game, in Balan Wonderworld’s case the accompanying materials feel more necessary than supplementary.
For example, the first Stage’s inhabitant, Jose Gallard, is never referred to by name until the end credits role and his story is only touched upon by the aforementioned cutscenes. As a matter of fact, while there was a definite beginning and end to the story of the person you helped, you can’t help but feel some details are lacking, details that the separately sold books have. It’s not a good user experience to have to refer to reference material outside of the game in order to understand what’s going on, and Balan Wonderworld reinforces this to an uncomfortable extent.
Hop, step, jump
At its core, Balan Wonderworld is a platformer. The game begins on the Isle of Tims which serves as the central hub of the game. There are twelve stages to go through with one endgame boss stage. What’s actually great here is that each of the twelve stages feel very distinct in terms of their themes.
The Acts in each Stage are just what you’d expect of a traditional platformer in the sense that they’re just the right size, which encourages exploration. You’ll find yourself backtracking a lot to previously unreachable areas when you get the right means to do so later in the game.
The Isle of Tims itself is another source of activity as another gameplay mechanic of raising the cute chick-like beings called Tims, which we’ll touch upon later. Majority of your time will be spent more traversing Wonderworld and snatching two important collectibles in the game: Costumes and Balan Statues.
Dress to impress
Costumes are what Balan Wonderworld is all about. In each stage are different kinds of costumes that you can pick up that will help you finish a level. As a matter of fact, these costumes are a necessity, because you literally cannot do anything as Leo or Emma alone.
There are around 80 different costumes scattered across the twelve stages, and each has a certain function. For example, the Tornado Wolf lets you jump while spinning which serves as an offensive move and block destroyer. Another is the Dainty Dragon which sacrifices the ability to jump with a fire breath attack that’s chargeable.
There was a lot of potential for unique gameplay regarding Balan Wonderworld’s costume system, but unfortunately, many factors made collecting costume for frustrating than fun. For starters, there’s the tedious concept of collecting keys.
Costumes are locked and a key is required to accessing them, and it felt really unnecessary. The fact that they’re located literally a few steps away makes you wonder why costumes can’t just be picked up at all, making it quite a questionable design decision.
As for the costumes themselves, it’s a case of quantity over quality. Of the 80 costumes available, some have very similar features, with some feeling rather unnecessary. If I were to venture an estimate, about a third of the total count seemed unnecessary.
Another point of frustration is the need to stock up on said costumes. If by some chance you lose it, you’ll need to re-enter the level where the costume can be found and collect it again. It just really adds more unnecessary grinding on top of an already tedious experience.
Gotta catch them all
Another important resource are Balan Statues, as collecting a certain number is required to progress throughout the game. Backtracking is required as certain Balan Statues can only be acquired when you have the right costume for the job. Another way to earn a statue is the unique mini-game called Balan’s Bout, where you get to control Maestro Balan in a series of QTE events.
Ironically, this mini-game ends up being another disappointing feature due to its lack of diversity, reinforcing the “you’ve seen one, you’ve seem them all” adage. The mini-games are overly simple that you can practically use 1 hand to finish them.
Boss battles will earn you Balan Statues, and Balan Wonderworld actually encourages a little creativity on your part as you can earn up to 3 Balan Statues just for doing different kinds of attacks on a boss. The game won’t outright tell you what will work and you will just get an idea based on what tools are presented to you. While this made the boss battles interesting, most bosses offer little to no variety, employing the same tactics over and over again, making it downright boring until the sharp difficulty spike towards the end.
Cute but useless
Going back to the Isle of Tims, this central hub is inhabited by these little critters and you’ll be able to actually raise them by feeding these colored drops collected while exploring. Different colored Tims will have different functions like the red ones being able to attack enemies, and the purple colored ones being able to pick up items for you.
Aside from completing trophies and seeing the Tower of Tims get completed, raising Tims overall didn’t feel very engaging because they served little to no purpose in gameplay.
Red colored Tims bred for combat didn’t really make any difference in a fight as damage from your stomps or costume based attacks got the job done faster. The only ones closest to any use were the pink colored Tims that can actually pick up items for you in case you missed anything, but even those didn’t do a great job. As cute as Tims are, their presence didn’t make a lot of difference during gameplay.
Is it all bad?
It must also be said that Balan Wonderworld honestly doesn’t feel like a next-gen, or even a current-gen game for that matter. At this point you have to wonder is there anything that’s actually great with this game?
If anything, the soundtrack of the game is pretty catchy and by the time you finish the game, there’s bound to be a tune or two that will leave a good impression on you, especially the tracks during boss battles.
Character design is a bright spot too, especially the bosses, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Sonic the Hedgehog game. As a matter of fact, Balan is fit to be the game’s mascot because of the energy he gives off with his performances. It’s then unfortunate that the game doesn’t give off the same level of energy as its colorful mascot.
What we liked:
- Levels that encourage exploration
- Catchy soundtrack
- Diverse stage themes
- Imaginative character designs
What we didn’t like:
- Outdated graphics
- Frustrating and repetitive gameplay
- Uninteresting Tims raising mechanic
- Shallow story
- Uneven difficulty
Verdict: Ignore it
At the end of the day, Balan Wonderworld pretty much just ticks off all the aspects of a decent platformer. Its stages are designed to make you explore and the platforming is challenging enough. While this may look like it’s worth buying even after it goes on a really big sale, the frustrating gameplay mechanics and lackluster story keeps it from being even worth a sale. The accompanying reading materials do a better job getting you acquainted with the Balan Wonderworld than the game itself.
It’s really disappointing considering this is from the minds behind a video game icon. Sadly, Balan Wonderworld feels like a game that’s stuck in the past, as all these mechanics may not have mattered should the game have been released a few console generations ago. The only time we can recommend this game is when you absolutely have nothing else to play while the game is on a huge sale. That’s short of saying just don’t bother with Balan Wonderworld at all.
*Balan Wonderworld was reviewed using a PS4 Pro / PS5 via a review code from the publishers.