Developer: Square Enix Ltd, ARZEST Corp.
Publisher: Square Enix Ltd.
Genre: Adventure, Platformer, Action
Platform: PlayStation 4/5 (Also available on Xbox One/Series X, Nintendo Switch, and Steam)
Age Rating: PEGI 7
Release Date: 26/03/2021
A code was provided for review purposes.
Down the Rabbit Hole
In the magical, musical realm of Balan Wonderworld, you’ll discover endless possibilities waiting for you! But if that sounds too good to be true… then you just might be onto something.
If you’ve done any searching into Balan Wonderworld, you’ve probably already run into its less-than-stellar reception. An unpopular demo, dismal sales, and a (since-patched) bug that could trigger epilepsy… the list goes on.
All in all, this is probably not what the developers were after. Still, is the game really that bad, or is it the victim of a knee-jerk reaction? All may not be as it appears…
What’s Going On?
The story in Balan Wonderworld is told in both a bombastic and minimalist fashion. While the cutscenes have high production values, there’s very little dialogue. Some of what’s going on is left to the audience to work out, and sometimes it’s perhaps a bit too obscure.
Emma Cole is feeling sad one day in her gargantuan mansion filled with servants, and leaves to wander through the city distraught. Down an alley, she stumbles upon a mysterious door which leads to the Balan Theater. There she meets the wacky showmaster Balan, who promises to mend her heart over the course of a flashy dance number.
Immediately after, you’re unceremoniously deposited on the Isle of Tims, a spot of green in the middle of a blue void. Where it is or how you got there is never really addressed. From there, you enter each world, where you’re observed by the visions of different people. After two stages, you’ll fight a boss that’s related to each character’s inner turmoil, and then do a little dance number before returning to the Isle.
I like to joke about it but I honestly don’t have a huge issue with the way the individual stories are presented. Admittedly, I’m mystified by why the dolphin in the second world turned evil and attacked the diver you’re helping. However, I’m pretty sure everything negative can be explained as resident bad guy Lance meddling with situations.
Oh, I should probably talk about the villain. For reasons I don’t entirely know, you’re periodically bothered by an evil fellow who summons monsters to attack you. He also gets beaten up by Balan during quick-time events. He basically serves to represent negative emotions, though he appears to be taking a more active role in stirring them up. Why he’s doing that is never addressed in-game.
There’s actually a tie-in novel that gives a ton of backstory and context to what’s going on. Well, it’s too late for that now!
What’s the Difference? Presentation!
Still, there’s more to it than just the story. Balan Wonderworld is all about the show, and on the music side of things, it delivers. The soundtrack is magical from beginning to end, to the extent that it absolutely affected my score by at least an extra half point. I can forgive plenty if I’m enjoying the music – I finished Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 after all!
Though it has managed to generate a bit of mild controversy with one stage’s theme, which is suspiciously similar to a track from Ghostbusters…
Visually, Balan sits in a few different places. The cutscenes are all fantastic, though the art style seems to jump about a bit. I’m not sure if the still scenes were for artistic or budget reasons. Graphically, however, I find the game harder to pin down.
I played on the PS4 version, and while it was playable for most of the game, it did struggle on a few occasions. In particular, any stage with the tube/wrap effect ran at a noticeably slower rate, and the haunted house would occasionally freeze outdoors or near windows.
While they’re not the worst visuals I’ve seen, it feels like Balan Wonderworld is somewhere halfway between PS3 and PS4 in quality. Some of the levels feel sparse, while a few sections seem like they were cobbled together with random blocks from a basic Game Maker tool.
On the other side of the coin, plenty of the art design is beautiful. There’s a wide range of dreamworld locations to visit, and each features imagery to reflect the personality or turmoil of the main cast. In particular, I was a fan of the clock tower and castle in world six.
Now let’s get down to the controversial stuff – namely, the gameplay. My hype was through the roof when Balan Wonderworld was first announced. Since it had been a while since A Hat in Time and Super Mario Odyssey, I was ready for my next great 3D platformer. This game was teased at just the right time.
However, when the demo was released, I joined many others in disappointment. Character movement felt slow, and the gameplay just didn’t match the excitement of the trailers. Some tweaks have been made since then but they’re largely superficial as far as I can tell.
The way it works is you run and jump around stages looking for things to collect. Occasionally you’ll find new costumes that give you different abilities. Over the full course of the game, you can find eighty costumes.
However, if that number makes you suspicious on a quality front, you would be right. The way that Balan Wonderworld does this is by limiting every single costume to a single button ability. Square, triangle, cross, circle, L2, and R2 all perform the same action!
There’s also the inevitable result that many costumes are very similar to one another. While no two costumes are identical, there’s a lot of cross-over. For example, one character can jump and hover slightly. Another can jump and glide, rendering the first pointless. Yet another can jump and… well, basically hover as well.
This doesn’t bother me too much, but at the same time it does cause a couple of issues. Firstly, I think it’s just too many different factors for level designers to consider, or at least the ones who worked on this game. While it’s fun to find ways to get around obstacles using different costumes in possibly-unintended ways, I don’t feel the game was really designed with them in mind.
Instead, most levels have a handful of very specific obstacles that can only be handled by one character (such as spider webs requiring the spider costume), and the rest can be safely navigated by a character who can jump. Bonus points if that character can also glide! Because of the many variables, I feel like the designers purposefully avoided adventurous design.
Contrast this with A Hat in Time, which manages to present you with a range of different gameplay styles and challenges with a much smaller moveset.
Oh, and if your costume ability is to shoot or attack, then say goodbye to jumping. As you might guess in a platformer, that renders the costume somewhat inconvenient. It’s especially problematic if you just lost your costumes that can actually jump, such as on boss fights.
At one point I dropped down a tiny ledge to grab a yellow raindrop but couldn’t hop back up, requiring me to throw my character into the void. That surely isn’t intended design!
I don’t think there’s really an excuse for this. There are so many buttons on the gamepad – just let people jump on all characters!
But this is where it feels odd – as the stages went on, I realised I was actually having fun. There’s a definite wonkiness to the design that comes from too much ambition cut short. Yet they’ve somehow managed to create something I can enjoy.
Even though the costumes occasionally feel redundant, it was fun to discover new ones and see how you could use them to reach new heights. Peeking around corners and noting places to revisit got me thinking and planning.
It’s not a difficult game for sure, at least not in terms of combat. I don’t consider that a bad thing, though – it’s got a lot in common with games like Spyro the Dragon, where exploring levels and collecting treasure were the goals. And sure, you can call it outdated since Spyro was a PS1 game, but I think the Reignited Trilogy has demonstrated how that style of gameplay is still a winning formula.
As a game of exploration and collection, Balan Wonderworld mostly works. The levels are varied and some of the concepts are actually pretty neat. While I got lost plenty in the artist world, for example, I still enjoyed working out where everything could be found.
So even though the game does have a lot of issues, they weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying the game as a whole. Well, except for…
We’re encouraged to write funny or whimsical titles for sub-sections but I’m just writing “Balan Bouts” because they’re already a joke.
So occasionally when you’re heading through a level you might run into a golden hat slightly off the beaten track. If you’re particularly unfortunate, you may find one after struggling past a series of awkward jumps in an obscure hidden location.
At this point, Balan will pop in to whisk you off to another realm where he’ll engage in furious battles with possessed scenery. Sometimes he’ll humiliate the game’s main antagonist, repeatedly diminishing his overarching threat…
In order to take part in Balan Bouts, you’ll have to do a few quick-time events (QTEs). If that already sounds far too exciting, don’t worry – there are only two sorts of QTEs you’ll have to do.
One involves a translucent image of Balan sliding in from off-screen. When the animated Balan and the still image overlap completely, you have to hit X. If you’re successful, you get an animation of Balan winning whatever fight he’s engaged in. Failure, naturally, means Balan gets booted off-screen.
The other version of the QTE involves multiple images of Balan appearing around the same time, requiring you to spam the X button as much as possible. This one seems particularly easy and is a blessing when it shows up.
So during each Bout, you’ll get between four and six QTEs. However, Bouts last a couple of minutes or more, during which you’ll have to watch Balan do his thing. Each sequence seems to have been randomly picked from a selection of maybe ten or so animations. That’s a lot of time for just pressing a button six times (or a little more if you get the second variety of QTE).
Worse yet, while they’re not the most difficult QTEs, anything less than an Excellent button entry will prevent you from earning the Balan statue for that Balan Bout, meaning you’ll need to redo the level to take another shot.
It’s just a masterclass in terrible ideas. Since it involves copy-pasted animations taking place in the same sort of void, it’s repetitive. Once you’ve started, you can’t pause it, and you can’t skip the animations either. As we’ve covered, the slightest mistake will force you to repeat levels to reattempt the Bout.
Oh, and it’s not content with you just doing one Balan Bout per level. As you proceed to the second batch of levels, you’ll find yourself with two Balan Bouts in each stage. The last few levels require you to do three!
So you see, for those trying to get all the Balan statues, even if you’re more competent than me and never make a single mistake, you’ll have to do Balan Bouts forty-eight times.
If we assume roughly two minutes per Balan Bout, then you’ll be doing a movie’s length of these near-identical QTEs over the course of the game!
The problem with Balan Wonderworld is that the design doesn’t always complement itself, and it takes some time to find a good flow. I’ve seen a few suggestions that the game should’ve been delayed but I don’t think a simple delay would be enough time to fix the main issues with the game.
Spyro the Dragon works so well as a treasure-collecting game because each level allows you to explore to your heart’s content. In Balan Wonderworld, the design constantly seems to be struggling between being a standard challenge of reaching the end, and trying to encourage you to explore.
The basic character move set needs to be more fluid. Just look at how Mario or Hat Kid (in A Hat in Time) parkour around stages, combining abilities to reach greater heights. In comparison, your slow jump in Balan Wonderworld feels mundane, especially bearing in mind that dividing unique abilities across eighty costumes dilutes any empowerment. You can’t even grab onto ledges.
This suggestion is more of a personal preference, but much easier to patch in. Costumes, once collected, should be permanently available from the wardrobe. Having to return to levels to collect more copies is just interruptive to flow and serves no fun purpose.
Nightmare into Dreams
Balan Wonderworld is almost certainly a project of ambition cut down by too many ideas that could not be realised. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Balan Bouts weren’t originally bonus stages with Nights into Dreams-style gameplay that ended up being trimmed into the QTE nightmare we got.
It’s also hampered by the fact that it tried to implement too many ideas, like the colossal number of costumes. A smaller number of costumes with tighter stage design would’ve gone a long way to making a better overall experience.
I also think they did themselves no favours by having such fancy cutscenes to contrast with the simpler in-game graphics. While I still think there’s a lot of visual splendour to be found, there’s no denying that the in-game effects and dances are a heavy step down from that introductory dance sequence.
All the same, it’s certainly not the worst platformer I’ve played. As it goes on, it becomes a lot more confident and entertaining in its design choices. If you’re on the fence, I’d recommend waiting for the inevitable price drop. However, if you hated the demo, I’d steer well clear!
It’s a shame because Balan Wonderworld has so many good ideas that could be sorted in a sequel, but its launch has been a disaster and the name forever tainted. Unless they can pull off a revamp on the scale of Final Fantasy XIV, I think this is the last we’ll see of Balan and his realm of dreams.
Rapid Reviews Rating
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Balan Wonderworld for PlayStation 4 and 5 from the following link: PlayStation Store
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.