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May 2021

Balan Wonderworld

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 26, 2021


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Switch/PS5/PS4/XSX/XOne/PC Preview - 'Balan Wonderworld'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Jan. 27, 2021 @ 5:30 p.m. PST

Entering a whimsical and bizarre land through a mysterious theatre, Balan Wonderworld is an action-platformer where you take on the role of Leo and Emma as they embark on an adventure like no other.

Mascot games used to be all the rage. Nintendo and Sega "fought" through their bizarrely charming iconic mascots. Sony tried to hop into the fray with games like Blasto and Crash Bandicoot, but after the PS2 era, that sort of title has fallen by the wayside, except for existing characters. That's why it's interesting to see Sonic creator Yuji Naka's return to the field with Balan Wonderworld. While it might be an entirely new IP, the game would feel right at home alongside Mario 64 and Sonic Adventure.

Balan Wonderworld follows two children, Emma and Leo. Both seem to be living sad lives until a magical creature named Balan summons them. It realizes that their hearts are missing something and invites them into its titular Wonderworld to help them find it. The Wonderworld seems to exist in the minds of various people and is under attack by a tentacled creature that's reminiscent of Balan. Emma and Leo must help the people of these worlds and (hopefully) themselves.

Naka's best known game is Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that was played with only a jump button and a d-pad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Balan Wonderworld does the exact same thing. You only have a single action button and the ability to move. By default, you can only jump. You'll gather new abilities by collecting costumes scattered throughout the stages; each costume has its a unique power, and you can hold up to three costumes at a time and instantly swap between them. In true Mario style, if you get hit you'll lose the costume that you're currently wearing along with all of the associated powers. Lose all of your costumes, and the next hit sends you back to the last checkpoint.

There is a wide variety of costumes. There were over 10 different costumes in the handful of stages that we played in the preview build, and some costumes featured familiar abilities. Tornado Wolf does a spinning tornado jump that breaks blocks, damages enemies, and can send enemy tornados back to their source. Aero Acrobat has Sonic's homing attack and can instantly target enemies and objects in the environment. Dainty Dragon can't jump but breathes long-distance fire, while Pounding Pig does a familiar ground pound attack that flattens foes and smashes walls. The game supports local co-op, and players can combine their abilities to access paths they couldn't access alone, but it is far from necessary.

Each costume is used in different ways, and Balan Wonderworld offers multiple paths, depending on your equipped costume. For example, having a Jumping Jack costume lets you take shortcuts that you couldn't normally take, while Gear Prince unlocks doors that otherwise remain sealed. Costumes carry over from world to world, but not every costume is available in every world. Sometimes secrets even require you to bring in a costume from another world to find hidden pathways. There are paths you can't access the first time through a level because they require something from a later stage, so that encourages players to return with new equipment to try to find everything.

Secrets are important because Balan Wonderworld has a bit of Mario 64 in it as well. Each stage has a linear path to the exit, but to unlock further stages, you need to collect golden statues of Balan located throughout the levels. Most of these are hidden and off the beaten path, so you need to explore and use powers to access them. You don't need all the statues in a level to progress, but you need a bare minimum, much like suns/moons/stars in the 3D Mario titles. There are a handful hidden in each act of the game, and the true goal of levels is to find them.

We also got a chance to see one of the boss battles, which are a tad unusual. Your goal isn't to just beat the boss but to earn Balan statues while doing so. The bosses are weak to specific attacks, and each damage you deal earns a Balan statue. The first boss, Barktholomew, is a big nasty wolf that attacks you in different ways. You can jump on him to damage him, but you can also knock a tornado back at him or pound a pillar to cause another to rise up beneath him and damage him. It turns the fights into more of a puzzle, since you have to figure out how to make the boss's attacks work against it.

The platforming in the preview build is fine, but swapping between costumes has a significant delay while an animation plays out. Considering each costume can only do one thing — including jumping — it can be tedious to swap costumes. While it isn't game-breaking, I hope the final version speeds up the animation to make the swaps feel more natural. It feels like there is a bit of a deliberate risk to swapping mid-combat, but even so, the length is a touch long.

Overall, Balan Wonderland seems like a love letter to the era of mascot games. Borrowing a little Sonic, a little Nights, a little Kirby, and a little Mario, it feels like it's trying to capture the feel of those games while having its own distinct personality. Hopefully, the final version of the game will have what it takes to live up to those impressive names. Players will get a chance to try it for themselves, as a demo of the game is releasing for all platforms the day this preview comes out, with the full version launching on Mar. 26, 2021 for PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

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