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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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PS5 Review - 'Balan Wonderworld'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 1, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

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.

Buy Balan Wonderworld

When an esteemed developer sets out to make a new game in the genre that made them famous, it can always be a mixed bag. Keiji Inafune's infamous Mighty No. 9 went from Kickstarter darling to internet joke, while similar ousted developer Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained was met positively. When Yuji Naka, the man who effectively created Sonic the Hedgehog, said he was coming back for one more platformer, it seemed hopeful. The game looked like a mix of Sonic and cult classic NiGHTs, and assuming it captured the feel of either of those titles, it would've been a delight. Unfortunately, Balan Wonderworld doesn't quite meet the expected highs or dreaded lows. Instead, it creates something far more disheartening: unmemorable and boring.

Balan Wonderworld's story is told through minimal use of cut scenes. Players control two characters: a boy named Leo or a girl named Emma. The two are drawn into the mysterious titular Wonderworld, a realm that's connected to the hearts of humans. Aided by a magician-like creature named Balan, the two set out to help people overcome their tragedies and trauma. All the while, they are menaced by a dark creature that resembles Balan but seems intent on stopping them.


Balan Wonderworld is a 3D platformer with a distinct concept: You can move and use only one button. By default, that button jumps, and any button you hit is going to cause you to jump. Admittedly, this gives it a short learning curve, as once you can move and tap a button, you can finish the game. Sonic the Hedgehog was a title that had nothing but jump buttons, and it's entirely possible to make that work if your level design is strong enough. Balan Wonderworld lacks that strength.

Balan Wonderworld's biggest gimmick involves costumes that you can locate throughout the stages. Each level has a variety of goofy outfits, each with a unique skill that replaces the default jump action. Sometimes this is an attack, a new way to move, or a key to solve a puzzle. You can hold multiple costumes at once, but you still need to pick and choose. If you take damage, you'll lose your costume and need to find a new one if you want to continue to use its powers, just like in Super Mario Bros.

The problem with the costume concept in Balan Wonderworld is that it goes for quantity over quality. The one-button nature of the game means that any costume you get can serve one purpose. Sometimes, this is a universal purpose like a longer jump. Other times, it amounts to little more than a key, which is effectively worthless except to be used in one specific spot — and that's where things go drastically wrong. Rather than the various costumes feeling cool and exciting, there are a couple that you want to have, but the rest are required to complete certain puzzles.

This undercuts the entire concept of the game by making one of the core mechanics feel like a chore. I was rarely excited to get a new costume because the odds were rather slim that it would be anything but an albatross around my neck. The one-button gameplay works against it because having fewer costumes with distinct gimmicks a la Mario could've gone a long way. Instead, even the fun costumes feel like they fade into the morass of dull.


It's also difficult to ignore that other games with similar concepts (from Disney's Magical Quest to Mario Odyssey) make the switching between various skill mesh with the gameplay instead of detract from it. Most of the new forms in Odyssey are effectively one-button affairs, but they feel natural to hop in and out of. This isn't true of Balan. Tying the costumes to your health also feels misplaced. If you take a stray hit with the costume you need to progress, you're forced to march back and get it again, which amounts to little more than a waste of time.

The Mario comparisons are difficult to avoid because Balan desperately wants to be a Mario game. Instead of stars/moons/shines, you're collecting trophies, which are scattered throughout the game's stages. The trophies unlock new stages, which get more trophies, and so on. The issue is that this just doesn't feel good. Unlike Mario's massive variety of celestial bodies to collect, Balan Wonderworld feels awkward and forced, with most trophies requiring a specific costume, some of which you have to unlock, so finishing a stage feels more like a chore than a conquest.

The game tries to spice up things with various minigames, but none stand out. The Tims function almost identically to Chao from Sonic Adventure but are less cute and fleshed out. They represent one of the most enjoyable parts of the game compared to the half-baked minigames. The absolute worst is Balan's Bouts, where players get the chance to briefly (sort of) control Balan with a QTE and canned animations. It's not so bad the first couple of times you see it, but once you've done it a couple of times, you realize that you've seen everything it has to offer.

Perhaps the high point of the game is the boss battles. They're not too special, but the gimmick behind them makes them enjoyable. You have a collection of costumes the stage provides, and each one can counter a specific boss attack or damage the boss. You're encouraged to figure out each attack and its weakness, turning each boss into a small puzzle with some room for creativity. I can't say that any are exceptional, but I looked forward to the boss battles more than anything else in the game.


Visually, Balan Wonderworld is a mixed bag. The cut scenes are quite nice, and when the worlds are experimental and creative, they look rather cool. However, a lot of the time, they end up being dull, lifeless, and empty. In some ways, it reminds me of an HD remake of a Nintendo 64-era Mario knockoff rather than something made in 2021. The music is perfectly fine and often good, but it doesn't match up to some of the incredibly catchy tunes that we've come to expect from mascot platformers. For the most part, I enjoyed the music, which did a good job of setting the tone.

Balan Wonderworld is a great idea on paper, and it's perfectly playable from start to finish, but it's held back by some baffling design decisions and boring gameplay. The idea of a protagonist who swaps between costumes to collect Mario-style shines could be great, but the costumes are too simple, the environments are too boring, and the gameplay is too basic. It could possibly be a good game for extremely young players due to its low difficulty and cartoony graphics, but even then, I would recommend one of the many other offerings intended for that demographic instead.

Score: 6.5/10



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