When you look at a game like Balan Wonderworld, there’s so many things it stirs. The art is reminiscent of Nights Into Dreams. The ability mechanic reminds me of a Metroidvania. The 3D platforming illicits thoughts of Mario. There are so many things here. And why shouldn’t there be? The theme is theater and imagination, in which anything can happen, and the director is Yuji Naka, who has had a hand in decades of different gaming genres and styles as a producer and programmer. Balan Wonderwold is Naka’s maiden voyage as director of the new Balan Company studio, and if the early preview demo I played is any indication, the journey ahead looks splendid indeed.
Finding your heart in Wonderworld
The premise of Balan Wonderworld is a whimsical one, if not a little unsettling in its whimsy. Players take on the role of a child (a lightly customizable boy or girl) who feels lost in their lives and runs away. They find their way to a rundown theater called Wonderworld in which the mysterious showman Balan awaits. Balan promises a magical place which can cure an empty heart and whisks them away to the depths of Wonderworld.
Along the way, the player will discover a menagerie of worlds in which platforming challenges and various costumes that will give them abilities await, as well as foes guided by a mysterious dark force. In these worlds, the stories of various characters brought to the depths of sadness await, and it’s on the player to defeat the challenges of their world, beat back the dark force infecting them, and bring joy and hope back. There was a lot of implied stuff here as the preview kept a bit of a wrap on exactly what was going on, but what story we could make out in preview seemed obvious enough. Balan is a kooky if not off-putting master of mysterious power. Meanwhile, the main enemy is present but not overtly introduced, and the worlds you explore are extremely varied. What I got to see brought me full on into the lighthearted charm and mystery of this game and I can’t wait to see how it fully unravels when the complete game comes out.
Putting on your best face for the show
One of the most featured components of Balan Wonderworld has been its platforming in which you use various costumes with unique abilities to traverse the environments, collect their rewards, and defeat their challenges. I really enjoyed the levels the preview had for me. Foundationally, they’re not hard to overcome in the first few levels, but the more you explore, the more it becomes clear that you’ll need one ability or another from the costumes you find in the game to see the entirety of what each level offers. A spinning wolf costume you get at the beginning is great for defeating foes and breaking fragile blocks to open up paths, while a dancing gear costume becomes your key to operating gear blocks and moving objects affected by them around to form paths. Meanwhile, a costume you get later allows you to fly into the sky on fans and reach otherwise unobtainable places.
What’s even more fun about the costume element is that you collect them and can then use them in other levels. It becomes apparent very early on that you need costumes that might be in one level to unlock unique paths and rewards in another level. You only lose them if you get hit (which can be annoying if you’re not in the level and lose the costume you need), but as your collection of costumes amasses, so does your range of abilities to explore each level to its fullest.
The levels in each world have their own gimmicks that act separate of the costumes too, such as a rolling ball that will track you and threaten to squish you unless you guide it to a hole to open a door. There’s also a set of mirrors in another world that allow you to pass through to various different places. The same level has a clock tower section with trigger switches that turn the directions on revolving gears so you can climb up the tower. Aiding all of the colorful variety and challenge of the levels and costumes themselves is a catchy collection of music I almost immediately fell in love with and have been humming to myself even when I’m not playing the game.
Tying this all together is a hub world full of fluffy little chick-like beings called Tems that seem to aid you in your adventure. You can feed them and even engage in some sort of improvement to the hub world that seems to help them out. Their purpose in the game isn’t overtly clear yet, but they were cute nonetheless and I’m curious to see what helping them accomplishes.
How to fill an ailing heart
Put everything above together and Balan Wonderworld was probably some of the most fun I’ve had jumping into a 3D platformer in a long time. It has all the whimsy, musical catchiness, presentation, mechanical soundness, and challenge that reminds me of why I like games like Super Mario Odyssey. It kept my attention, and despite its main game beat mostly featuring the collection of level rewards and costumes, there was enough variety that I didn't feel like it was a chore. This early peek left a lot teased and unsaid, but it’s an early preview. So with that said, if this is the matinee, I’m pretty much all-in for Balan Wonderworld’s main event.
This preview is based off of an PlayStation 5 early demo build supplied by the publsiher. Balan Wonderworld will launch on March 26, 2021 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X & S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.