Balan Wonderworld has been nothing short of flashy since it was first shown to us at the Xbox Series X games showcase livestream in 2020. Coming from Square Enix and under the direction of prolific former Sega Team producer Yuji Naka, Balan Wonderworld promised a 3D platforming experience in which players would explore a myriad of worlds filled to the brim with unique abilities found in costumes. With the game finally out, we explored this mysterious adventure to find our hearts alongside the enigmatic Balan. However, for all the rather gorgeous stage play going on in Balan Wonderworld, there’s a few too many issues upstaging the stars of the show.
A journey to find your heart
Here’s what I know about Balan Wonderworld’s narrative: We take on the role either a boy or a girl (you can play one in solo or both in co-op play) who are dissatisfied with their lives for some reason, and so they find their way to a mysterious theater run by the equally mysterious Balan. Balan is a seemingly magical showman who takes them into the fantasy realm of Wonderworld to find their hearts with the help of fluffy little bird creatures known as Tims. This apparently involves traveling to the fantastical dream worlds of various people and helping them through tragic events (most of whom you only meet or learn about when you reach the end of their worlds).
See, there’s also a villainous counterpart to Balan known as Lance that harnesses the sadness of people and gives it monstrous form. And so you act on behalf of Balan to fight off their corruption and bring hope back to them. And then you do a victory dance with them for some reason. Along the way you collect more and more of those aforementioned bird-like Tims, feed them with jewels you find in levels, and watch as they play on contraptions that progress a number counter until it reaches a certain milestone. At that point, it awards you and the Tims with even more elaborate contraptions for them to play on. All of this is apparently towards your character restoring their own happiness or something. To be honest, more than 75 percent of this is presumption on my part because this game tells you next to nothing for most of the experience.
Who are these people? I’m not quite sure. Why do I only find out about them briefly at the end of their Chapters? I’m not sure. What is the point of Tims having bigger rides to play on? I don’t know. Why is Balan helping me and why is this the way he’s going about it? You get the idea… but at least it all looks very flashy and amusing, I guess? Balan Wonderworld is nothing if not stylish. The Tims are cute, their contraptions look amusing, the worlds you explore are thoroughly different and visually fantastic. Meanwhile, the music that pervades the game is a bona fide keeper of a soundtrack I’d listen to whether I was playing Balan Wonderworld or not. I remember playing the preview and thinking, “dang, I can’t wait to see how they explain what’s going on with all of this crazy interesting stuff!” Well, I’d be lying if I said I know a lot more now than I did then.
What would a platformer be without platforms?
So at the core, Balan Wonderworld is very, very simple. Every face button performs the function of whatever form you’re in. At basic, it’s a jump, but it isn’t long before you start discovering different costumes for your character that add abilities to what you can do overall. There are numerous costumes throughout the game and you can hold three to switch between at any given time. Some just provide traversal and utility, like the ability to hover a bit longer on a jump or breath fireballs. Some are uniquely niche and provide traversal in otherwise impassable scenarios, like a spider costume on webs or a gear costume operating switches that open up paths in the environment. And then some are just downright redundant or too unwieldy for their own good, like the multiple costumes that utilize tornado elements or the Box Fox ability that uncontrollably changes you into a sliding cube during which you can't change back or controll anything for a moment.
I’ll admit, I did enjoy collecting the costumes and their abilities. Early levels are full of obstacles that can’t be handled without later costumes, providing some replayability, and finding those costumes is a fun “aha” moment. What was less fun is that you don’t just have those costumes to keep. You store them like stocks in your collection and if you get hit or fall to your doom, you lose a stock of your equipped costume. If you lose all stocks of the costume, then you no longer have access to it or its abilities and have to go back to the level it was in to collect more stocks. But don’t worry, you can just stand around waiting for stocks of the same costume to respawn where you found it with keys to unlock it that are always like 15 feet away at most. It’s all just an obnoxious anchor weighing down most semblances of fun the costume system might provide.
And speaking of obnoxious, if you’re wondering about what might hit you, the game throws enemies at you at various junctures of the game. Usually, you’ll know when you’re entering a wide-open arena-like area that minions are about to spawn and fight you. These enemies take on the form of shadowy creatures that range from small flailing goo balls and fish to pelicans and beetles with spikey shields that charge at you, all usually based on the theme of the level, and none of them are that fun to fight. They die with a jump on the head or a hit from an attack ability and you go about your business… unless you wait around too long. Then they respawn and you fight them again, over and over till you flee the scene where they appear. There are bosses and these are about as inspired as fights get. Generally, the bosses actually require you to utilize the chapter’s costumes and abilities to beat them, like reflecting tornadoes back at a tornado-flinging foe or locking on and dive-kicking one boss’s nose. That said, even they mostly boil down to jumping on or attacking a weak spot when they present it to you.
Add to this that there are Balan Statues and hats hidden throughout each level. The statues are necessary to collect so you can move forward to new Chapters and worlds. The hats serve as minigames in which you must play a short flashy rhythm game with Balan in which he flies through some empty space, destroys some junk, and multiplies the gems you’ve been collecting to feed the Tims if you do well. It adds a bit more variety and replayability to the levels to find these statues and hats, but all of it is as much without context or sense as the story, so I could only care so much.
All flash, no substance
The finished state of Balan Wonderworld is disappointing to say the least. For all of its style, I was really interested to see how they would expand upon the preview. The aesthetic and characters are there, the music is captivating, the level design made me want to explore and experiment where I could, and the abilities mostly gave me options to do so. However, these things are held down by a lot of contrivances and outright holes in either functionality or context. The final release of Balan Wonderworld felt like a rush job where good ideas, visuals, and sounds were forced to dance among either unfinished or unfun nonsense. It can be seen at its worst extent in an epilepsy-triggering glitch that had to be patched out of the game on Day One. It would be cool if many of the aspects of Balan Wonderworld were given new life in a better form someday, but for all of its pizazz, this is one show I find upsettingly hard to give a full recomendation.
This review is based on a PlayStation 5 copy of the game supplied by the publisher. Balan Wonderworld is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
- Levels can be quite gorgeous
- Some of the platform design is charming and engaging
- Soundtrack is great
- Balan is a wonderfully quirky character
- The story has little to no context
- Enemies are boring to fight and respawn quickly
- Costumes are stocked and must be recollected if lost
- Some costumes are redundant
- Other costumes are nearly useless
- Who are these people and why am I helping them?
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Balan Wonderworld review: All show, no tell