Developed By: Arzest, Balan Company Published By: Square Enix Categories: Platformer Release Date: 03.26.21
Balan Wonderworld seems to be a bit of a reunion of the people who created Sonic the Hedgehog. Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima, together for the first time since Sonic Adventure in 1998. This isn’t a Sonic clone however, not even remotely close. Instead, we have a unique brand of 3D Platformer.
Who Says playing Dress-up Isn’t Fun?
The key mechanic for Balan Wonderworld is the use of unique costumes. 80 of them to be exact, each being dripfet throughout the 12 worlds the game has. Each costume has their own unique ability, from breathing fire, ground pounds, stretching your legs to be long, phasing through walls, and even the mysterious Box Fox. A Fox, that randomly transforms into a box. With such a large number of costumes, some are bound to feel less useful or redundant, but I adore how there is a unique feel to each costume.
The elephant in the room with Balan Wonderworld is that the game employs a single button control scheme. The back shoulder buttons, face buttons, they all do the same thing. In gameplay proper, it’s strange to wrap your head around at first, but works. Inside of menus, it’s unwieldly, and your muscle memory will always default to pressing B or Y to go back, but those just confirm. In order to leave menus, you’ll need to scroll all the way to the option to go back. This seems like a bit of an oversight. Even Kirby Air Ride, which also had a single button control scheme back in 2003 knew to not miss that.
I’d Display My Statues Here…If I Had Any
What would be a 3D Platformer be without collectables? Balan Wonderworld has Drops, colored crystals we’ll describe later, and Balan Statues, items needed to unlock newer worlds to explore. Statues can be found by exploring, some in rather devious places, by using the costumes you find, and by doing Balan Bouts, started by finding a gold tophat in levels. Boss fights can also grant you statues, this time from using the costumes given to hit it in unique ways.
Balan Bouts are a series of QTEs, again only using one button. These are by far the worst part of the game. Pausing is pulled away from the player, you cannot restart, and if you even get one Great instead of an excellent, you’re locked out of the statue. Even worse is that you cannot replay these segments again until you come back to the stage after playing multiple other stages. It’s incredibly frustrating with that alone. The actual QTEs are not very good either, with them having difficult tells. You’ll swear you got it perfect, but then miss slightly, locking you out of the statue.
Luckily, I enjoyed finding the other statues. There’s really creative ways to get them inside of equally creative stages. Stages, of which each world has two to start, and a third in post game are all linear treks, but are plenty open enough to hide things. You’re not going to get every statue on your first trip, don’t stress out about it. You can always come back once you get the needed costume for a challenge. Though, the stages might be harder or easier now, as the game has adaptive difficulty.
Tim is Time Without the E
The previous mentioned Drops you find are used for these little creatures you take care of called Tims. Tims follow you in stages and assist you by fighting with you, finding items, and other tasks. I leaned how the Tims functioned by observing them, as it’s not explained exactly well in game. With eggs found, or by feeding Tims enough, you can get more and they can help you build a tower, something that is again, not explained well. They’re cute at least.
It’s Like Theater
Balan Wonderworld’s strongest element is it’s presentation. The fantastic, majestic soundtrack from Ryo Yamazaki, the beautiful cutscenes by Square Enix’s animation studio Visual Works. It’s always a pleasure seeing Visual Works’ work in games, both them and Sega’s Marza. There’s a theater mode to watch these cutscenes too, so someone must have (rightfully so) be proud of them. Ryo Yamazaki’s music is equally as stunning, full of ear worms. Their credits usually are for arrangements, so hearing them do a full soundtrack as the lead composer truly let them shine.
I love how the stages and especially characters look. Characters are full of variety and the game has that Naoto Oshima feel to everyone and thing you see, especially the boss fights. Stages have their otherwordly feel, not quite feeling natural. An early stage even wraps around and unravels as you go through it.
The Switch port is for sure not as good looking or performing as the PS5 or Series X releases. But it still plays just as fine as long as the occasional stutter doesn’t bother you. Balan Wonderworld has much of a relaxed feel to it outside of the Balan Bouts (which run smooth), I never felt like I was being held back.
You Want Me to Do What Now?
Balan Wonderworld joins many a Square Enix IPs and asks that you delve into supplementary material to get the full experience. Normally this is fine, most of these games give context for what’s going on, and the other stuff just expands on it. Here, this isn’t the case. Why are people dancing? What or who is Balan? Why do the two leads live the lives they live? Read the book and find out. The most the game tells you is that people have been driven to madness by disaster or other trauma, and with the help of Balan, you can help…I think.
The game is perfectly fine without it, but having next to no context to…anything is a shame and having even a little would have been preferable.
Perhaps a Blast From the Past
Balan Wonderworld lives and breaths the feel of a PS2 platformer. To some this is a negative, but I love the feeling of older games form that generation. An age when games truly started to really figure things out, like proper 3D. I don’t believe games age unless it’s something that is being held down tremendously by the format it’s on, so a game in the modern age feeling like a game that I played in my adolescence is fine in by book. This isn’t a perfect game, and needs more time in the oven, even if it’s just with future patches, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Even better is that it can be played with a friend right next to you, allowing you to even combine your powers. Consider me a person who looks for the character a game has above all.