Hands-on Preview – Balan Wonderworld
Initially unveiled at one of Microsoft’s Xbox Series S/X-focused presentations last year, Balan Wonderworld is the upcoming return to the industry for veteran director Yuji Naka, also known as the father of Sonic the Hedgehog. This is his first meaningful project since 2015’s critically panned Rodea the Sky Soldier. Not to mention his first AAA project since, well, Phantasy Star Universe and Shadow the Hedgehog, released almost fifteen years ago.
Having one of the most important game designers in the industry make a comeback after so long is always nice, but I have to be really honest, I was worried sick about Naka making a comeback with a 3D platformer. For as much as I like games like Sonic Adventure, they aren’t exactly very good. Naka has never delivered a truly good 3D platformer. In fact, with the exception of the lightning in a bottle that was Phantasy Star Online, he has never managed to deliver a truly amazing 3D game in general. This brand new Balan Wonderworld demo just made me feel even more worried about the final project.
The first thing that caught me off guard with this PS5 demo was the fact that you don’t actually play as Balan, that Nights-looking character that’s all over this game’s promotional material. Instead, you either play as a boy, Leo, or a girl, Emma, who are transported to a mystical dream world by the game’s titular Willy Wonka-esque poster boy. I still don’t even know if that fella is supposed to be a villain or an ally.
Here’s where Balan Wonderworld shines the brightest: it’s absolutely gorgeous. Its presentation looks just like an anime-influenced Pixar movie, full of colorful characters, wacky level design, superb use of color, and a fantastic framerate, all thanks to the PS5’s superior hardware. Characters have all been designed by Naoto Oshima, the same man who designed most Sonic and Nights characters. Loading times are nearly nonexistent as well. Finally, the excellent soundtrack is being handled by Square Enix’s in-house composer Ryo Yamazaki. He delivers a great job in here, at least in the handful of levels included in this demo.
I have to commend Balan Company and Square Enix for providing players with such a lengthy demo, full of levels and unlockables. You can see the developers had a blast coming up with these dream-like environments, which are clearly inspired by old-school 3D Sonic games, as well as Super Mario Galaxy.
In Balan Wonderworld, you basically use only two buttons and the analog stick to move around. One button lets you change between costumes acquired throughout each level and another one performs the sole action said costume allows you to do. The demo alone had more than a dozen costumes available for you to test, which ranged from a flower suit that allows you to stretch vertically, a sheep suit that lets you float in the air, a Jack O’ Lantern costume that gives you the ability to throw rocket punches a-la Rayman, and much more. Those costumes are varied and creative, and each level is filled with both mandatory and optional puzzles which require them in order for you to progress.
In true Super Mario 3D World fashion, your main goal is to simply reach the end of a level, but each course has a wide variety of well-hidden collectibles for you to find. They act as this game’s Power Stars, as more levels are unlocked the more trophies you find. It gives you an extra incentive to replay each level after beating it once, which is something I need to praise the developers for.
Sadly, this is where the problems start. Even though I love pretty much everything in Balan Wonderworld‘s design and art departments, its gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. The best way to describe the controls is that they’re slippery and clunky like in Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. Yep, you read it correctly: even though we live in an era where 3D platforming controls have already been perfected, Balan Wonderworld felt as janky as a platformer from the Dreamcast era. I love the Dreamcast to death, but I’m the first one to admit that its platformers all shared the same slippery momentum issues. The camera did not feel very reliable as well.
Balan Wonderworld will be released in about a month and a half from the time this preview has been written. I hope that Yuji Naka and his team manage to fix this game’s wonky physics and controls by then, because there’s a lot of potential in here. This game features phenomenal graphics, great level design and a fantastic soundtrack. If they manage to make the gameplay feel more like a modern 3D platformer, and less like good ol’ (janky) Sonic Adventure, then we might have a cult classic in the making. If not, then Naka-san’s return to the spotlight will be much shorter than anticipated.