Review – Balan Wonderworld
Balan Wonderworld, Yuji Naka’s first game in many years, his first project with his new team, and also his first project being published by the juggernaut known as Square Enix. People were hyped for it when the game was first announced, but it seemed like all hope was lost the moment that infamous demo dropped a month ago. Developer Arzest promised that some of its most glaring issues, namely the bizarre physics and janky controls, would be fixed with a day-one patch. That announcement alone made me still look forward to playing it, albeit skeptically. Did they actually fix some of its issues? Was Yuji Naka’s comeback destined to flop like John Romero’s Empire of Sin? Well, let’s find out.
I was shocked to realise that Balan Wonderworld was actually very story-heavy, with a big background plot for each of the two playable characters, as well as a detailed story for each of the worlds in the game. These all revolve around the psyche of an anxious or depressed person, such as a scuba diver who’s afraid of swimming after almost drowning. Behind the ultra colorful and ultra cheerful art style lies a game that’s mostly about mental health and trying to find a solace to the problems each person is facing. The creepy-looking Balan is dead set on helping out these people, while the villain Lance takes advantage of one’s biggest fears to transform them into monsters.
Such a detailed (and honestly, quite original) story for what’s essentially a by-the-books platformer. Sadly, despite being way more enjoyable than its disastrous demo, Balan Wonderworld is still far from perfect. But I’m also here to tell you that it’s actually… okay. If you were expecting for a Mighty No. 9 kind of disaster, this is not the case. There is fun to be had here, and this game features some aspects that are worthy of a lot of praise, but it’s janky, a bit messy, and most importantly, it feels dated.
I called Balan Wonderworld a Dreamcast game for the year 2021, and that comment still stands. Between the weird movements and physics, you’ll need to relearn how to get used to early 3D platforming unreliability in order to properly enjoy this game. The camera, while still not very good, is a lot more bearable here than how it was in the demo, but you will need to slightly increase its sensitivity in the options menu in order not to want to throw the DualSense across the room. Those things are expensive, make sure to take care of them.
The collision detection has been slightly improved, and jumping doesn’t feel as egregious as before. Most of my complaints regarding Balan Wonderworld‘s gameplay now lie on a truckload of pile up small inconveniences and not necessarily deal-breaking problems. Furthermore, the game only uses two commands besides walking with analog stick: you perform the sole action tied to the costume you’re currently wearing (you’ll find them across all levels) with a total of six different face buttons, and you can change costumes with R1 and L1. That’s all you need to know.
Your objective in each level is to simply reach the end goal, but each one of them features eight trophies you can collect in order to unlock more worlds later on. They are this game’s equivalent of Super Mario 64‘s stars. You can also collect gems that can be used to feed the Tims, Balan Wonderworld‘s take on Sonic‘s Chaos. The more gems you feed them in the main hub world, the bigger they’ll grow, to the point they’ll get so big they’ll lay an egg that will grant you an additional Tim.
The neat thing about these trophies is that most of them require costumes that aren’t always available in the level you’re currently playing in. The game incentivizes you to replay levels with different costumes in order to locate all of the trophies. I have to give Yuji Naka and his team credit for the level design: going from A to B is straightforward enough, but each level masterfully hides its trophies in interesting ways, with nice puzzles to solve. Not all costumes feel useful (in fact, most of them feel redundant), but there’s quite a lot of room available for experimentation.
Just like most of Yuji Naka’s 3D games not called Phantasy Star Online (that game is as perfect as it gets), Balan Wonderworld fails in its gameplay, but shines when it comes to its presentation. It’s a surprisingly good looking game that does take advantage of the PS5’s hardware to render some impressive and colorful levels, all while running at a silky smooth 60fps without a single framerate drop. The character design is quite good, as to be expected from the same team that designed characters for the Sonic and Nights franchises, with the exception of the tryhard edgelord Lance.
Without a doubt, the best thing about Balan Wonderworld is its soundtrack. Square Enix’s own Ryo Yamazaki, who worked on games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and Kingdom Hearts, delivered an amazing soundtrack full of some of the catchiest and most adorable tunes in memory. The game’s main theme song, which is also used in the game’s first world, is easily its highlight.
I think the best way to describe Balan Wonderworld in a short but easy-to-grasp way is by comparing it to Yuji Naka’s Sonic Adventure. Both are graphically impressive, both feature phenomenal soundtracks, both are packed with a lot of content… but both are pretty underwhelming when it comes to their gameplay, even though you can get used to their jankiness and still have a great time. Balan Wonderworld is a Dreamcast platformer for the year 2021. It’s charming as hell, quite fun, but it’s very flawed. Honestly, I expected a lot worse.
Between the colorful visuals, excellent framerate, Naoto Oshima-penned character design, and the high quality FMVs you’d expect from a Square Enix project, Balan Wonderworld knows how to be a visual treat.
Some of the movement issues present in the demo have been fixed, but Balan Wonderworld‘s controls and overall gameplay feel a bit dated and janky. Just like back in the Dreamcast days, you can get used to it, but that doesn’t mean those problems can be easily forgiven.
One thing you should always expect from a Yuji Naka project: a fantastic soundtrack. Square Enix’s own Ryo Yamazaki delivers one of the catchiest and most adorable soundtracks in recent memory.
Fun Factor: 6.5
It’s janky as hell, but it doesn’t mean you cannot appreciate its many qualities. It feels like an above average 3D platformer from twenty years ago with brand new (and high quality) visuals and sound.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Balan Wonderworld is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Balan Wonderworld was provided by the publisher.