Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: 3D Platformer, Puzzle, Action-Adventure
3D platformers have returned with a vengeance in the past decade or so, rising from the sloop of the early 2000s. Recent titles in the genre like Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey and Toys For Bob’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time have managed to impress on current-gen platforms. However, they can’t all be great, can they?
Unfortunately, Balan Wonderworld is a prime example of how nostalgia for the “good old days” of 3D platforming can go wrong. It’s a terribly disappointing effort, and even more so considering that the game boasts Yuji Naka, creator of the Sonic The Hedgehog and Nights Into Dreams franchises, as its director, and Naoto Ohshima, the designer of Sonic The Hedgehog, as its lead artist.
Two Decades Too Late?
Balan Wonderworld is Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima’s first title together since 1998’s Sonic Adventure, and it definitely shows. What I mean by that is that the game feels extremely dated by today’s standards of platformers, and your enjoyment of the game will heavily depend on whether you have fond memories of playing 3D platformers from 20 years ago and would want to relive them.
In Balan Wonderworld, players take on the role of either Leo Craig or Emma Cole, two protagonists who find themselves in the magical realm of Wonderworld by a mysterious being simply named Balan. That’s how the game starts and that’s basically it. Nothing is explained as players are dropped into a hub island with the option to enter twelve themed worlds called Chapters, each with two stages/levels called Acts and a boss at the end.
Players need to collect golden items called Balan Statues in the Acts within these Chapters. Not all Chapters will be available from the start, as the core progression mechanic of the game is to collect a prerequisite amount of Balan Statues before players can unlock new Chapters. There are bits of story and narrative here and there in the game, but it’s pretty much non-existent, and they’re only told via vibrant cutscenes (with no dialogue).
No one really plays platformers for their stories anyway, but what about the gameplay? Well, the gameplay is actually the worst part of Balan Wonderworld, and I’m not exaggerating in any way. It plays and feels like a 3D platformer from two decades ago as if it’s a remaster of a long-lost title from that era. That was probably done on purpose, but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that the game is so boring to play.
The main gameplay mechanic of Balan Wonderworld (besides all the jumping; it is a platformer after all) is the ability to transform into different costumes in each level. Each of the game’s 12 Chapters has its own selection of costumes (which can only be found there). Each time you beat a level, any costumes that you have are stored in an inventory closet of sorts, which can be accessed at checkpoints.
However, these costumes won’t just be readily available once you obtain them for the first time. To unlock a costume, you need a key, which can be found anywhere near a costume in any given level. If you die while a costume is equipped, you will lose it, and you’ll have to go back to the world where it’s originally from to obtain another one. Sure, you can accumulate several of the same costumes, but that takes more effort than it’s worth.
There are around 80 or so of these costumes in total, and each has exactly one single purpose or action. What this means is that the abilities of these costumes are all locked to a single button (every face button and trigger performs the exact same thing). That may sound simplistic but what makes it worst is that many costumes with certain abilities (like shooting projectiles) can’t even jump.
You read that right, some of them can’t even jump in a freaking platformer, which is incredibly frustrating. To make matters worse, players are limited to switching or toggling between only three different costumes at any given time.
Collecting and switching between costumes is the main crux of the core gameplay loop in Balan Wonderworld in order to solve puzzles and progress through levels. Most importantly, costumes are also used to obtain the aforementioned Balan Statues, which also increases replay value by encouraging players to visit older levels and trying to figure out which costume should be used to acquire those Balan Statues. That’s why it’s normal that players won’t be able to obtain all of the Balan Statues in a single Act the first time around.
Another bummer is that while Balan Wonderworld may have 80 different costumes, they’re disappointingly not varied enough. Visually, they all look distinctly different, and kudos to the art design team for that. However, they don’t feel unique enough in terms of abilities. Most of the costumes share the same abilities; a bunch of them will shoot projectiles, another group of them enables players to reach across distances either via floating or flying and more. This results in feelings of repetition and a sense of deja vu; a similar problem suffered by the Traveller Tales’ LEGO games (if you’ve played them).
Worst of all, some of them are downright useless and are sometimes only useful in one specific situation and never again. For instance, there’s a costume that allows players to go invisible or glow “whenever they feel like it”.
Yes, that’s verbatim from the costume’s description in the game. And no, it’s not as random as it may sound.
This costume issue comes to a head in the final boss battle. I won’t spoil much of what happens, but there’s a phase in the boss battle that forces players to only have access to the most-frequently-used costumes from each Chapter. How is this problem? In these levels, I mainly used costumes that help me solve puzzles and platforming obstacles; not those that focus on combat abilities. Well, those are the same costumes that pop up for me to use in the final boss battle, making the majority of them instantly useless in a combat situation. It’s absurd.
If you think all of that is bad, Balan Wonderworld generally feels like a slog to play, even on the PS5 with the DualSense controller. The clunky character movement feels ripped from the early 2000s, nowhere near as fluid or smooth as recent platformers have been. The crappy camera also doesn’t help, as it’s always too near for my comfort, often resulting in dumb accidental deaths that could have been entirely avoided.
Oh, and last but not least, players can cultivate Tims; colourful and cute little creatures that follow the player around and hang out on the Isle Of Tims hub. The crystals (called Drops in the game) you obtain while playing are used to feed them. Feeding the Tims will help them grow and give them new attributes according to their colour.
Based on their colour, they’ll do different things like help players fight enemies or help sniff out items in levels. In the end, all of this doesn’t do anything to add to or improve the already-mediocre core gameplay.
I’d be lying if I said that Balan Wonderworld doesn’t have any redeeming factors whatsoever. Despite the outdated gameplay, I did enjoy the game’s charming visuals and music very much. As for the visuals, I’m specifically referring to the cutscenes done by Visual Works, who have previously worked on 2005’s Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, 2016’s Kingsglaive Final Fantasy XV, as well as the cutscenes in several games from the Final Fantasy (Final Fantasy X, etc), Kingdom Hearts and Dragon Quest franchises.
So, yes, with all of that impressive work under their belt, it’s not surprising that the CG cutscenes in Balan Wonderworld are actually wonderful and a sight to behold. They’re usually brief and only appear at the end of each Chapter, but they’re almost worth working through the bland gameplay. Almost.
Another praiseworthy aspect of Balan Wonderworld is the music. Composer Ryo Yamazaki does an amazing job with the original score and soundtrack in this game. I just wish that they could have accompanied a much better game.
It’s frustrating to know how much there is to appreciate, but Balan Wonderworld is ultimately a game. No amount of good cutscenes or music can salvage a game with bad gameplay. Balan Wonderworld is average and mediocre at best. For a AAA 3D platformer with a AAA price, that’s not acceptable at all.
- Charming visuals (during cutscenes) and music (original soundtrack).
- 80 different costumes to play with.
- A mediocre & boring platformer that feels like it’s from 20 years ago.
- Most of the 80 different costumes are samey and repetitive, while some are downright useless.
- Clunky character movement and crappy camera.
- Unnecessary Tims mechanic.
Final Score: 40/100
Balan Wonderworld was reviewed on PS5 via a review code from the publisher (Square Enix/Bandai Namco Asia). It is now available on all the platforms listed above.