What do you get when you combine Square Enix with Yuji Naka, the former head of the Sonic Team who not only was the lead programmer on the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, but also led development on Night into Dreams, and Sonic Adventure? Turns out, one of the worst 3D platformers ever to see the light of day.
Have you ever played a game and felt relief that it’s finally over? That’s how I felt while seeing the credits roll on Balan Wonderworld (which isn’t called Balan Wonderland, by the way, even though that’s a far better name and there is more than one Alice in Wonderland reference in the game). And then the screen went black and a message popped up that said I’d unlocked more levels and I literally screamed, “No! I don’t want to play any more of this game!!!” and I meant it. Balan Wonderworld is flawed to its very core.
This review could just be a series of questions I asked myself out loud while playing this game. For example:
What are my character’s motivations?
Who is Balan, what are his motivations?
Why is there a giant farmer sitting around giant vegetables? Why are they small now?
Why can I only carry three costumes with me at a time?
Why are costumes consumable?
Why are some costumes’ abilities activated randomly, did someone think RNG is what 3D platformers were missing?
Why am I playing this exact quick time event for literally the third *explicative* time in this *explicative* level?
Why is there a musical dance number after every boss stage, including one that has a character dancing and celebrating who was under the impression that a car had recently run over her cat?
Why is it that almost all the white characters have practically no lips and the one black character has giant lips???
There’s zero explanation for anything in Balan Wonderworld, from the story to the gameplay. Every design decision is baffling. Almost like someone at the publisher/developer just decided to pick and choose bits and pieces of other popular games and completely misunderstand what makes them good.
At its core, Balan Wonderworld is a basic 3D platformer that unsuccessfully tries to create a mashup of Mario Odyssey’s character swapping mechanics with Sonic the Hedgehog-like characters. Each level has a set of costumes with unique abilities to find, based on the various characters seen dancing (for unexplained reasons) around each stage. Each costume is contained inside a locked gem, which requires a generic consumable key to open. These keys are almost always placed mere feet away from each costume’s gem, meaning they serve practically no purpose other than to slow your progress for what amounts to essentially seconds. Keys and costumes respawn over time, which is good because should you fall or take any damage you’ll lose the costume you’re currently wearing, which more often than not means tedious backtracking.
You can carry up to three costumes at a time (including duplicates), and while you can swap between those three on the fly, there is a short-but-still-too-long animation that plays every time you do so. Otherwise, you’re forced to find one of the checkpoints in each stage, stand on it for a second, then walk into a costume closet that spawns, where you can select any of the costumes you’ve collected from any level, pending you have copies of them banked. If you have three costumes and collect another costume gem, then your rightmost costume displayed in the HUD is stored in the closet while the costume you are wearing is pushed down to the next slot. This leads to having to constantly swap between costumes to ensure the costume you’re about to pick up is also the one in the third slot, so you can store copies of it while also continuing to be able to use it to progress through the stage. If that sounds tedious, it’s because it is and it sucks.
On top of that, it’s easy and not at all rare to end up getting hit and losing the only costume you currently have on your character that can jump. It is possible to have three costumes equipped, and none of them be able to jump…in a 3D platformer. Which, as you may have guessed, can often lead to backtracking or even being forced to fall off the edge of the stage, which takes you back to the last checkpoint and wastes yet another costume, which you may or may not need soon to progress in the stage; it is infuriating.
Each of the twelve levels initially has two stages to complete (with a third being unlocked in postgame), as well as a boss fight. Each stage has a handful of Balan statues to find, which act as this game’s main collectibles that are required to progress. Many statues are unobtainable until you’ve returned with costumes from later levels that have the required abilities to do so. This means if you want to see the credits roll you’ll be forced to do at least a bit of backtracking, as otherwise, you won’t have the required amount to unlock the final boss fight.
There are also gemstones and Tim eggs scattered around each stage, which respawn each time you enter the level. Tims -small, colourful, and fuzzy blob-like creatures with bird beaks or rabbit/bear ears -hatch from collected eggs in the overworld between stages, with the gems being used to feed them. Feeding Tims makes them play on structures which slowly earns points towards unlocking bits and pieces in the overworld including more structures for them to play on and a giant clock face floating in the sky above called the “Clock of happiness” that I’ve yet to find any purpose for, as it doesn’t even tell time.
While at first glance someone might think Tims serve as a replacement for the Chao Garden from the Sonic Adventure games, they’re far less interesting or deep. At least, as far as I can tell. Balan Wonderworld does not attempt to explain any of its systems, and the only thing about Tims it shows you is either they are hungry or they want you to throw another smaller Tim at them when they grow large, which causes them to produce another egg.
Tims do not earn points while you’re actively playing stages, and as there is nothing even remotely entertaining to do in the overworld, it quickly begins to feel like watching paint dry. And when I say that Tims earn points slowly, I’m talking so slow that multiple nights now I’ve left the game idle on my PC while I sleep in hopes of unlocking something of interest, to no avail. So far it’s been almost purely cosmetic changes to the overworld, none of which feel meaningful or rewarding. It feels like Tims were an attempt at making some kind of idle mini-game, but like everything else in this game, it completely misses the mark.
Stages are peppered with random bits and pieces based on characters whose stories aren’t revealed until the moments before the boss fight of the level via cute Pixaresque non-verbal cutscenes. But don’t get too excited, because the stories range from “man gets angry after losing a chess game to a woman” to one about a black firefighter called “zero to hero” which implies they were nothing until they became a firefighter. Also, it bears repeating that this is the sole black character that gets any sort of spotlight in the game, and they have giant lips when almost every character has thin to no lips. It’s racially insensitive at best, racist at worst.
If movement in a 3D platformer is king, then Balan Wonderworld is regicide. Almost all costumes that can jump have identical single jumps, apart from a handful that can either jump on air, or some form of fluttering or floating. Platforming can often be tedious for several reasons, like the camera getting stuck behind pieces of the level or just refusing to cooperate when attempting to fix it with the right stick, or poorly designed stages where I often found myself wondering if I was going someplace the devs intended me to or if I was off the beaten path or sequence breaking. This is due in part to many of the levels just being floating chunks of stage and costumes that allow you to climb up pieces of the stages and get to areas most likely sooner than intended. I say most likely because sometimes I’d go somewhere I expected the developers to not intend me to go only to find some gems or a Balan statue. It’s one thing if the level design signposts or even remotely hints you should go someplace, it’s another when you just trip over things after thinking you’re going where it shouldn’t be possible.
Even the cutscenes are repetitive to the point of being a punishment instead of a reward. Find a Balan hat in a stage? Get ready to watch the same cutscene you’ve seen 20 times already and press a button when two pictures line up a handful of times in the worst QTE of perhaps all time. Should you not do so perfectly, you don’t get a Balan statue and have to replay the level and reach that same hat to try again. Also, sometimes you have to do this QTE multiple times a stage if you hope to 100% complete the game. On top of that, you’ll be ‘treated’ to an identical cutscene of Balan and your chosen character flying a train around the overworld when unlocking levels.
As far as performance goes, the PC version is fine. There aren’t many graphical options, and the framerate is either locked to your choice of 30 or 60 frames-per-second, which is a bummer considering the game isn’t exactly graphically impressive. Most stages are rather dull and bland as far as textures, with only a few instances of objects being shiny/reflective. I played the game at 60FPS the whole time, and it rarely dipped at all except for some bad hitching when first loading into the overworld after each stage.
If I had to say one good thing about Balan Wondworld, it’s that its boss designs are cool. As if Nights into Dreams had a lovechild with Disney villains. While none of the fights themselves are all that interesting, almost always feeling like something I’ve seen or played before in other better 3D platformers but worse. I did, however, find it somewhat enjoyable to find each of the three different possible ways to damage each boss, resulting in a Balan statue each. Though, by the end of my playthrough, I was mostly just finding the easiest way to hit each boss the required three times to defeat them, because I already had decided there was no chance in hell I’d ever want to attempt to 100% this game, unlike practically every other 3D platformer I’ve played.