I started playing Balan Wonderworld without much knowledge of the subject matter, and its safe to say that my first hour of the game was met with a great deal of confusion and bewilderment about the following;
- Who am I and who is Balan?
- What am I doing?
- What are these little creatures that are following me around and why do they want feeding?
- I’ve completed the first level – now what’s going on in the “hub” area and where is chapter 2?
- Another new character/costume – these are cool!
Don’t misunderstand me, I was having some fun, but I had to take a step back and decided to go down a bit of a Google/You Tube rabbit hole to find out more about Balan. It was at this point I discovered that there was no Balan franchise, or back story, or past TV shows. Balan Wonderworld was the first and only “Balan”. Which makes my confusion about what the hell I was playing even more frustrating as I assumed that my confusion was caused by my lack of knowledge, and that if I knew more about the characters it would all make sense. So, I guess I just had to keep playing to work this stuff out!
So, what I did manage to find out is that Balan Wonderworld is the debut project from Balan Company, a Square Enix subsidiary founded in 2018 by Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams creator Yuji Naka. It was co-developed by Arzest, a company which had previously co-developed multiple projects for Nintendo and Mistwalker. A key staff member at Arzest is Naoto Ohshima, known for his work as a Sega artist who created the designs for Sonic the Hedgehog and Doctor Eggman. So you can guess that the styling of the game will be pretty cool.
Balan Wonderworld mostly takes place in the Balan Theater, a magical realm overseen by a mysterious being called Balan. The protagonists are two troubled children called Leo Craig and Emma Cole who are drawn into the Balan Theater, and travel through twelve different worlds in order to resolve their inner angst. Your starting point is a place called the Isle of Tims, a floating island inhabited with the aforementioned creatures called “Tims”. At the start you will also have access to the first chapter, which consists of two levels, and a boss fight. My initial confusion, and the questions I asked myself above are quite pertinent, as Balan Wonderworld never tells you what you need to do. Wikipedia told me more about the game mechanics than the game ever did. A little bit of tutorial would have been helpful, as in its current state it is quite off-putting to a newcomer.
Balan Wonderworld immediately reminded me of the old Skylanders games. It has many similarities (just not the plethora of plastic figures) as each chapter is designed to be a stand-alone story where its secrets can only be discovered 100% by using characters found in all the levels, giving them multiple playthrough opportunities. The main issue is that they are very simple and straightforward, and after a few hours of play time, don’t really excite you enough to want to keep playing. Each chapter is named, for example, chapter three is called “The Girl Who’s Gaga for Bugs” and, as you may expect, is styled around a garden/spider web theme. Each chapter has two levels, and a boss fight, and contains unique costumes for your characters to wear which equip them with abilities. The aforementioned level has a character called Web Wrangler, which allows you to traverse the webs dotted around the level, and also has a character called Lovely Lantern, which allows the character to enter dark areas.
Balan Wonderworld has 80 costumes throughout the game, each with its unique abilities, and this is one of my biggest complaints. Some levels have different characters that have very similar abilities, and it feels like some characters have been created and shoehorned it just so the developers can boast about the number. The gameplay also didn’t cut it for me. I had been playing “It Takes Two” at the same time as Balan, and the difference between the two was quite obvious, to the detriment of this game. Your character control consists of movement (via left stick), LB/RB to change costume, with every other button being used for Jump/Costume ability – that’s it. There is no dash/attack/ground pound/etc. which when compared to the way ITT handles different gameplay mechanics on its different levels, makes Balan feel so simplistic and uninteresting. In fact, it really feels more suitable for a small child.
Its not all bad, Balan Wonderworld looks and sounds great, and there are some really nice touches in the level designs – like the young girl (who is gaga for bugs) actually being part of the level design, and as per most games of this type there are collectibles to go after. Part of the charm is not actually knowing what’s going on and sitting watching in bewilderment, especially in the hub world where the Tims are going about their business. But Balan is really let down by its overly-simplistic game play and reliance on the vast array of costumes. It really does feel like a 10 year old game. Most action platformers from the last 10 years (Crash Bandicoot, Lego, Mario, Ori) will provide a much more entertaining experience.
Balan Wonderworld is a good looking platformer from a development team with a huge pedigree, but is let down by poor gameplay that feels dated.
- Looks great with some very interesting touches to level design
- Bewildering but interesting hub world
- Poor gameplay and character controls
- Just too many costumes