We've seen adventure platformers on the rise again with games like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and Astro’s Playroom taking the limelight in recent times. Alas, Balan Wonderworld feels like Square Enix’s cheap effort to try and capitalise on this growing resurgence.
Even Sonic Team’s Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima weren’t enough to save this game from frustrating controls, confusing storytelling and questionable level design.
Help Thy Neighbour
The story sees the player character, an unhappy child, wander into a spooky theatre where they find the game’s mascot Balan who takes said character to Wonderworld. Here, players complete levels to help another character outside of Wonderworld with a completely unrelated problem in their life.
Problems vary from crops not growing on a farm to a child being bullied for her love of insects, and as a game that's primarily for kids I see no problem with trying to instil values into them and spreading the ideology of helping one another – it's just that aiding said characters with their problems and completing 3D platforming levels that share little to no correlation makes the storytelling in Balan Wonderworld jarring at best.
As per the theme of musical theatre, at the end of each set of levels after you’ve successfully solved a person’s problems there comes a small song and dance number. These are some of Balan Wonderworld’s only redeeming features.
One thing worthy of mention is art and music. For any old school platformer fan, the elements of Yuji Naka (programmer on the original Sonic games) and Naoto Ohshima (character designer on the original Sonic games) are very prominent in its visuals and remind me of Nights Into Dreams or Sonic Adventure just without any of the fun gameplay.
New Look, Same Problems
The core mechanic in Balan Wonderworld is its costumes. Costumes are interchangeable during the levels and let you hold up to three to swap from at a time. Each costume lets you use a unique new ability, but often these require sacrificing your ability to jump.
This is baffling, especially in a 3D platformer and as you can imagine makes for some very frustrating occurrences – large-scale boss battles aren’t your biggest problem in a game when you’re often thwarted by a small ledge you simply can't jump onto. What’s perhaps even weirder than losing your ability to jump is that characters look as though their face has been copied and pasted onto a new character model, rather than the character looking like they’ve put on a new costume. With different mannerisms and bodily proportions, it's odd to look at and sometimes pretty unsettling, too.
Very Little That Works
Despite being aimed at a younger audience, Balan Wonderworld falters in its approach to challenge, too. Titles like Super Mario 3D World strike a solid balance between challenge and approachability, but here everything is too easy. Keys to unlockables are often placed within spitting distance and the 'three hit' boss trope is one many players would have seen before.
Easy quick time events are also scattered around levels where Balan appears to fight pieces of debris, rocks and certain foes. These are commonplace and poorly explained, and alongside oddly-placed sports minigames, adds to the idea of the developer throwing everything at the wall and little sticking.
The game’s hub world is also a key point in Balan Wonderworld as it includes another new mechanic in the form of Tims. Tims are small creatures you feed with collectables found in the many worlds you traverse. The more you collect and feed, the bigger the Tower of Tims gets, which is a structure in the middle of the hub world. This would be an interesting way to make collectables more than just that but the tower itself doesn’t offer much in the way of rewards until the game's completion where you unlock one final costume.
Balan Wonderworld gets no standing ovation for me – not even a clap. In fact, get your tomatoes at the ready for this musical theatre flop because as much as I wanted to like Balan Wonderworld (and believe me, I really wanted to like it) this game gets more than a few boos from me.
With basic platforming, the removal of a jump button, and a distinct lack of challenge, there's little to recommend here.
Reviewed on PC
Review copy provided by the publisher