Balan Wonderworld Demo Impressions: Old School to a Fault
Balan Wonderworld is a game to get excited about. It's helmed by Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, who also were responsible for Sonic Adventures and Nights Into Dreams. It's published by Square Enix, and it flexes those big names to deliver a unique and delightfully odd style.
The full game doesn't release until March 2021, but there's a free demo coming on January 28 (available on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X|S, and Switch) that will let you get your hands on Balan Wonderworld early to see if it's up your alley. We got to put the demo through its paces a few days ahead of its release. Here's what we thought.
Balan Wonderworld Demo Impressions: Old School to a Fault
So, you're going to have to bare with me a bit in trying to describe Balan Wonderworld. It's a weird duck.
The game focuses on two kids, Emma and Leo, who are seemingly disinterested in the world. That changes when they stumble into a run-down theater and encounter Balan, who's is a well-dressed maestro that seemingly draws more than a little influence from sources like The Cat in the Hat and Looney Tunes. Balan zips around and whisks Emma and Leo off to a magical dream world, where their goal is to (I think) travel into people's minds and help them stave off depression.
They do this, seemingly, by donning a variety of costumes that grant them different abilities and by collecting gems. Still with me?
It could be easy to watch gameplay footage of Balan Wonderworld and assume it plays like Kingdom Hearts. If you go in with that mentality, you're going to be disappointed. This is an unapologetically old-school platformer whose gameplay would feel right at home with so many Banjos, Bubsys and Bandicoots.
Wrapping your brain around the controls in Balan Wonderworld takes no time at all; there are literally only two controls to utilize alongside movement. There's a swap costume button and an action button. And that's where the world-building elements of Balan Wonderworld are likely going to make or break it for many players.
When you aren't in a costume, the action button jumps. The bulk of each level is figuring out which costume changes (you can have up to three in your inventory at a time) to bring with you in order to achieve your goals. One costume dresses your character as a plant and allows them to stretch and become extremely tall. Another is a dragon that blows fire, which can defeat enemies and break blocks. One is a sheep that can float on air currents.
It is as bizarre as can be, with each world looking like the inside of a pinball machine. The three areas included in the demo are pretty inventive, and it looks like there are plenty of opportunities for the developers to create difficult combinations that will test your platforming abilities.
Along the way, there's lots of dancing. Seriously, you'll encounter phantom-like characters who just... dance. You'll run across more than a few frustrating level sections, as any salty veteran of 3D platformers will know. You'll encounter over-the-top color and music. And, unfortunately, you'll discover a game that seems like it may not have as many tricks up its sleeve as we had hoped for.
Balan Wonderworld sets an impressive stage. My jaw was literally hanging open during the opening cutscene, as Balan zipped around the screen and characters put together a choreographed dance number that would make a Broadway playwright jealous.
The game itself, though, at least so far, never quite lives up to the moments that the cutscenes set out.
Movement feels clunky and imprecise. The levels, though clearly inspired by dreamscapes and imagination, all have this weird scale where the background kind of rolls into view as you move. It literally gave me motion sickness on occasion, and that's never a thing I've dealt with while gaming before.
On top of that, there's sort of the question of "why"? Why is my goal to collect all these gems? Why do I feed them to little marshmallow peeps called Tims who chirp incessantly and (this is true) build a tower once I feed them enough? Why are there bizarre QTE minigames where the goal is literally to press a button when two pictures line up?
For right now, it just feels oddly put ogether.
Sometimes, a game is made better by selling out to totally bizarre concepts. Sometimes that really works, and I'm not necessarily arguing that Balan Wonderworld doesn't work. However, the small sections of gameplay that the demo provides don't inspire confidence that it has enough substance to back up its very appealing style.
I hope this isn't the case.
There is a moment, after a particularly tricky section, where the game stops so several of the characters can get together and dance. Balan flies around, and dozens of creatures on a series of moving platforms just go nuts. It's delightful.
But then I pop back into the game, slowly running around a mostly empty world, jumping in the air to collect a lone red gem. Then I encounter a puzzle I can't move past unless I backtrack to a different portion of the level and swap out a costume. The game itself is far too slow and methodical, whereas the fantastic cutscenes make everything feel like it should be flying past at warp speed.
I want to explore these imaginative worlds like Balan would, flying through the air, laughing and spinning all the while. Instead, I'm trundling along with a clumsy jump, trying to avoid getting hit so I don't have to go back to the beginning of the level.
All that said, we've still got high hopes for Balan Wonderworld. If the gameplay itself can capture some of the magic and style that it clearly has, it could be a fun, bombastic brainteaser of a 3D platformer. As of right now, it kind of feels like someone slapped a shiny coat of paint on a GameCube launch title. Fingers crossed.
[Note: Square Enix provided the demo copy of Balan Wonderworld used for this impressions piece.]