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Balan Wonderworld review: sub-sonic

By Alan Wen. Posted

If there’s one thing that’s synonymous with platformers, it would surely be jumping. So when you discover that you can’t always jump in Balan Wonderworld, it’s an early sign that something is amiss. In a game about acquiring power-ups – a total of 80 costumes, each with their own ability – sometimes a variation of jumping is your power-up as the main buttons are all tied to a single action.

It’s bizarre design, the kind of deliberate limitation that will no doubt frustrate players who take the freewheeling traversal of Mario and co for granted. Though it’s not entirely surprising when the original Sonic games also saw the same action for every button.

The latter is an especially apt comparison, since Balan Wonderworld reunites the Blue Blur’s co-creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima for the first time since Sonic Adventure more than two decades ago, with a game that wouldn’t feel out of place from that same era. That said, anyone going in expecting the exhilarating speed of Sega’s hedgehog or even NiGHTS into Dreams – which the titular hat-wearing maestro certainly has some resemblance in figure – are advised to slow their roll. Indeed, with its pedestrian pace, unapologetically old-school design, and twee storytelling about its tween protagonists restoring the balance in their hearts and others, it’s about as unhip (which I guess makes it… square) as games can get.

A few costumes unlock minigames, although their rewards of extra gems doesn’t make them particularly worthwhile.

Based on the central hook of amassing a ton of costumes as power-ups, it’s easy to paint Balan Wonderworld as a bargain basement Super Mario Odyssey. There’s nonetheless an endearing wonder to these outfits, such as a sheep that floats in the air, soaring higher with undercurrents, or a bat with a Sonic-style homing jump attack. Yet with so many costumes, it’s inevitable that some abilities are little more than rehashes or single-use gimmicks (which you could argue is the case with a few of the captures in Odyssey, where eliciting delight takes priority over function).

On the other hand, having rehashes gives you options so that you’re not just relying on one costume to do the job. You can also only hold a maximum of three costumes – the third one in the row automatically banked in your wardrobe, and accessible at checkpoints when you need to switch them. Costumes also act as lives, meaning you lose one if you get hit by an enemy or fall down a bottomless pit, so it makes sense to have some in reserve to save you the hassle of backtracking. Understanding the deliberate limitations of each costume becomes key for navigating each level and finding the gold Balan statues.

Some NPCs have a quirk of disappearing when you approach them, though they also appear in a line cheering you as you cross a checkpoint.

Because while it can be very easy to get to the end of a level, reaching and finding these statues is required to unlock further chapters, and is ultimately where the challenge and replayability lies. Indeed, there are some levels where I couldn’t even find a single statue on the first go, while others had me carefully observing my surroundings for secret paths or parsing an object that’s surely interactable with the right costume, some of which actually need to be unlocked from a different chapter, thereby encouraging revisits. If Balan Wonderworld rarely tests your platforming prowess, it fulfils the other ingredient of a compelling 3D platformer by making you curious.

This also applies to the boss fights, which deviate slightly from the three-hit formula, because if you want to be awarded with all three statues, you also need to figure out how to defeat the boss in three different styles. This little touch makes the otherwise predictable affairs more thoughtful, as you may have to take advantage of a new attack pattern, or you may need to bring an appropriate costume.

The music from Ryo Yamazaki is a frequent delight, especially in the surreal song and dance numbers at the end of each chapter.

Bundled with this are also awfully questionable design decisions, such as why you need a key to unlock these costumes to begin with, while a few seem to exist purely to troll you, such as the fox that turns into a box at random. Its greatest offence, however, is when you get to play as Balan himself in extremely tedious QTE sequences, which still demand nothing less than a flawless performance to earn a statue as reward – being told you’re ‘Great’ can be infuriating.

Yet despite how unfashionably counter to conventional wisdom it can be, I could never bring myself to hate Balan Wonderworld; it’s made with such wide-eyed earnestness and old-school stubbornness. Obviously, it doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Super Mario – the dire technical performance on Switch also means it’s wasted on that audience. But in being so consciously unconscious of modern game design, it’s neither a safe by-the-numbers flagship platformer nor trying to pretend it’s a playable Pixar production. It dances to its own nonsensical beat, and at a time when publishers are ever more risk-averse and prefer to stick to what they know, it’s a miracle that weird and flawed games like this even get a chance in the spotlight.

Highlight

Harking back to a time when games didn’t need to grip players with a three-act plot, the dozen-odd stories in Balan Wonderworld are told with next to no dialogue when a few frames can express the necessary emotions. These are conveyed with beautiful CGI sequences from Visual Works, whose output includes Square Enix blockbusters such as Kingdom Hearts III and Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Verdict

It won’t be destined for classic or even cult status, but you’ll still find unbridled charm in this flawed, restrictive platformer. Better than Knack, at least.

60%

Genre: 3D platformer | Format: PS5 (tested) / PC / XB X/S / XBO / Switch / PS4 | Developer: Balan Company / Arzest | Publisher: Square Enix | Price: £49.99 | Release: Out now

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