Title: Balan Wonderworld
Developer: ARZEST Corp.
Release Date: March 26, 2021
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Square Enix
It isn’t every day you see vibrant, 3D platformers from a major publisher or developer that isn’t Nintendo. Balan Wonderworld’s reveal was an exhilarating surprise for many. It wields this unique mystique fronted by an appealing mascot that we don’t see too often.
However, as conceptually thrilling as the presentation is, Balan Wonderworld falls short on all gameplay fronts, making it a mostly unfun title with a criminal amount of missed opportunities.
Throughout Balan Wonderworld, players take control of Leo or Emma, kids who are led into this wondrous land by Balan where “memories and vistas from the real world mix with the things that people hold dear.” They navigate various tales, each with its own unique gimmicks, costumes, and plights that hone in on an individual’s heart.
The focus on the predicaments these tales depict is legitimately well-done through varied set-pieces. They paint a vivid picture that some players may relate to. During these adventures, Leo and Emma face off against Negati, which are manifestations of negativity that take root in the tales they explore.
Balan Wonderworld’s premise drew me in with its wholesome nature and creative cutscenes. I really can not stress enough how jaw-droppingly gorgeous these scenes are. They radiate such raw joviality and childhood wonder.
However, that is where my wholly praise for the title ends. Gameplay consists of traversing puzzle-esque platforming stages by utilizing costumes found in a stage. These costumes are essentially powerups and vary in practical validity and general enjoyment. A vital factor for what makes a platformer fun is the gameplay loop, which is where Balan Wonderworld lacks. While navigation is decent, the sheer amount of playable costumes feel a little too needless and frustrating in execution.
Some costumes feel like they could have been combined into one, making the number of costumes come off as superficial. The fact that these costumes can only perform singular actions was unnecessary. Rather than feeling enthused whenever encountering a new costume, which is what I assume the short scenes and triumphant sound cues are designed to impart, I just grew minutely irritated. Variety is always great in a platformer, but it merely portrays itself as a taxing burden and not much else when presented in this manner.
The costume mechanic itself works as a platformer mechanic. Still, there came the point where their lack of synergized utilities caused the copious shine of their capabilities to lose their luster. They ultimately came off as an almost lazy, artificial way to spice up the gameplay loop.
The level design is rather inoffensive and genuinely gratifying at points, with some obstacles needing a particular costume to get through. Once again, this is a simple yet effective gameplay element, but its incorporation also leaves much to be desired. A large annoyance that comes with exploring the levels with costumes has to do with the fact that you only have a finite number of them.
You can’t freely switch between all of the costumes you have ever found. This is a bit of an issue when you need to find a certain amount of Balan statues needed to reach later stages. For example, if you want to reach a Balan statue that requires a costume not found in said stage, you would have to go to a different stage and collect the costume there if it is not in the Dressing Room. However, getting hit or falling off the stage makes you lose the costume you currently have on, which would be fine, but the process of getting the costumes again is just so tedious. Having to farm costumes is just a baffling design decision.
I think the idea here was to promote a sense of familiarity with the level layouts by making each of the costume placements feel meaningful. However, this instead serves to make the process feel like a chore and nothing else. Making players re-snag the same costumes they have already obtained prior in locations became arbitrary to where they are needed in other stages.
There are also quick-time events that can be performed when finding Balan in the stages. The first and maybe second instances of these events are pretty cool. There is an impressively charismatic flair that Balan emits whenever prompted during the button presses. However, these rapidly morph into monotonous drudgery overtime.
Movement, in general, is not abysmal, but controls hit a few snags during gameplay. Some costumes prohibit jumping entirely, which overrides any sense of unique identity these abilities are meant to provide, substituted by annoyance.
Reaching the end of the stages themselves is also fairly underwhelming. While the main draw they boast is the number of collectibles, they contain, completing a stage itself rarely feels rewarding or satisfying. There is not enough thought required for basic progression to feel fun; instead, it is mostly relegated to collectibles. Yes, the Balan statues are required to reach later stages, but the fact that those elements alone necessitate more thought than reaching the end of a stage itself feels a bit backward to me.
The bosses are spectacular in scope and have some hype-inducing music, but the actual battles themselves are criminally underwhelming. I understand that this is geared toward a younger demographic, but the sheer lack of any challenge these bosses provide feels almost insulting.
There are some elements I have not discussed, but I am sure you get the point by now. I don’t think Balan Wonderworld necessarily deserves the severity of the disdain being thrown its way (obviously excluding the seizure concern). There are some times where I was genuinely captivated, be its cutscenes or cleverly hidden collectible. But there are too many fundamental stumbles for me to call it worthwhile.
I have seen some individuals call this a PlayStation 2 era game, but I can’t say I agree. There are a variety of platformers during that era that I find immensely more enjoyable than this. This is purely hypothetical talk, but while I am sure this title would be more at home in the mid-2000s or so, I sincerely doubt it would have been a critical success.
One final, pivotal note I must touch upon is the seizure-inducing final boss fight in the game’s pre-patched state. Please make sure it is patched to address this issue.
Balan Wonderworld contains elements of what could have been a stellar platformer with its compelling ideas of advancement notions. However, its ineptitude with several gameplay design decisions makes it a constant struggle of unfun progression, questionable execution, and ultimately a heap of lost potential. Regardless of how much you desire to play it, I highly implore waiting for a sale because it is just not worth the full $60 price tag.
Now, all I desire from the remnants of this failed title is a movie with its superb cutscene direction and animation. That is something I could get behind.
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