The pitch for Balan Wonderworld sounds promising. Square Enix gave the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, a whole development team to make a new 3D platformer franchise. But the actual product rapidly becomes a slog of an adventure with poorly thought out mechanics and gameplay loops that lead to one of the worst platformers I’ve played in recent years.
The game opens with a glitzy cutscene of your created character meeting the titular Balan, who transports you into a fantastical world. But as soon as this scene ends, you’re dropped into a bland hub world with no real rhyme or reason other than to hang out with these cute animal creatures called Tims that don’t really serve any purpose. You can feed them gems and make more Tims to watch some numbers go up, but there is no literal in-game reward for this. There’s no story element to them either, well there really isn’t any coherent story to Balan Wonderworld at all really. Each boss you encounter is a human who has encountered a dark or sad moment in their life which then transforms them into an evil spirit. Like one boss deals with a marriage falling apart because the wife’s parents died. This is all shown to you in like a ten-second CG cutscene right before you fight the boss and not referenced anywhere else. I don’t really understand what these vignettes are going for as all the bosses have something like this going on and you or even Balan don’t really play a part at all in these cutscenes. You can choose to be a named boy or girl at the start of the game, but after this menu, their names are literally never referenced again in the entire game. There’s no attempt at making any throughline narrative so it makes it hard to care for anything going on in the game.
This is the overall problem with Balan Wonderworld. It tries to wow you with whimsy but quickly falls on its face once you realize what the game is asking you to do: adventure across bad platforming levels and pass off quick-time events as engaging side activities with no payoff besides getting to play more bad platforming levels. The central mechanic of the game is that each level introduces new suits that offer you a unique ability to solve various challenges you’ll find in each level. The array of powers these suits can have varied wildly, from having a chameleon suit that acts like a grappling hook, a spider suit that lets you climb on walls, or even a chess piece that fires cannonballs. While these suits are imaginative, a lot of them are poorly implemented or feel half-baked.
Most of these suit powers will replace your jump with its unique ability. For instance, the chameleon suit mentioned earlier cant jump but only lets you grapple your way to specific points. Some other suits will allow you to jump and also do its unique ability and there isn’t really a good explanation or reasoning I found during my playtime as to why. The inconsistency is frustrating, and the suits that take away your jump make the game feel worse and more awkward to play. These suits also have limited uses, so if you get hit by an enemy, maybe due to not having a jump, that suit is gone until you can acquire another suit from within that specific level. So you can easily find yourself in this kind of scenario, where you’re out of suits that can’t jump or help you progress and you’re trapped in awkward spaces not allowing you to progress which results in having to start them over entirely.
Each world culminates in a boss to fight which also suffers from this poor implementation of the suit swapping mechanic. Certain suits are better for specific fights so if you lose a suit during the boss encounter either due to the awkward controls or poor telegraphing of a bosses attack, you’ll lose that suit and most likely have to do the fight over. However, on the other end of this difficulty swing, it feels like the developers intended for you to at least be able to take on any boss with any suit and let you be flexible with your choices. They make every boss almost all follow the same attack patterns of doing some kind of ground pound attack, exposing its weak point to you to hit, or just jump at, and then repeat that three times and win. For every single boss for all 12 worlds of the game make these fun imaginative looking bosses feel like the same fight every single time adding to the already repetitive nature of the game’s core loop.
With suits only being able to be acquired from specific levels you’ll also end up doing a lot, and I mean a lot of backtracking to reacquire them. You need to do this in order to collect golden Balan statues which act like Stars from Mario, limiting your progress between opening up new worlds until you collect the required amount. This kind of gating is the biggest slog I’ve ever felt in a platformer. The game constantly felt like it was getting in my way to just see the actual game.
Don’t have this particular suit cause you lost it? Welp go replay this level all over again to just get the suit, then play through the whole level you were trying to replay in the first place, again, to get back to the collectible. Also hope you don’t fall off anywhere before that, or run into an awkward camera angle or janky fight and which then costs you to lose that suit you backtracked for and start this awful cursed loop all over again. This unavoidable grind is a waste of time that feels disrespectful to the player.
There are only two levels and a boss in each world. And there are only seven Balan statues per world. You’re pretty much guaranteed to not get all of the statues on your first attempt on a stage because of how many different suits there are, and how many ways you lose them and only have limited access to them. Even if you’re collecting a lot along the way you usually need an extra twenty or thirty statues to get to the next world, it’s forced padding in every sense of the word. On Top of all of that are the repeated minigames or quick-time events of you just watching Balan flying around in an empty void destroying rocks for some reason that is never explained in any capacity. These can also net you statues but only if you do them perfectly in one go. If you even mess up one part of the timing in these you have to do the entire level over to get back to these spots to start them over again.
I have no real idea who Balan Wonderworld is for. Its whimsical and colorful esthetic is clearly evoking the original creator’s look with characters that look like they were ripped directly from a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off game. But the limited story this game has is just incoherent and ignorable. I’m not sure this is for hardcore platforming fans either as the moment-to-moment platforming is mediocre at best. Combine that with suit powers that make gameplay more awkward than fun, a lot of trivial backtracking to pad out the game, boring and uninventive boss fights, and just so many bizarre choices. I just can’t recommend this game to anyone.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 system with a retail copy of the title purchased by the reviewer.