Platform games have gained a reputation across the years. They are; family-friendly fun experiences, or brutal as hell, and will make you want to scream with rage. I rarely have a bad experience with a platformer, so when I was given a copy of Balan Wonderworld, I was genuinely excited. It appeared to tick all the boxes that I love to see, and also, its team had previously worked on some big named franchises. So I strapped myself in for what looked to be a bright and colourful world to exist in.
Developed and published by Square Enix, this vivid Manga and Anime inspired platform game is as weird as it is colourful to look at. Set in a strange and surreal theatre environment, you become the star of the show. You are charged with collecting; gems, costumes and Balan awards. The labyrinthine stages allow for a small amount of open-world exploration. Yet, unlike most of its peers, the freedom is reined in considerably, and most of the gameplay follows a strict linear structure.
Balan Wonderworld brings the Razzmatazz of show biz, but lacks a spark.
Everything about Balan Wonderworld screams look at me! The cinematic sets the bar high. But sadly, it doesn’t live up to its hype. Most of its mechanics are badly implemented, go nowhere, and leave you wanting more. With a ridiculously odd control system, repetitive gameplay, frustrating death mechanics, and pointless collectables, it simply becomes dull before it takes off.
The lack of spark possibly stems from the bizarre and non-descriptive plot. I’m still trying to fathom out if the game is intentionally episodic in its design, or if each micro tale deliberately has no connections. The disjointed nature of the plot ensures you feel no empathy towards each chapters characters. It’s an unfortunate situation, as each of the stories are wonderfully told, and they deserve to be appreciated.
There is something quite amazing about chaos ensuing in the most unlikely of places. Balan Wonderworld captures this perfectly; a diver that is attacked by a dolphin who is possessed by an evil force, or a girl who is crazy about bugs being captured by a giant spider. These are but some of the well-designed scenes you will observe, yet the randomness of it all leaves you confused throughout.
There is something inherently wrong when collectables get ignored!
Platform games have always been about collecting inane objects; Sonic demands you collect golden rings, Mario loves coins and mushrooms. Anyone who adores the genre knows collectables are the heart and soul of the gameplay. When you simply ignore the items as they have no impact on the gameplay, you know there is an inherent problem.
Gems are hidden around every stage. They vary in colour and size and naturally you’ll gather everyone in sight. You’ll do that until you realise it’s a pointless task! These items are used to feed Kirby-like creatures who live in the main hub of the game. They spin a counter around, counting every time they’ve moved it one complete rotation. When you hit a specified number, the “Tim Tower” grows. Each layer adds new items for them to interact with and is interesting to look at for a few seconds.
The “Tims” eat the crystals that you throw down, this causes them to grow, lay eggs, and hatch more of them. The colourful, cute creatures do nothing other than wander around like a lost puppy. You soon forget about the gems as collecting them is a mindless and thankless task.
Balan statues, costumes and top hats.
Alongside the gems, you must gather; Balan statues, a variety of costumes, and top hats. These additional collectables at least add to the gameplay and are required to progress. Yet, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t thwarted by issues. The Balan statues and costumes go hand in hand. The statues are hidden behind blocks, on random platforms, and most are a challenge to gather. You’re required to collect a set amount before you can progress, and a limited number can be found in each of the 36 playable levels.
Yes, you read that correctly, 36 levels! 12 worlds comprising 3 stages await. This gets added to once you finish the game making a whooping 48 levels available in Balan Wonderworld! What makes these chapters last longer is the need for specific costumes. A theatre wouldn’t be as extravagant if there weren’t an array of outfits to wear. Sadly, for all the variety in looks, each adds little to the gameplay and was the root cause of much frustration. Some could fight, but couldn’t jump, others had pointless mechanics that failed to apply to much of the action. If you die, you lose the costume you wear, and if you needed it to complete a level, then tough! You are forced to traverse the stage to collect it again.
I applaud the developers for adding difficulty to the game, but this wasn’t the right way to go. So, how about that top hat, surely that’s worth going for? *cough cough* Not really. It’s a timed reaction challenge of Balan flying. You press a button when the shadows line up or mash the button when many shadows appear. You must time it precisely, otherwise you fail. Timing it perfectly, gives you….. gems for your “Tims”, brilliant.
Enough of the negatives, let’s look at the positives.
What instantly attracted me to this was its fantastic look and striking style. This admiration for the art style never waned. The striking colours, bold and distinct character design, variety in stage appearance, and cinematic were excellent. It had a Sonic the Hedgehog vibe to it, which was unsurprising given the team’s link with that franchise. The developers wanted Balan Wonderworld to look like a theatrical performance, and they nailed it with their presentation. The gameplay may not be challenging, but the maze-like stages will impress you with their appearance, and you will get lost if you try to gather all the collectables. This alongside the audio prevents it from being a disagreeable platform experience.
The music is lighthearted, fun and wholesome. Its cheery disposition does its best to distract you from the many shortcomings you’ll experience. Each battle scene with a main boss has the classic ominous tone and song, and this did well to set the scene. Like many other titles that are influenced by either Manga or Anime, the protagonist screams like a banshee every time it jumps or completes an action. It’s annoying, but soon becomes white noise. On the whole, the audio does well to match the image, and it conveys the ideas that the developers had to a good standard.
Dumbed down controls and a tough completion.
Everyone wants an accessible game, but Balan Wonderworld takes it to a new level. One button and the analogue sticks are all you need to play this! Why, why, why? One of the main annoyances was the lack of control you had over each costume type. With only one action permitted per character, it’s ridiculously restrictive and absurdly bizarre. It’s dumbed down to the point of insulting its player base. The choice to oversimplify the matter was a major oversight from the developers and hinders the game’s ability to offer anything other than a basic experience. It made no sense while playing it, and I can’t see a way that it can be altered without changing most of the mechanics of the game.
If you get past all the annoyances, the finicky costume selections, and you want to keep collecting gems, you’ll find some replay value. But, if you are a completionist, you are in for a difficult time because of the costume mechanic. Collecting everything requires you to have certain outfits equipped. But if you are killed at any point, you’ll lose what you are wearing, making that run through pointless. I won’t be looking at completing this, and I doubt I’m on my own with this thought process.
Balan Wonderworld falls short of its potential.
This review has a massive negative tone! To say I’m disappointed with the finished product and concept of Balan Wonderworld is an understatement. I love the genre, and it was frustrating to see a developer of such a fine pedigree missing the mark on basic gameplay mechanics. It has some redeeming qualities in its presentation, and the gameplay is serviceable if you can get over the pointless monotony. But sadly, it’s a million miles away from where it should be. For these reasons, I cannot recommend it. If you fancy owning it, however, you can buy it here! It looks amazing, has a great soundtrack, but falls short across every other element. If you have the patience, you can collect all the Balan statues and see each of the 12 theatrical performances!