Balan Wonderworld (PlayStation 5) Review

By Sandy Kirchner-Wilson 19.07.2021 2

Review for Balan Wonderworld on PlayStation 5

Balan Wonderworld is the latest game from Yuji Naka's Square Enix subsidiary, Balan company and Naoto Ohshima's Arzest. With such prolific Sega Sonic Team veterans, the designs that heralded Balan's release were amazing and full of charm. Earlier in 2021 a demo was released and worries crept into the community. Rumours of slow character movement, one button functions, and more, started to shade the game's reception. With the final product now available, it's time to get down to the bone.

Emma and Leo are suffering, down and dejected; they both wander the streets. Captivated by a hidden storefront, 'Balan Wonderworld,' they enter, Leo at night, Emma in the daytime, like two sides of the same coin. Inside they find an unusual figure with standout green hair, a suit covered in sparkles and eyes that peer out from his top hat. This is Balan. He informs the main characters that they are missing a piece of their hearts, then whisks them up into a musical number before they land in the hub world: The Island of Tims."

That's all there really is until the very end in terms of the protagonists' journeys. The reason for this is each level has a new character suffering from an issue, e.g. a farmer who is unmotivated after his crops are destroyed by a storm or a girl who is attacked by a dolphin she swims with, and each of the levels involves solving or helping that character regain what they lost. It's quite compelling and after solving the first few the game's tempo and rhythm starts to become more natural allowing for greater enjoyment of the underlying structure.

Screenshot for Balan Wonderworld on PlayStation 5

Everything in this game is covered in a layer of colour and shine that is quite unlike anything else currently appearing on the market. It somehow manages to be quite simple looking and yet has some really creative, and "out there" levels that can be quite mind bending in design, while also using a fairly realistic set of materials. The materials are nicely implemented with glossy surfaces showing off some nice screen space reflections and wooden surfaces having a nice glossy look to them. It lends each area a nice dreamlike quality that given the context makes a lot of sense. The roughest levels by far are the first two, which is a crying shame as it leaves a very damp impression with players when picking the game up.

Character models have Yuji Naka's signature huge hands and feet lending them a rather deformed chibi style. In the cut-scenes it is unbelievably beautiful but unfortunately, during the gameplay, things are far simpler with some character models and animations being borderline awful. While talking visuals into account it is important to raise awareness that this shipped with a seizure inducing sequence of lights during the final boss battle. Please exercise caution if picking up this game.

Gameplay is handled in a very unique way. Each level contains costumes, each of these costumes has a single power, with usually a single use. The costumes are themed by area, meaning the ocean themed area has a jellyfish costume, for example. This helps the overall experience stay intriguing as the costume powers for each level unlock a variety of solutions in multiple levels. Where most players will be shocked, though, is the limitations of the control scheme. Rather deliberately, each costume has just their one function, meaning everything other than the analogue stick simply uses that one function. This does mean that at times it is impossible to jump to traverse the level. It can be frustrating, but the level design is made to make use of this moveset, and is mostly perfectly supportive of the limited moveset.

Screenshot for Balan Wonderworld on PlayStation 5

Movement itself is a little slow but characters are responsive, meaning the control actually feels pretty satisfying. Where this isn't the case is some of the more finicky platforming where it's possible to slip off edges occasionally. It is not constant or overly frustrating, but it will take time to adjust to the movement in these areas. Where traversal fails in some cases is the lack of physics feel. Often things feel sticky or unnatural when interacting. The only times this is 100% rectified are the ice levels, and when using costumes such as the Sheep which allow for floating across gaps. Where this frustration does come to a head, is on levels where a specific single power is needed to move forwards, and it can only be collected at an arbitrary point at the beginning. Meaning that getting hit makes it mandatory to backtrack to the beginning to pick up that one power again. This is prominent in two levels, but is otherwise not too much of an issue.

The goal of each level is to collect Balan Statues. These are needed to unlock new levels, and to get that all important platinum PlayStation trophy. They range from incredibly tricky to straight up appearing on the ground in an open area. Collecting them is fairly satisfying. The amount collected is tracked per level, so returning to a level to collect more to progress is easy to manage. Requirements for opening new levels are fairly low - during the process of this review only once did levels need to be repeated to unlock the next area.

Screenshot for Balan Wonderworld on PlayStation 5

The final real comment to make about gameplay is about the Balan Bouts. Combing through levels to find the golden hats will spawn Balan himself, and put players into a cut-scene. In this scene a randomly generated number of actions will play out either featuring an obstacle, or the antagonist Lance. These begin cool and all, but even by the third time entering one, players should cotton on to the fact these are all the same bland event over and over. The only input required to pass them is a single button press that matches Balan with a pose, or multiple button presses in a row. It's really frustratingly implemented. In these bouts players can earn extra Balan Statues, but the game requires a purely "Excellent" run - no "greats," "goods," etc… which is absolutely too much to ask.

While the control response is fast, this makes no effort to sync the expected input with a sound cue, rhythm, or visual pulse, meaning it's incredibly unfair to set the win requirements to "Excellent" only. This is only compounded by the fact each bout can only be neutered one time per level play-through, meaning if it's failed the player needs to either complete the level or quit and restart the area. A simple list where they can hop into the bouts from a menu would resolve this entirely. These could be awesome, but they come off as lazy and poorly implemented.

The music that supports the entirety of the experience is excellent, with a huge variety, fantastic theming for each level, and some darn catchy themes. Each level ends with a really hammy musical number where the character dances. It's a little cringey, but also awash with charm. Musicals and theatre seem to be a leading theme throughout the adventure, and to be honest, it is incredibly endearing in how it sticks to that aesthetic. With Balan the theme for his bout levels is great and bopping, but it does start to get a little repetitive as time goes on.

Cubed3 Rating

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Balan Wonderworld deserved to be far more than average, as the final game is a marked improvement over the demo. It's beautiful a lot of the time, character designs are mostly wonderful, the unique ideas that appear in each level are great fun… however the overall execution is simply lacking something important. The repetitive bouts, rough edges, and the sometimes awful physics make this a much harder title to recommend. It is full of bubbly unique charm, and is mostly heart-warmingly fun, but many will be put off by the slow, restrictive design, despite this being designed around it. Hopefully, the game will get some traction.

Developer

Square Enix

Publisher

Square Enix

Genre

3D Platformer

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

Comments

It won't be a huge shock to hear that after the release - and subsequent bomb - of this one, Naka-san left S-E for pastures new.

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

Yup, its a real shame! I was hoping it would survive and get a bigger more polished sequel. It's a lovely game despite the flaws

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