Balan Wonderworld is a strange game. Mascot platformers were all the rage around the turn of the century, but that fad has long since died off. Yet here comes a brand-new seemingly high budget entry in the genre that feels straight out of 2001 (not in a good way) and it’s produced by Square Enix no less. Unfortunately, Balan Wonderworld feels like a period piece in many respects... only it’s a new release and not a relic of two decades ago. Stiff controls, uninteresting level design, and many other issues all come together to make for a game that simply fails to properly achieve what it sets out to do.
The story starts off with you selecting either a boy or girl character, followed by a short (though well animated) cutscene which thoroughly fails to explain any of the events which follow. The children are both unhappy(?) and as they wander the streets of their city, they happen across a mysterious entrance to a place called Wonderworld in a back alley. Upon crossing the threshold, they’re quickly accosted by a grinning and vaguely menacing showman figure named Balan who whisks them away to a fantasy land to presumably do something good for other people.
Honestly, we’re not entirely sure what the narrative is here, as Balan Wonderworld refuses to explain what’s going on. Is your character dreaming? Are they dead? Is all this a hallucinogenic trip they’re experiencing in that alley? Each of the worlds is oriented around an NPC character with their own tragic backstory, and it seems like you’re somehow helping them out by collecting things, but it’s never made clear how or what you’re really doing.
For example, one of the first worlds is about a scuba diver who enjoys swimming with her dolphin friend. Then the dolphin turns on her and tries to kill her by removing her air tank. The girl is hospitalized as a result. But, after the boss fight at the end of her world, she goes back to the ocean and finds that the dolphin is back to its old self, and she joyously swims with it again. The player’s actions obviously had a hand in this redemption, but what actually happened is never explained. Why did the dolphin go bad? How did collecting trinkets and beating a boss character fix things? Will the dolphin’s urge to kill come back again?
All of this is to say, Balan Wonderworld does an absolutely awful job of telling its story. Platformers are, of course, not known for their complex narratives, but even given the low bar set by other games in the genre, this comes up short. It fails to grant you even a simple, coherent explanation for why you’re collecting items and exploring this strange world. Unfortunately, problems with storytelling are only the tip of the iceberg of issues responsible for sinking Balan Wonderworld.
Gameplay unfolds in a standard collectathon 3D platformer fashion; each world consists of two levels with a smattering of things for you to pick up and then it’s finished with a simple boss fight after the second level. Your objective for each level is to simply reach the end and pick up a fancy-looking heart trinket, but along the way there are also eight golden Balan statues to pick up which are this game's equivalent of Stars or Jiggies. Pick up enough of them, and you’ll unlock more levels. Between all of these, there are also ‘Drops’ to pick up, which sort of function as Balan Wonderworld’s version of coins. So far, so similar, but the wheels start coming off almost as soon as this train gets going.
Moment to moment gameplay is mostly built around the 80(!) suits you can pick up along the way, each of which have exactly one function. The spider suit lets you climb spider webs. The dolphin suit lets you swim through water. The wolf suit lets you do a spin-jump. In a better game, having this diversity of ideas could likely lead to some fascinating gameplay, but Balan Wonderworld somehow finds a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
See, the issue with the suit system is that it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Having all these suits is one thing, but having interesting levels that take advantage of their abilities is quite another. Balan Wonderworld never finds many ways to go beyond the absolute most basic obstacles possible for these suits, which means gameplay gets dull quickly.
Moreover, many of the suits can’t justify their own existence. For example, one from the dolphin girl’s world allows you to swim through floating tubes of water. Five minutes after finding it, you find another suit which allows you to do the exact same thing, but with the added ability to jump out of the water tube whenever you please. As a result, this second suit completely invalidates the utility of the first, making it worthless. The developers could’ve probably cut half of these suits out of the game and lost virtually nothing in the process, which speaks to their overall value in the larger game design. Great games take interesting ideas and explore them from a variety of angles — Balan Wonderworld is a game which just shotguns weak ideas at a wall and hopes some of them stick.
On top of this, Balan Wonderworld simply isn’t fun to play moment-to-moment; by this, we mean the controls are stiff and unintuitive. They don’t feel very good. Where Mario joyously leaps and bounds his way through environments, the characters here feel like they jump more out of a sense of begrudging obligation. A lot of this is down to the animation quality, which is just terrible. Even the basic walk animation looks goofy and stilted, as if they’re trying to act like they’re walking rather than just doing it, and this stiffness affects virtually every aspect of the gameplay. There is no point in this adventure where the controls suddenly click — no point where they feel smooth and natural.
The control issue would be damning enough on its own, but it’s further compounded by the shoddy level design, which could best be described as confused. For example, the first time we found a golden hat in a level, Balan suddenly appeared and offered to ‘share his power’. We were then ripped out of the level and forced to engage in a fever dream sequence where he punched rocks in a featureless void while we did quick-time events. Upon completing the last one, we were given a statue and dumped back into the level as though nothing happened.
When you’re not getting roped into non sequitur sequences like this, the basic levels themselves are nothing to write home about. There’s not much reliance on challenging player skills here, as hazards are painfully easy to negotiate. Enemies show up every now and then in scripted fights, but they put up almost no resistance and can be mostly ignored. The main ‘challenge’ comes from scouring levels for Balan statues, yet these are almost always hidden behind simple and obviously overcome obstacles that require a specific suit to reach.
It’s this focus on simplicity that really deals the damning blow to Balan Wonderworld. There’s nothing wrong with setting up different hurdles in levels for each suit’s abilities, but Balan Wonderworld fails to go beyond scratching the surface with the creativity of these obstacles, a creative failure that extends to the control scheme limited by one button. All the face buttons and both the triggers do the exact same thing, which for most suits is some version of a jump — in some cases, it might be a basic attack instead, but it can’t be both. The result? Wearing an attack-focused suit literally means you can’t jump anymore. There’s no reason for a limitation like this to exist and it only makes an already frustrating game that much more baffling. What were they thinking?
Worse yet, the few things that Balan Wonderworld really needs to explain to you don’t get properly introduced to the player. For example, the hub world is overrun by these colorful chicks called “Tims” that you’re supposed to feed with Drops you pick up in levels. The Tims build a tower in the middle of the hub, but this tower’s importance (if at has any) is never explained or referenced at all. You’re never told outright that you can swap out suits at checkpoints if you hold down the action button, either. For such a simplistic game, it’s honestly amazing that Balan Wonderworld manages to drop the ball in explaining its most basic systems.
To its credit, Balan Wonderworld at least looks decent. The worlds are all nicely detailed and brightly colored, giving you quite a bit to look at as you fuss around with the weird controls. Unfortunately, performance is terrible; the 30FPS cap is very rarely hit, things hover more in the 15-10FPS range. If enemies spawn, or even if you swivel the camera around just a little too quickly, the frame rate tanks and the game chugs considerably. Then there’s the downright weird artistic decisions made, like how NPC characters and creatures will randomly be dancing in lines on various parts of the level. If you approach them, they just vanish into thin air — in that regard, you could say Balan Wonderworld achieves its goal of showing you a dreamlike world, but there’s just not enough here graphically to justify the awful performance.