Review: Balan Wonderworld

You may remember the initial reactions to Mighty No. 9. It was planned as a spiritual successor to a legendary and beloved yet (at the time) ignore gaming franchise that we all wanted to see return. After the announcement, fan support was through the roof, to the point of depicting Mega Man passing the torch over to what would surely be a stunning achievement in platforming. Alas, things didn’t work out so well, and the end product was, to quote our review, “aggressively mediocre.” And it’s a shame, because the world of Mighty No. 9 still arguably had potential, and the Mighty Gunvolt crossover games showed that Beck and company could still make it in a good platformer. But alas, despite this, the well may have been too tainted by the first outing that everyone was banking on. I bring this all up because here’s Balan Wonderworld, the new platformer and spiritual successor to Nights into Dreams from Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, and it’s easy to feel déjà vu.

Balan Wonderworld sees you playing as either Leo or Emma (or both in the co-op mode), two kids with their own personal insecurities or anxieties. One day, they come across a mysterious theater, and upon entering, are whisked away by the enigmatic jester-like figure known as Balan to Wonderworld, a place where people’s happy memories and emotions mix with their negative ones, creating personal worlds out of them. But Balan’s evil counterpart Lance has teamed up with evil creatures known as the Negati to feed on people’s fears and mess with a the balance, so it’s up to Leo and Emma to journey through the worlds and individual tales of a dozen other people in order to stop them.

Unfortunately, outside of an opening cinematic that establishes only the barest, Balan Wonderworld never attempts to explain what the main plot is or even why Leo and Emma have to do anything. The Negati just sort of appear throughout the stages with no explanation of what they are and why you need to stop them, and Lance only pops up when summoning mid-bosses and appearing in occasional mini-games, never getting any dialogue that tells us who he is or why he’s doing…well, anything. And that’s not even counting the hub world, the Isle of Tims, where you take care of fluffy bird creatures known as Tims. What are Tims? They’re creatures you have to feed crystal drops that you collect. Why are we feeding them? So they can operate a machine that eventually leads to repairing the Clock of Happiness. What is the Clock of Happiness? I have no idea. I beat the game, yet it never addressed once why repairing this thing was ever important to the plot at all.

While it could be argued that it’s just a simple platformer trying to evoke the charm of PS2-era games, platformers from back then were still capable of communicating the plot and all of your objectives without having to resort to looking up the info online. These communication gaffes extend to the levels themselves, which have been mocked by many for coming across as weird, with figures dancing everywhere and giant visions of the people involved just lounging about, creepily smiling at you and giving off the feeling of the Eileen Head from Silent Hill 4. The dancing is explained by the game being a tribute to musical theater, the giants…not so much.

The bigger reason all of this feels weird, though, is because the levels in each of the twelve chapters and each character’s personal stories (which are admittedly simple yet effective) are poorly integrated. Here’s how it should be done: each chapter has two acts/levels and a boss battle. Act 1 opens with a cinematic introducing us to the character. For example, the first chapter revolves around a farmer, Jose. The subsequent level then reflect their normal, regular world, like a regular farm life. Then Act 2 opens with a cinematic showing us the tragedy that affected the character, in this case a storm that ruins Jose’s crops. So Act 2’s level would now reflect this, even with simple things like a gray sky, more muted colors, ruined vegetation, etc. Then after that, we see a cinematic of the character being corrupted, bringing us into the battle against their monster form, and after defeat, resolution to their story, as Jose braves onward and discovers at least some of his crops survived.

That’s how it should go down, like any three-act play would, but in Balan Wonderworld you don’t get a single cinematic — or even a proper introduction to the character — until right before the boss battle. So what we get instead feels like an opening number that last two entire acts, followed by the entire plot crammed into the last act. Hell, the game cares so little about story structure that you can even tackle Act 2 before Act 1. It may not seem like much, but it only emphasizes how little effort seemingly went into things. I suppose the logic was that if they kept the gameplay simple, then everything else could just be left simple as well. Unfortunately, that bring us to the gameplay.

I’ve rambled on for a while about the story (or lack of), but honestly, what more can I say about the gameplay that people haven’t already said after the game’s demo? Balan Wonderworld is a platformer that only requires the thumbsticks to move, the shoulder buttons to switch between costumes, and every face button acts as a single button that performs every single action (which even extends to the menu screens, where the lack of a “back” button gets annoying fast). The hook is that you can find and unlock eighty different costumes as you play, each with their own unique action. One can shoot scythes, another lets you jump and float as a ball of wool, one lets you climb on webs, and more.

The catch is that in only having one action per costume, each one limits what you can do, with certain ones even taking away your ability to jump in favor of shooting projectiles or such. So you’re supposed to alternate between different costumes and find a good mixture, and experiment with certain costumes that can unlock sections in other levels. It’s a neat idea, but it falls flat due to two major reasons. The first is that while having eighty different costumes is ambitious, it becomes clear that the developers were running out of ideas after a while. Not only are there several costumes with similar powers (including at least three that let you do a ground pound, each even having the same intro animation), but a few are just awkward. Some costumes shoot lasers or cannonballs in multiple directions…but only if you’re standing still, and then it fires them repeatedly, without input. Others give you super speed or turn you invisible…but turn these powers on and off at regular intervals, rendering them nearly useless. And even more that are only for accessing specific areas, and nothing more.

The repetitiveness of Balan Wonderworld’s costumes is one thing, but accessing them after you unlock them is an even bigger chore. When you reach a checkpoint/dressing room, you can swap your set of costumes to others you’ve found…provided you still have them. See, any time you get hit by an enemy, bump into a hazard or fall into a bit, you lose whatever costume you currently have on. Do you want it back? Well, then you’ll have to head back into the level it was in and unlock it all over again. You can only save them by storing them at dressing rooms or picking up a new costume when you have all three slots already full (the costume furthest to the right gets replaced and sent to the dressing room, which again, the game doesn’t explain). And with certain costumes needed for possible progression in previous levels, this means you can wind up backtracking to one level just so you can backtrack to another afterwards. Granted, you can exit previously-completed levels at any dressing room, but it’s still poor design.

Speaking of which, let’s discuss the levels. The sad reality is that as a straight platformer, Balan Wonderworld can be ridiculously easy. Combat is easy, with the Negati barely putting up a fight, even often wandering away from you at times. The only real challenge comes from how annoying they are, since they respawn in what may as well just be designated battling arenas, so returning to one even after going away from it for a small side trip sees them pop up again. But you will be performing these side trips often, since progression in Balan Wonderworld comes not via actually completing levels, but rather from finding enough hidden Balan statues that summons a train which causes the next set of Chapters to appear (story-wise, why you need these statues, and why there’s a train that simply just circles the Isle of Tims is, you guessed it, never explained).

In a proper collect-a-thon platformer, players would be encouraged to explore each level for all sorts of various secrets. Balan Wonderworld, though, requires this level of exploration. And while this may be more acceptable in a game with wide open worlds that have a lot to discover, Balan has mainly linear levels that may as well just be a straight line to the finish with several confusing paths to the actual goals strewn about. And it’s not like these are the most entertaining levels to play in as well, with many lacking innovation. There are a few gems towards the end, like a giant Escher-style room with rotating platforms and gravity twists, or gauntlet of shifting and moving platforms that can climb up walls, but it doesn’t say much if your game only begins to get good at this until the final quarter or so.

And then there are the controls. I haven’t encountered a platformer with such stiff, slow and awkward movements in a while (and yes, I checked to make sure my version seemingly had the Day One patch that supposedly addresses this). At times it felt like my character could barely leap over a puddle, let alone a bottomless pit. And it feels even more awkward with some costumes as well, like the Bubble Blower that apparently only works if you press the button at the exact height of your jump and not a moment later. Your character can awkwardly stop with turning, the load time between switching costumes still takes too long…the list goes on.

I could go on for a while about other numerous flaws in Balan Wonderworld: the increasingly long, numerous and repetitive “Balan’s Bout” mini-games that consist of QTEs where if you aren’t one hundred percent perfect, you don’t get a Balan statue, the somewhat shallow Tim-raising in the hub that involves building a giant contraption that constantly glitches and basically turns things into a clicker game, the fact that the Tims themselves barely have an impact on gameplay, even as a group of them follow you in levels, the fact that the game is padded and seemingly expects you to grind for crystal drops and new costumes…it’s just a mess.

There are a few highlights, though, and they mainly come down to the fact that Yuji and Naoto clearly haven’t lost their touch when it comes to visuals and character designs. Like Nights, Balan Wonderworld is filled with an immense variety of vibrant colors, with every bit of scenery coming off as stunning. Each of the costumes and characters are also cute, and much like Nights, the boss designs get imaginative, embracing the wild, the cartoonish and the dark. Heck, the boss battles in general were a highlight for me. Even if they are easy, the idea of rewarding you with multiple Balan statues if you land hits on them using different methods feels like welcome bit of variety. The music is also nice, chill and peppy.

Closing Comments:

Balan Wonderworld presents itself as having a world filled to the brim with imagination, ambition, whimsy, emotion and more. And while the game’s world has a lot of that, the actual game sadly does not. It lacks a solid narrative, satisfying gameplay and a good amount of variety, instead containing uninspired levels, awkward controls and a progression system that feels more like it rewards grinding. Fans of early 2000s platformers may be tempted to try it out, but there are far better alternatives to pick up instead. If this is supposed to be an ode to musical theater, then this is Balan Company’s Turn Off the Dark, and Balan Wonderworld is going to need a massive revamp in order for the franchise to survive.