Preview | Balan Wonderworld
Last Summer, Square Enix pulled back the curtain on Balan Wonderworld, a lively and energetic throwback to classic Sega titles like NiGHTS Into Dreams. Bringing in Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS Into Dreams creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, it seemed like this was going to be an easy task. While the game comes out on March 26th, 2021, Square Enix released a demo yesterday for players all over to check out. Unfortunately, based on that demo, it seems like this game isn’t going to live up to expectations. Honestly, it’s hard to see what this one will live up to.
The game offers the choice between two protagonists, Leo Craig or Emma Cole. From what we could see in the demo, Leo is a loner type and Emma is a sheltered rich girl. Sadly, that’s about all we see of their character here. Players can choose four different color palettes for each, and then you’ll be on your way. After being greeted to a cinematic where the protagonists meet Balan, you’ll find yourself transported to the Isle of Tims. Tims are little creatures that feast on gem drops you collect. The space is sort of like a hub world with a Chao garden mixed in, but it doesn’t really explain much. At some point, you’ll start constructing the “Tower o’ Tims,” but it doesn’t give much more context than that.
Starting out, the demo grants access to Act 1 or Act 2 of Chapter 1: The Man Who Rages Against the Storm. Players can go in either order here, but for the sake of this preview, we’ll start with Act 1. Starting this chapter takes you to the imaginary world of a farmer. The level is full of giant pumpkins, hay stacks, corn stalks, and more in a colorful and vibrant environment. Interesting inhabitants dance around and populate the world, disappearing out of sight upon approaching them. These inhabitants, evidently, are actually the source of your costumes. When roaming around, you’ll find a key, granting access to a costume crystal. The first one is pretty straightforward, unlocking Tornado Wolf, who looks a lot like Pokémon’s Incineroar. Tornado Wolf does a tornado spin when jumping, dealing damage and breaking obstructions.
Continuing to wander around, you’ll find tons of gem drops, Tim eggs, and most importantly, Balan Statues. Collect enough Balan Statues and you’ll power up your train to access more chapters. After exploring, it becomes pretty clear that levels are meant to be replayed with different costumes. Things like out of reach areas, spider webs, gears and more keep certain areas beyond your access. Pretty standard stuff for platformers, and nothing to fault the game on. Unfortunately, exploration is tedious due to the warping environment. It provides a cool feature for one puzzle in Act 2, but other than that, it mostly just makes you feel uncomfortable. For some, it can even cause motion sickness.
Moving on, you’ll find a switch that activates a gate to progress further. It’s here that you’ll be introduced to mirror portals. Passing through one takes you to another area, some even granting access to alternate areas. There’s more to explore in the stage, though only one area you can really access with Tornado Wolf. Later on, you’ll be able to hold onto up to three costumes in your inventory, switching between them with the shoulder buttons. Progress just a bit more and you’ll encounter Lance, the antagonist of the game.
Lance will summon three minor enemies for you to fight in a sort of mini-boss battle. With Tornado Wolf’s powers, you’ll be able to spin jump to hurt them. You’ll also have the option to jump on them, though the game doesn’t exactly make that clear. Careful though, as taking damage loses your costume, and when you’re a normal human, you can’t deal damage. You’ll have to find a new key and another costume crystal to continue the fight. Should that happen here, you’ll be close by a crystal for Jumping Jack. Jumping Jack allows for jumps that can cross larger gaps, though that is all this costume does. You’ll learn pretty quickly that almost all costumes are one-trick ponies. Defeating enemies will earn some gem drops and dispose of the threat.
With the help of Jumping Jack, there’s more to explore in the area, especially for more Balan Statues. One such find is a mysterious golden top hat. Approach it, and Balan will appear. This will allow players to initiate Balan’s Bout, an event where Balan himself fights against what appears to be corrupted objects. There isn’t a lot of context for this, at least not from the demo, but Balan is apparently pretty powerful. Waiting for shadows to line up with Balan, you’ll time your button press and activate an attack. Sometimes, you’ll even have to mash the button, though only when multiple Balan shadows appear. If you manage to time each attack perfectly, you’ll earn yourself a Balan Statue, though not much explanation. Make one poorly timed press, and you’ll only earn gem drops.
Each stage will have an end goal with a crystal like tree, and touching it will end the level and return you to the Isle of Tims. You’ll be able to hatch your collected Tim eggs and also feed your Tims between stages. Getting to Act 2, this stage is a bit longer and a bit more complex. You’ll come across the Elastiplant costume, which allows the ability to increase your height. This costume is mostly useless, as most jumping characters can reach the same height. It’s worth noting that not all costumes allow the ability to jump. In fact, pretty much every button on the controller performs the same action, including the triggers. It’s a strange choice, though perhaps it was meant for accessibility? Either way, Act 2 shows a few new obstacles and mechanics.
Transforming paths, poisonous puddles and new puzzles show what the game can offer. It also shows just how open levels can be, as this is a game for those that love moving out of bounds. Almost any area can be accessible if you have the right costume to allow it. This allows going to hidden areas where you’ll find gem drops, Balan Statues, and maybe even new costume crystals. One such hidden costume crystal, the Footballer, activates a minigame called the Free Kick Challenge. You’ll have a target range to kick three balls at, trying to avoid hitting a Balan “goalie.” Once the minigame ends, the costume goes away, seemingly part of a set of costumes with similar activities. You’ll collect more gem drops, fight more enemies, and even unlock a few more costume crystals.
Dainty Dragon is an offensive type costume that allows you to shoot fireballs. If you hold down a button, it’ll even charge up a barrage of fireballs. These fireballs are useful against enemies, and even automatically aim towards the closest one. They can also be used to destroy obstacles in your path. Progressing further, you’ll also find the costume crystal for Pounding Pig. This is another jumping costume, though with a twist, as you can perform ground pounds in mid-air. This helps for certain areas where there are pillars, pounding which will raise a different pillar. You’ll eventually find a puzzle where you have to roll the warping world to navigate a ball to a switch. This is the only cool part of this feature, and sadly isn’t worth it.
Towards the end of Act 2, you’ll have a small boss fight. The enemy takes three hits while attacking you with tornadoes. Boss fights are actually pretty solid, similar to those you would find in a 3D Mario title. Defeat this boss and complete the level to unlock the Chapter 1 boss. Lance will corrupt the farmer and suddenly a giant wolf-like creature will emerge. This boss sort of combines elements of Tornado Wolf and Pounding Pig. He’ll summon tornadoes to attack you with and even perform ground pounds. Attacking him with your own tornado spins is the best approach, though one strike will come from using a ground pound on a pillar. After a third attack, you’ll finish him off, earn three Balan Statues, and cleanse the farmer. How do we celebrate? With a crazy song and dance number of course.
After finding eight Balan Statues, you’ll fuel a train that unlocks two more chapters. Chapter 4, The Boy Who Would Be One with the Wind, offers one stage in the demo. This stage utilizes propellers, air currents and balloons in a sort of windy valley. The world warping seems to thankfully disappear here, making other stages more traditional for platforming. You’ll come across the Soaring Sheep costume, which inflates and allows you to ride on air currents. It’s not great for attacking though, which leads to another costume crystal: Aero Acrobat. This costume allows homing attacks a la Sonic the Hedgehog, which can be used on enemies or even balloons. It’s unknown if this is a direct reference to Sunsoft’s own Aero the Acro-Bat, but it’s one of the most useful costumes yet.
Of course, upon further exploration, you can find one more costume crystal in this chapter: Box Fox. Box Fox is an unusual one, and I honestly couldn’t see too many reasons to use it. For some strange reason, it automatically activates, turning your character into an invincible box for a few seconds. To make matters stranger, the box moves slowly on its own. The first time I transformed into the box, it literally slid me off the stage. While invincibility is valuable, the loss of control makes this one of the worst costumes in the game so far. With 80 costumes, it’s hard to say if it will maintain that standing, but based on this demo, it’s hard to beat. Aside from that, this is actually one of the best stages in the demo.
Finally, we move onto Chapter 6: The Girl and the Kitten. This stage takes the motif of a clock and gears, though I’m unsure how it relates to cats. The first costume crystal here unlocks Gear Prince, which seems to be one of the more valuable costumes in the game. Not only is it useful in this stage, but it can also be used in various other stages. Gear Prince can basically use his gear body to activate gear puzzles throughout the game. This can open gates, move platforms, or even reveal hidden paths. Sadly, it’s not much of a offensive costume, but it’s very useful in this heavy platforming stage.
Progressing a bit further will allow you to find the Pumpkin Puncher costume. This costume unleashes rocket punches toward foes, but also has a use of being able to grab distant items. Overall, this stage is full of different gear related puzzles and platforms, and shows some pretty good level design. One of the main areas is a large clock tower where you have to run along gears to get to higher levels. Unfortunately, the bottom of the tower has what feels like endlessly respawning enemies if you happen to fall down. Even if you don’t fall, if you go off the beaten path to get gem drops, you’ll likely have no choice but to jump back down here anyway. This is also the only stage in the demo where I believe Balan’s Bout is inaccessible, as it requires getting past a trick staircase to reach.
With all the stages done, the only other thing to do in the demo is to build your Tower o’ Tims. Again, it’s not really explained, but there’s a rotating wheel in the hub area that Tims will jump onto. After a full rotation, it moves a counter up, and reaching a certain number constructs new elements on the island. In the demo, you’re able to create a foundation for a tower, two levels of it, and a trampoline that doesn’t seem to work. Once you reach 500 rotations, the demo caps you off, though there’s definirely more to this construction project. What it’s for, I have no clue. The game doesn’t really give you any indication of how to reach the objective; it just sort of happens.
Getting to the presentation of the game so far, this is where the game feels misguided. Naoto Ohshima’s fantastic character designs do well to lend to the charm here. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make up for strange animations and placement of these characters in stages. The Tims themselves also have strange animation, and sometimes appear to have frame issues. Speaking of frames, the game’s framerate is a cause for concern. Even on the PlayStation 5, the framerate isn’t very smooth when adjust camera angles. It’s still playable, but it doesn’t help in the early stages when the world warps around you. The Switch version is another story, as that game has a lot of framerate issues.
Honestly, the Switch version in general is pretty poor quality. Models and textures take long to load properly, the game lacks any decent anti-aliasing, and the overall quality takes a nosedive. It’s expected for this version to not be as good looking, but there are many better looking Switch games that perform a lot more admirably. Then again, even on the stronger platforms, the quality of the visuals isn’t exactly high. Models are pretty simple, details like grass pop in, and textures are inconsistent in quality. Even the character running animation feels off, mostly due to the fast run speed but slow movement. At least the music is strong, bringing back nostalgia of 90s gaming. With that in mind, the musical numbers are still pretty nonsensical.
Overall, Balan Wonderworld seems to be an inconsistent mess of designs. There are a lot of really good elements to appreciate, but there’s also a lot of strange design choices that really hold it back. It’s unknown if more time could really alleviate the issues, but this game could definitely use some changes. Balan Wonderworld is currently set to release on all platforms in March, though based on the reception, Square Enix may want to consider a delay. Even as a game for kids, this one is hard to recommend in its current state. Hopefully Balan Company can prove us wrong, though this first impression is not bringing us a lot of hope.