Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima were once two names who were a huge deal in the video game industry, but during the time they were absent from the limelight the industry had moved on, and so did their own creations like Sonic the Hedgehog. With so much history leading up to its release, Balan Wonderworld certainly had a lot to prove as one of the major releases of 2021 by publisher Square Enix. A free demo was made available earlier, which was met with a polarising reception and a lot of the player feedback since incorporated into the final game.
Thing is, even as a final release with post launch updates, Balan Wonderworld is still going to be polarising, and sometimes it’s about understanding what the game is trying to achieve, and a willingness to look beyond the surface. For those of us who have been playing video games for a long time, it’s also about having an appreciation of the kind of gaming experiences which evolved and have been encapsulated into Balan Wonderworld.
If it wasn’t already clear from the demo, then it’s clear by now how this game was never going to be something to change the world. It was never going to come close to dethroning the likes of Mario Odyssey or even the recent 4K ambitions of Crash Bandicoot 4, but it does enough to remind the gaming world of what once made the output from its creators feel like lightning in a bottle. Yes, the execution may be flawed, but then so were games like Burning Rangers, Billy Hatcher, and Sonic Adventure. Looking just at Naoto Oshima’s resume, Xbox fans will be familiar with a flawed yet charming 3D platformer called Blinx, starring a time travelling cat; something that was an early attempt at creating a mascot for the Xbox brand. While it didn’t quite achieve the success it had envisioned, the feline Time Sweeper did end up having two games on the original Xbox, and the time travelling shenanigans can still be experienced via backwards compatibility.
Ultimately, much like those aforementioned games, Balan Wonderworld isn’t going to be winning any awards or conceivably entering a video game hall of fame years down the track, but this is one of the few major video games to qualify as avant-garde, something so unique that it can’t invoke anything less than a polarising reaction.
From a purely graphical and technical standpoint, Balan Wonderworld is unquestionably and objectively disappointing. For a game designed for new consoles in mind, it is impossible to be lenient about the underwhelming graphical prowess. It certainly would have been a different case had Balan Wonderworld been a modest indie project, but this is a major release from publisher Square Enix, created by industry legends. It’s hard to understand or know why the graphical and technical aspects are as lacking as they are, but in an era of 4K resolutions and 120 frames per second, there’s just simply no excuse for a major 2021 release to look like it is a few hardware generations behind. There were certainly far more technically impressive and proficient releases on Xbox 360; even Kameo: Elements of Power has a major edge over Balan Wonderworld.
Still, despite a weak engine under the hood, the visuals of Balan Wonderworld still carry strong artistic merit. There is a vibrant sense of the wonder in the thematic worlds presented, and a memorable brilliance to the character designs, where the artwork stays with you even when the textures of the 3D models are bland. The particle effects are simple, but the colour schemes still shine through. At the very least, the animated cutscenes manage to bolster the presentation where the in-game graphics fail, and each of these sequences have the quality and charm of a Pixar animated short. This is where Balan Wonderworld really shines: it delivers emotional tales using a range of theatrical devices and visual motifs to bring its fantastical themes to life. The icing on it all is found in the soundtrack, as there is some truly stunning music composed to bring the game’s artistic and story visions to life. In the absence of dialogue it is able to drive the right emotional notes for the musical narrative.
In Balan Wonderworld you play as one of two protagonists, Leo and Emma (a nod to Elliot and Claris from Nights into Dreams) as two emotionally troubled kids who happen to meet this theatre wizard named Balan. It is the latter who then proceeds to magically transport the children into the Wonderworld. Within this fantastical setting are 12 thematic worlds, each representing an emotional challenge faced by a character, presented as a theatrical performance. Leo and Emma essentially dive into the emotional depths of each of these characters, as they help them find emotional closure and resolution. With the whimsical art style and use of dramatic music, these stories deliver their sincere message as intended.
Balan Wonderworld is as classic a 3D platformer as they come; it has the clean level design and the collectathon appeal from yesteryear, and those familiar elements are as enjoyable as they are nostalgic. Leo and Emma navigate acts in each of these 12 worlds, and when collecting all sorts of coloured gems and the like, their main task is to gather enough golden Balan statues to open up all of the stages (a similar progression design can be found in 3D Mario games). Each of the worlds ends with a simple yet compelling boss battle, hearkening back to the days when platformer bosses were easy to conquer and yet still interesting enough to feel rewarding.
Initially, it can seem like a pretty simple affair, but the key element which adds meaningful depth to seemingly simple levels and boss battles are the golden Balan statues. While each of the acts can feel a little short and basic the first time around, it doesn’t take long to realise how every nook and cranny of these areas is crammed with all sorts of little secrets, and in the process of collecting every golden statue, these levels become more compelling and interesting in their design. The same goes for the boss battles too; figuring out three distinct ways to attack each boss awards a golden statue, and so there is a great deal of replay value and discovery embedded within the design of Balan Wonderworld.
The core 3D platforming is clean and enjoyable, with things to collect, environmental puzzles to solve, mid-bosses to deal with, and bigger bosses to figure out. The core mechanic which diversifies the gameplay, and enhances the sense of discovery in the level design, is the costume system. Playing off the theatre premise, Leo and Emma unlock and collect 80 or so costumes scattered across each of the worlds and acts, with each granting some kind of traditional platformer ability, along with plenty of new ideas too. These abilities include everything from walking on air, to swimming, to scaling webs, to firing a variety of projectiles, and even self-detonating as a clown.
As a nod to the past, Sonic’s trademark homing attack is prominently included too. These numerous abilities not only help with the gameplay variety and combat, but they are essential to fully navigating the levels and solving environmental puzzles. Collecting these costumes is part of the enjoyment, and so figuring out the best combination of costume abilities to take with you goes a long way to discovering all the secrets.
Beyond the main 3D platformer game design, there are other interesting distractions, and while they don’t offer too much gameplay substance they still add flavour to an already diverse game. In each of the acts there are hidden golden hats which take players into a mini-game called Balan’s Bout, letting players sort of take control of Balan himself as they complete a few simple visual QTE prompts. Then there are coloured fluffy bird creatures called “Tims”, and these critters populate the hub world where collecting gems see more of them hatch, and they also go into building a strange tower structure. These critters also assist during gameplay in subtle ways, such as retrieving items and briefly engaging in combat. If all of that wasn’t enough, there are even simple sports mini-games which can be a bit of fun.
It’s hard to make a call one way or another with what has been created here. On one hand it is absolutely right to fault Balan Wonderworld for its weak technical performance or complete lack thereof, and for most gamers this might rightfully be a deal-breaker, even though the game itself is comfortably functional. On the other hand, this game is something that will speak to those who have been playing video games for a long time; gamers who have memories playing Nights into Dreams on the Sega Saturn during the holiday season of 1996. Regardless of what camp you may fall into, Balan Wonderworld demands prospective players to look past a lot of things on the surface to appreciate the genius of its game design and the charm of its visual and story presentation.
Balan Wonderworld on Xbox is as avant-garde as a video game can get. It’s hard not to fault the game for its underwhelmingly dated graphics, and yet once you’re willing to look past this you can’t help but be swept away by the theatrical presentation, where charming character designs, incredible music, and heartfelt stories all come together to deliver a memorable experience. Beyond just subjective artistic merit, the core game design can feel deceptively simple and empty at first, but once you delve into the highly diverse and versatile costume-ability gameplay, you discover and appreciate just how much depth the levels have, and how many secrets are crammed just waiting to be discovered, all creating compelling replay value.
Balan Wonderworld, even with all of its surface-level faults, is a genuinely charming 3D platformer that is blissfully imaginative both in its artistic presentation and game design.