Balan Wonderworld First Impressions (PS4/Switch)
A pretty art style can only take a game so far.
Available on: PC/Consoles
Genre: Action-Puzzle Platformer
Publisher: Square Enix
Before I knew that a demo was going to be released, I decided to go into Balan Wonderworld (which I keep on misremembering it as Balan Wonderland, help me) completely blind. Well, apart from the trailer we saw in one of the Nintendo Directs this appeared in. To be honest, I was mainly drawn in by the art style. It totally did it’s job at catching my eye and reminded me of an old game called Nights. And how I didn’t know I needed more games with that style. While I was never able to play it myself, I do remember playing one of those short demos stores used to have for the Wii. So when I heard a demo was releasing, and soon, I just had to try it out as I was looking forward to playing it and finding out how the story will turn out. Well… it’s not exactly great.
Before starting, you’re asked to choose whether you want to play a male or female character and, interestingly enough, both of them have a different introduction cutscene. You won’t really know unless you’re someone that would switch or didn’t think both of them would have a different backstory, but they do. The female character, shown to be named as Emma Cole on the website, seems to be living pretty well. But she finds that everyone that the maids are constantly talking about her behind her back. They don’t really hide it well as they will immediately stop and run away if they see her looking at them. After getting sick of it, she runs out and arrives at Balan Wonderworld. While the male character, Leon Craig revealed by the website, is hanging out at the basketball court dancing. Two others, who seem to be dancing a routine, notice him and his nice moves. But when they go to Leon showing hoe much they were impressed, Leon suddenly becomes cold. Not only to them, but to everyone, which is shown by him not passing the basketball to those that were playing Basketball. And this is when both of their timelines cross as they arrive at Balan Wonderworld to meet Balan. Unless this was just a way to produce one cutscene instead of two where only the model was replaced, it seems like these are alternate timelines that Balan may know about. Though, either way, the cutscene is pretty cool and peaks at the end when Balan introduces himself.
But, after the cutscene, you’re just plopped into the overworld, Isle of Tims. No explanation on what this world is, why you’re here, how you got here (well something to do with Balan’s abilities), where the heck Balan went to (or simply why he isn’t there), why these little birds are crying to you for gem drops, or what is even up with that counter in the overworld. Anyway, there’s a world for you to go to, with two doors for you to go through showing how many levels it has. The first world is themed around it being a farm, focusing on the cornfield aspect. We get a nice visual of the farm folding out before going right in.
Going in on the gameplay, it’s pretty simple. More simple than you’d think. Despite having multiple buttons, the only thing you can do is jump and grab the little birds that followed you in the level. If you press any button but the jump button, you jump still. The main draw Balan Wonderworld has is that the gameplay revolves around costumes. It doesn’t take long for you to get to the first one, showing that you’ll first have to collect a key before you can get it. Costumes, which you’ll be able to carry three of at a time, each have one action. Which is either jumping, attacking, or some other specific action like stretching or being a gear and like with jumping, most of the buttons are just the costume’s action, with the two bumpers used to switch between the costumes. Some costumes even take away the ability to jump which isn’t nice to have to deal with. I feel like there could have been more actions, even if it’s just a regular jump so you don’t have to needlessly switch if you need to jump to continue. However, any hits you take will take that costume away. Making you either go back to try and get it again, or try to make due with what you have. And when you pick up a fourth costume, it automatically kicks off the costume on the right.
Once you get to the end of World 1 Level 2, we get a cutscene of the farmer, which we sometimes saw hanging out around the level, as he’s struggling to have his corn flourish among the bad weather. He pushes through it to get to the day when the weather is nice, until a tornado comes along to ruin everything he’s built up. This breaks him, causing a very Nights evil-looking character, which we get a peak of as they appear in the first level to spawn enemies, to transform him into a monster for you to defeat. And once you do, you get a dance sequence. Yeah.
I didn’t know this until after the fact, as the game doesn’t tell you, but you can switch out the costumes you have as long as you have one in stock. Though, I don’t really see why you need to have one in stock to get it into your active rooster. It just seems to be too slow and the jumping doesn’t feel right. And having to go through the animation for switching costumes gets old. And the fact that it’s a one button (well, apart from the buttons to switch costumes) thing hinders it to appeal to a young crowd. With the combat being okay, just easy even for the boss (but I’m assuming it’s just that it’s the first boss). It just wasn’t that fun the play and I had to push myself to play all of the levels the demo has. You’ll also struggle a bit with handling the camera. I will say that having the level curves along with you was interesting and the mirrors to teleport you is nice too, though sometimes the camera sometimes doesn’t do too well when you do go through a mirror. It also seems like you’ll be given a reason to go back to previous levels as you can notice parts showing up that you can’t use/get up to with the costumes you have already.
I also found it weird that the costumes are dancing on the sidelines. I get why, as it shows what costumes you’ll be able to get, but why dancing? And on that note, when you beat World 1 boss, why is there a random dancing sequence? Other than to draw in the younger gaming crowd in even more.
There are collectibles you’ll be gathering. Firstly, there’s the gem drops which seem to be connected to those little birds that follow you around. There’s also mandatory collectibles known as Balan Statues which will be unlocking the other worlds once you reach a certain threshold. I’m sure you won’t need to collect all of them, just most, but these are both hidden in plain sight and just plain hidden in tucked away areas or areas where you have to come back with a different costume. Lastly, there are golden hats that you can collect which will put you into a short minigame. Which… shows Balan flying through an empty space towards rocks and you just have to do QTEs. This is pretty bizarre, both as there’s little explanation to it, why just random rocks, and that it’s not having you flying around as Balan himself. Oh, and also eggs scattered around that isn’t really tracked, but you’ll hatch in the overworld to get more little birds.
Looking on the website, there’s going to be 80 costumes, which I think is a tad too much. As it’s very weird that each costume just has one action and I’m sure some could have doubled or tripled up to cut them down. Or just take some out that’s not needed, like Elastiplant where it just stretches and when you snap back you don’t really get much height. I would say the Elastiplant is helpful to get gem drops you can’t reach otherwise, but you still can with a jump. You just have to jump multiple times to get all of them.
To be honest, Balan Wonderworld is just so boring and bland to me that I didn’t actually want to replay through it and I could barely get myself to play the first level. The Switch performance, at least in handheld, isn’t that good. Aside from the graphics not looking great, the game just slows down noticeably for a second at a time a lot. I didn’t notice this happening in TV Mode though so there’s that.
While Balan Wonderworld has a fantastic art style and the cutscene we got looked amazing, the gameplay brings this down. There is a possibility, a hope, that the demo isn’t a great indicator of the main game though. Considering that the save data won’t be carried over, there’s a possibility that there will be more story in the gaps we had and playing feels better and more fun. Or that there will be improvements made between now and the release date. It could very well be a Monster Hunter situation, where the demo isn’t a good representation of the game, and this was meant to push you right into the gameplay as quickly as possible and how the overworld will be. It’s a weird decision if that’s the case, as I have seen people declaring that they canceled preorders after playing the demo and I, myself, got turned off by picking up the game, but there’s still hope. Nonetheless, if nothing changes Balan Wonderworld seems like it’ll just be a mediocre game. One that isn’t worth the $60 price tag, but more around $30.