When a game consistently makes the player ask, “What the Hell is going on?” there a two possible ways that can go.
Either, they’ve been consumed by the story and are shocked at the twists unfolding before them; it’s not uncommon, for example, to ask such questions when playing a Metal Gear Solid entry. Yet there are also games that prompt the question in a way that’s less fun. Left completely in dark as to what is going on, what you’re expected to do and even why you’re playing it in the first place, Balan Wonderworld is one such game.
Publisher Square Enix has touted Balan Wonderworld as a game that’s paying homage to the by-gone era of 3D-platformers. The kind of games that flooded the PS2 so badly most developers won’t be caught dead making another one. Yet Balan Company, the developer of the titular wonderland are taking a crack at it, backed by the power couple of Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima, the guys famous for making Sonic The Hedgehog.
I played two hours of Balan Worldworld last night and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t particularly want to go back and play more. Two hours satiated any desire I had to dwell within maestro Balan’s magical wonderworld. It’s a game that feels designed with the mindset of “more is more”; like the developers were afraid to disappoint folks who suggested ideas so instead just threw every suggestion into a pot and hoped the eventual stew would taste good.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t taste good. It tastes fine at best. Admittedly I do tend to pile on the salt, but that’s personal preference.
Balan? I’d prefer some balance
The demo allows players to experience a vertical slice of what Balan Wonderworld has to offer. You can dive into what I assume is the complete first act of the game with later acts opening up upon its completion, albeit with a limit on the actual levels you can play.
I’ll be up front and say that there’s a genuine sense of creativity and wonder in the game. The levels are bizarre and often surreal mashups of reality. There are some interesting visuals at play here, my favourite being a flying blue whale with metal gears powering it through the air.
It’s clear that the designers had a lot of fun coming up with concepts for the various stages and I’m interested to see what the final version of the game brings. Yet when describing the game to Stuff‘s Digital Editor Marcé she remarked that it sounded like a 3-year-old was telling a story that someone happened to illustrate in real-time. This is a perfect description of this game’s presentation.
Beyond that creativity I can’t say I enjoyed actually playing Balan Wonderland. Everything the player can do, every input and action, feels sluggish, which is ironic, given the background of its developers. The worlds are vibrant and filled with music with dancing being a theme that permeates throughout each world. That vibe, that energy is lost when it takes what feels like a solid two seconds to actually begin running and the default jump feels less enthusiastic than my grampy at a comic book convention.
Of course, the movement of the game is modified by a wide range of costumes the player can don to bestow upon them several unique abilities. The final version of the game will supposedly have 80 different costumes but the demo only had a fraction of that. What genuinely surprised me was the diversity of the powers each costume offered. Out of the ten or so I tried every one felt different and served a different purpose which is neat.
Yet even this collection of skills doesn’t change the overall game feel. Balan Wonderworld needs an injection of speed otherwise the energy it’s working so hard to generate with the visuals just falls flat. I also need to mention that I desperately hope the final game has a wider range of music to enjoy because the levels I played had one track play on loop for each. Which is fine if the track itself isn’t roughly 30 seconds long in levels that can take ten minutes to complete if you’re looking for all the collectibles.
It also didn’t look great on a technical level. The amount of pixilation that occurred throughout the levels I played made Balan Wonderworld look even like the PS2 games it’s inspired by. One has to hope that the seeming lack of anti-aliasing on the PS4 version of the game is a problem exclusive to the demo because otherwise it does that interesting world design no favours at all.
I think my biggest issue with Balan Wonderworld after playing the demo is that it’s a game that’s trying really hard to convince you that it’s fun but not actually putting in the effort to be fun. All the elements it throws at the player, including the bounty of costumes and powers and the erratic, irreverent should be fun but they just feel like window-dressing because actually playing the game is… boring.
There is a flying blue whale powered by steampunk-like gears soaring through the skies above your head and yet Balan Wonderland still feels boring. Younger audiences might be captivated by the visuals alone but given the vast array of costumes and specific puzzles that require them, this doesn’t feel like it would be enjoyable even for a youth. Perhaps I’ll be young by the time this game releases properly on 26 March.
Code for Balan Wonderworld‘s demo was supplied by the publisher and played on PS4.