Since its announcement, Balan Wonderworld quickly became one of the games to look forward to this year. It's a colorful 3D platformer with a focus on costumes and power-ups, it looks like a spiritual successor to Nights games—in fact, it's the latest work of Naoto Ohshima and Yuji Naka, creators of the Nights saga but also Sonic the Hedgehog—and Square Enix is involved. Nothing can go wrong, right? Well, something happened, and Balan Wonderland ended up being one of the worst games of 2021 so far...
Never Judge a Game By Its Trailer (Again)
We have a thing for 3D platformers, and you can't ignore the fact that most video game mascots are strongly tied to the genre. Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro... we all love them, so it's easy to be excited about a new platforming IP. There's always room for new franchises, and Balan Wonderworld's colorful trailer is a perfect example of showing your audience what they want to see: seemingly large, picturesque themed stages, dozens of collectible costumes with unique abilities, and what appears to be a fine selection of charming protagonists. A true Wonderworld!
To be fair, we did get picturesque themed stages and high-grade character design. All the rest, especially the gameplay mechanics, feels too bland to be enjoyed...
Would You Be so Kind as to Explain to Me Why I'm Here?
So what is Baland Wonderworld about, really? Sadly, the plot is just a poor excuse and makes little to no sense: you're a kid (Leo Craig if you play as a boy, or Emma Cole if you play as a girl) who gets transported to the Wonderworld by a mysterious magical being called Balan after following some fluffy little birds to an old theatre. Why are we taken to this magic land? What are these bird-like creatures and why do they follow us? It doesn't matter but, since you're already here, would you mind collecting all the crystals?
Balan Wonderworld features 12 levels, each of them divided into 2 acts. There you can collect colored crystals, eggs, and hidden Balan figurines, but you can also find keys you can use at a nearby gem to unlock a new costume. All costumes come with a unique ability that will help you explore the map or solve mini-puzzles, like lighting torches with the Hothead costume, running faster with the Speedy Cheetah costume, or stopping time with the Chrono Bunny costume—there are 80 available costumes! Of course, these costumes will also help you beat the boss at the end of each level.
Is the lack of a perfectly crafted story a problem? It shouldn't be, at least, but the cutscenes are so well-made that you can't help feeling like something's missing. Actually, there's a novel that explains almost everything you need to know about Balan Wonderworld's lore ("Balan Wonderworld ~Maestro of Mystery, Theatre of Wonders~"), which means going straight to the gameplay was a decision, not an oversight.
We Were Promised True Happiness but Only Got True Boredom
We wouldn't care about the lack of context if it wasn't because of the dull, overly simplified gameplay mechanics. You walk by using the left joystick, you move the camera with the right joystick, and you change costumes with L1 and R1 (if you're playing the PS4 version)... so far, so good, right? Okay, but then you have 6 buttons that do exactly the same. L2, R2 and the four main buttons of your controller are used to jump and/or use your current costume ability. On top of that, all levels are incredibly boring to explore and full of sections where you need a specific costume ability, but even costume swapping feels tiresome after a while... and it gets worse once you start noticing that several costumes have the same ability anyways.
Another painfully monotonous mechanic is the Balan Bout, a miniboss fight based on quick-time events where you need to align Balan with their silhouette. We get that several 3D platformers have minigames, but this one just isn't fun. Bah, nothing about Balan Wonderworld is fun, really...
Balan Wonderworld looks beautiful on the outside, and the soundtrack includes several cool songs. Regardless, it's also a shallow game that combines archaic controls with faulty mechanics.
We think it could be saved, but the amount of rework needed would probably feel like developing a brand new game, so there's little to no hope for Balan Wonderworld, which is a shame. The biggest flop of 2021?