Balan Wonderworld is a 3D platformer developed by Balan Company and published by Square Enix on March 26, 2021 for PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch.
The game is the first title developed by Balan Company, a Square Enix subsidiary founded with the intent of producing non-roleplaying action games. The subsidiary was led by Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, marking the pair's first video game collaboration since Sonic Adventure, a fact which played heavily into the game's marketing prior to launch.
Story-wise, Balan Wonderworld bears notable similarities to NiGHTS Into Dreams, one of Naka's previous works. Both games revolve around troubled children receiving help from energetic, jester-themed entities, and both have minimal dialogue. However, unlike NiGHTS, Balan Wonderworld features a theater play presentation, and additional exposition cutscenes during chapters. Balan Wonderworld also received a novelization, released alongside the game, further fleshing out the game's story.
Upon its release, Balan Wonderworld was met with significant negative reception from critics and consumers alike. Common complaints included the game's simplistic one-button control scheme, the costume system barring common actions behind temporary items, and an overall "dated" design sense. Additionally, some players prior to launch noted that a rapid flashing effect during the final boss presented a high risk to players who experience epileptic seizures, a trait which was fixed in the game's day one patch. Despite the game's negative reception, the game did see some mixed praise for its visual style, boss fights, and soundtrack.
Balan Wonderworld is a 3D platformer with puzzle and collectible elements. Each "Chapter", or world, of the game is split into three acts and a boss fight. Only the first and second acts have to be completed to unlock a chapter's boss fight, with the third act of each world remaining inaccessible until the player has defeated the game's final boss.
The game revolves around a "costumes" system, wherein the player character obtains various themed costumes, each with a different ability. Each non-directional input button activates the current costume's ability, leading the game to often be referred to as a "one button" platformer. Each chapter has an associated set of costumes, however costumes are not locked to the chapter they are found in. Additionally, the player can carry three costumes at once, including duplicates of the same costume. Costumes double as the player's health, with a costume being lost if the player gets hit while wearing it. A player's available three costumes can only be changed when collecting new costumes, or entering changing stands. The changing stand holds a maximum of 18 of each costume.
Although never stated in-game, Balan Wonderworld has an adaptive difficulty system. Repeatedly struggling with levels will decrease enemy spawns and boss difficulty, alongside increasing costume spawns. Alternatively, defeating several enemies in a row without taking damage will activate "Red Stamp" mode, a harder difficulty with more frequent enemies, and harder mid-bosses in levels. Defeating certain mid-bosses in Red Stamp mode will cause the chapter's boss to be "Lanced", increasing its difficulty and unlocking an achievement when defeated. Getting hit while in Red Stamp mode exits the mode.
Each level, or "Act", has a number of collectible Balan statues, with Acts 1, 2, and the boss fight of each world containing golden Balan statues, and Act 3 of each chapter/world containing rainbow Balan statues. Unlocking new worlds requires a certain number of golden statues be obtained, and unlocking the final boss requires collecting 110 golden statues, on top of defeating every world's boss.
Additionally, Acts 1 and 2 of each world contain Balan statues which activate "Balan's Bout", a selection of several quick-time event minigames featuring Balan. The player's timing determines the statue received, from bronze, silver, and gold. Replaying a chapter's Balan's bouts requires defeating a chapter's boss.
Collecting all of a type of statue unlocks a secret cutscene showing said statue dancing.
Tims inhabit the game's hub-world, known as the Isle of Tims. Tims congregate around the Tower o' Tims, a fixture in the center of the island. Tims occasionally interact with the tower, increasing a counter attached to it. As the counter increases, additional sections are added to the tower, with the tower being complete upon the counter reaching 24,000, at which point the counter disappears. Additionally, feeding Tims drops (gems acquired in any stage) will cause them to interact with the tower.
If a Tim is fed enough drops, various things will happen. A Tim fed enough of the same color drop will earn a corresponding medal. A Tim fed enough of any drop will increase in size, becoming a Tam. If another Tim is thrown at a Tam, the Tam will lay a Tim egg and revert to being a Tim. Tim eggs are then hatched when the player touches them. Additionally, Tims will accompany the player into stages for assistance, with the Tim's color determining their behavior in levels. Tims brought into levels can get caught in traps, causing them to be lost forever if the level is finished while a Tim is still in a trap.
Breeding two Tims, both with all three colors of drop medal, has a chance to obtain a King Tim, a Tim with a crown on its head.
In certain levels, stone statues depicting Father Tim can be found. Approaching Father Tim statues in a stage will grant the player rainbow drops, a special type of drop. Giving rainbow drops to the Father Tim statue on the Isle O' Tims will increase a bar on the statue, with the bar filling after 20 rainbow drops.
Throwing a King Tim at a completed Father Tim statue will awaken the Ultima Tim, as well as unlock a secret costume: Balan. After obtaining one Balan costume, additional ones cost several rainbow drops.
Balan Wonderworld follows two children, Leo Craig and Emma Cole, as they explore Wonderworld to regain their emotional balance.
In the game, the two struggle with alienation from their peers, which leads them to Wonderworld, a mysterious theater operated by Balan. Balan explains that the two are missing a piece of their hearts, and tasks them with helping twelve residents of Wonderworld who are beset by an evil entity named Lance. Each world follows one inhabitant's story, each one's struggles causing them to nearly succumb to Lance's influence. Each time, the children defeat the inhabitants' negativity, solving their problems before sharing an interpretive dance number with them.
After all twelve inhabitants are helped, the children face Lance directly. The other inhabitants of Wonderworld encourage them, giving them the strength to defeat Lance. After he is defeated, Lance's true form is briefly seen before he is consumed by his own darkness. Balan and the inhabitants of Wonderworld then say their goodbyes, going their separate ways. Before the children leave, Balan takes off his hat, revealing that he looks similar to Lance's true form. The children return to their lives, their own problems solved, with Leo impressing a dance troupe and Emma arriving home to a surprise birthday party. During the credits, various Wonderworld inhabitants are shown meeting each other outside of Wonderworld.
In a secret ending, the inhabitants of Wonderworld, including Balan and the game's costumes, perform a group dance.
Balan Wonderworld also has an official novelization entitled Balan Wonderworld: Maestro of Mystery, Theatre of Wonders. The book, released March 26, 2021, follows the plot of the game in deeper detail, albeit featuring major departures from the game, particularly in relation to how the game's protagonists find themselves in Wonderworld.
In the novel, Leo is a performer in Wonderworld, a stage show by Lance. There, he meets the other inhabitants of Wonderworld, each of whom has lost their name. As the inhabitants go about their lives, they experience recurring visions of a smiling figure and a young girl, and begin to question what exists beyond Wonderworld. This leads Lance to begin stoking the negativity of - and sealing away - the inhabitants of Wonderworld, claiming it to be for their own safety. However, Leo manages to find Balan Theatre, where he meets Emma and Balan.
The novel then follows the progression of the game, albeit with Lance appearing after he is defeated to explain that he was Balan 3,000 years ago. After growing attached to negativity, he turned into Lance, creating Balan to take his place. As Lance leaves, he warns Balan not to get too attached to humanity. The rest of the book follows the lives of Wonderworld's inhabitants after leaving, as suggested during the credits of the game.