I wouldn't call myself a 3D platformer fanatic, but as an older gamer it's a genre I've enjoyed for 25 years, and it's a type of game that I can actually relax with, since most of them are pretty chill. Balan Wonderworld is a project I've been excited about ever since it was revealed, since it's a 3D platformer from a major publisher with marquee talent behind it, and I was immediately drawn in by the aesthetics. I was ready for a weirdo thrill ride through a magical land of Japanese insanity, like a mix between Mario Odyssey and Nights into Dreams.
That's not what Balan Wonderworld is, exactly. Or at least that's not all that it is. The aesthetics and themes (children in a magical world) certainly reference Nights, and the character of Balan also seems very Nights like, being a flying magical trickster with a round head. There's also a clear influence from Mario Odyssey, since the main hook of the game is swapping costumes, which in turn changes up your moveset, much like Mario possession enemies in Odyssey. But while Mario Odyssey felt like an evolution of the 3D platformer genre, Balan Wonderworld feels like much more of a throwback. It honestly feels like a game that could have been made during the Playstation 2 or Dreamcast eras, albeit with better graphics and a reasonably good camera.
You play either a male or a female child, about six years old, who follows the character Balan from a modern city (there's a shot of the Empire State Building in the intro so maybe the male child lives in New York?) through the entrance of a theater to a hub world called the isle of tims. There you go off to levels set in one of six different worlds, where you do a bunch of 3D platformers and collect a bunch of different things, including little teardrop shaped gems straight out of Gravity Rush and golden statues of Balan. Balan Wonderworld is a single button game, meaning that in your base form all you can do is jump. If you collect a key and use it to unlock a costume gem, though, you will gain some other ability based on that costume. Most of the costumes seem to be able to jump too, but they can do other things as well. So the sheep costume can jump and then inflate to be able to float and be blown by fans. The pig can jump (with an additional flutter) and do a butt slam. The dragon can't jump at all but can breathe fire, and so on. You can hold 3 costumes on your character at one time and change them at will. The costumes also act as a lifebar sort of because when you get hit you lose your costume and switch to a different one (for this reason you can also hold more than one of a costume at a given time.) If you already have 3 costumes and collect a fourth, one of the costumes is sent to the "closet" where it can be retrieved at any checkpoint.
This system has potential, and even in the 4 levels the demo gives you you get an idea for how it will work. There's a gearbox in one of the levels in the first world that can only be interacted with using a costume from the sixth world, and other situations where you clearly need to import costumes from other areas to be able to do things within a level. There are also numerous obstacles that are easier to overcome with a specific costume but don't necessarily require it. This has the potential for a bunch of intriguing puzzles, including ones with varied and creative solutions.
On the other hand your moveset at any one time is extremely limited. Costume switching is not instant (there's a short animation) so the game doesn't expect you to chain a bunch of costumes together mid air or anything like that. You only have one button at any time and in certain costumes you can't even jump. In a platformer. The game doesn't really take advantage of this by setting up devious puzzles or situations, instead it's all rather simple and easy. This is much more of a children's game than Odyssey was, and while it's not challenge free it can be a little boring. That's especially true because each level features an optional QTE challenge featuring Balan that feels like an even further throwback than the rest of the game. An animation of Balan flying around fighting something plays and you either hit the button when his silhouette lines up with him or you mash it when a bunch of silhouettes appear on screen. That's it. You do this 3 to 5 times and get graded on it. If you do well you get extra collectables. It's necessary to get one of the main collectables for each level (golden statues that function like stars in Mario to unlock boss fights and new worlds) so it's something you'll be doing in every level and it's boring and way behind the times. The demo features a boss fight from the first world, but it's so simple that I have to hope that some of the later levels feature more interesting and involved boss fights. The game's primary levels do feature combat, but it's very limited (maybe one or two areas with enemies in each level, easily dispatched) which is probably a function of the limited movesets for the costumes, since it would be frustrating to have lots of enemies if you didn't have a combat focused costume on hand. The lack of enemies definitely contributes to how plain the levels feel.
The aesthetics of the game are fine but don't really do enough to make up for the simplicity of the gameplay. The game looks nice but the graphics are simple even for an 8th generation game (I played on PS5). I've been playing the Spyro Reignited Trilogy and I'd say it looks better than Balan. I thought the game would look slick and cinematic but the first world is set in a farm area with lots of oversized vegetables and a weird effect where the level seems warped like an Animal Crossing town, making walls and objects sort of rotate into view as you approach, and causing substantial pop in for collectables, which is very annoying. The other levels don't have this issue, but they're pretty plain in their own way. Music is pretty good, but it seems like there's only one tune per world rather than per level, which is disappointing. There are a surprising number of lengthy cinematics for a platformer, which again makes it seem like a game from the late 90s or early 2000s.
The hub world itself is also a bit weird. There are creatures called "Tims" that you hatch from eggs you can find in the action levels, and feed with the gems you collect from those levels too. Those are used to turn a wheel that moves a counter and when you hit certain count numbers something is added to the island. How this all works is pretty opaque, as is its purpose, but it has shades of the Chao garden from the Sonic Adventure games, even if it's not quite that involved. Again this makes Balan Wonderworld feel like a remake of a long lost Dreamcast game.
I enjoyed the Balan Wonderworld demo, especially after I started to figure out the game's mechanics and how it wanted me to play. I'm not sure how the mechanics would hold up over a whole game, but a lot of it depends on execution. If there are a ton of levels (unfortunately it's looking like 6-8 worlds with 2 levels and a boss per world, but that might be wrong) and costumes that could ramp up the complexity. If some of the other worlds are more visually interesting than the samples here and there's just more to do then I could see it being a good addition to the genre. But if the game is as short and straightforward as the demo suggests then it's going to be hard to justify the $60 asking price for this weird throwback thing with a lot of awkward elements and outdated design ideas. Rodea the Sky Soldier is Yuji Naka's last "major" game and while some people liked that it also felt like a Ps2 game. It's possible that he just hasn't evolved beyond that era, which would be a shame.
I'll end up playing Balan Wonderworld at some point, I'm sure, since I had a moderately fun time with the demo and it's in a genre I like that has few entries these days, but I was left wishing I was playing something like Astro's Playroom instead, and that's just not something I expected from a game I was really looking forward to.