My friend bought me Balan Wonderworld. It is somehow both irreducibly weird and terminally bland. Yay.
By bigsocrates 7 Comments
I was legitimately excited when Balan Wonderworld was announced. I feel like that’s important to say, because at this point the game is kind of a joke and a meme and it’s popular to make fun of it, which I’m going to do some of, but it wasn’t always that way. A new 3D platformer from Yuji Naka, backed by the financial might of Square Enix was a very enticing prospect. Yes many of Naka’s more recent projects have been either not great or tiny budget affairs, but we’re talking about a legendary designer working in a genre that he did ground breaking work in back in the day, and finally given substantial money to bring his vision to life. It’s easy to say that Naka hasn’t done anything of note since Sonic Adventure 2 (I am, of course, omitting @imunbeatable80's future greatest game of all time Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg because nobody could live up to that legacy) but Rodea the Sky Soldier’s Wii version, the one that Naka considered definitive, has a lot of defenders, and that came out in 2015. Balan Wonderworld saw Naka collaborating with some of his old colleagues and the graphic style and music were very much my jam so it’s fair to say that I was relatively excited when the first announcement happened.
Then the demo dropped.
I downloaded and played through that demo and while I didn’t hate it, it had some very worrying elements. The least concerning issue was that the game looked dated. It’s true that the graphics can’t measure up to the best of modern games in the genre like Super Mario Odyssey or Psychonauts 2, but I genuinely liked the graphical style, and having played through the whole release I still do. It looks like a fancier version of a Dreamcast game, and I loved the Dreamcast. The cinematics are at times pretty appealing and the character design is very kid-friendly but sometimes creative and never unpleasant. The game is also buoyed by its soundtrack, which is the only thing about it that I can say I really enjoyed with no reservations (there are levels in the game that are pretty ugly but all the music is good.)
More concerning was the slow game speed. Your character in the demo ran at a pretty slow pace and it made the movement feel a little bit clunkier than it had to. Character acceleration was the biggest issue, since the few moments it took to get your character up to their slow top speed felt particularly sluggish and made the game feel unresponsive. The bad movement and mediocre levels from the demo were enough to keep me from pre-ordering it, and the terrible reviews meant that despite wanting to play it at some point I didn’t buy it at launch. I might not have ever bought it at all (maybe waiting for Game Pass or PS+ to dip in) but I made the mistake of telling one of my real life friends about my minor obsession with the game and once it dropped to $20 he ordered a copy and sent it to my apartment solely because he knew it would create an obligation for me to actually play it, and he wanted to laugh at my pain. You know, friend stuff.
The full release gives the character a bit of a speed upgrade and movement feels a little better, though never great. Games like Super Mario Odyssey leave you feeling like you are in complete control of your acrobatic character and can get him to gracefully do some incredible things if your timing and precision are right. Balan Wonderworld never comes close to that, but that isn’t necessarily related to the character’s speed. The chief issue is the incredibly restrictive moveset.
Balan Wonderworld has a lot of moves in it. Dozens, in fact. The problem is that you only get to use one at a time. In her base form your character can jump and…that’s it. Just a simple leap, the most basic move in all of platforming. You can use this jump to get onto platforms and as an attack against most enemies if you land on their heads, but you won’t be pulling off any fancy moves like double jumps, wall jumps, long jumps, or whatever. It’s a return of platforming to its earliest roots, the days of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. Naka’s original Sonic the Hedgehog game also primarily relied on a single jump, but that game’s levels provided a lot of opportunities to use the jump in varied ways, and later games in the series would add the Spin Dash and other moves to complicate things. Balan Wonderworld doesn’t have Sonic’s launch pads or inclines so the jump feels much more restricted than in even that 16 bit classic.
What Balan Wonderworld does have are costumes. Nearly 100 of them. These are pickups in the level that change your character’s appearance and swap the jump out for some other move. Sometimes that move is a modified jump (such as a whirlwind jump that can get more horizontal distance and act as an attack if you hit enemies from the side, or a flutter jump that allows you to stay airborne for longer and cross large gaps.) Sometimes the move is a projectile, like a hurled fist or glob of water. On rare occasions you’ll get the ability to jump and do something situational, like move gears at certain gear boxes to change the environment, or play music on stages scattered through a few of the levels. Mostly it will be one thing, though, and if that thing is not a jump then you are entirely grounded. That’s right, Balan Wonderworld is a platformer where you often can’t jump between platforms.
It’s not quite as bad as it sounds because most costumes do have a jump of some kind and you have the ability to hold up to 3 costumes at once and switch between them in about half a second, so as long as you have a jumping costume in your inventory you’ll be able to get through the platforming parts. If you take a hit you lose your current costume, which can be very frustrating because many obstacles require one specific costume to get past, but it does mean that if you absolutely need a jump and have only non-jumping costumes you at least have the option of taking damage to go back to your basic jumping form. If your inventory is full when you collect a costume that costume will go to your dressing room which can be accessed from any checkpoint in the game (all the levels have a number of them) and the levels are designed so that some collectables will be hidden behind barriers that you need a specific costume for, usually but not always found in that level. While you can store costumes in the dressing room, you have to collect each copy of the costume separately. They’re contained in respawning gems scattered throughout the levels, which require also respawning keys to open, always located near the costumes. This means that if you get hit while wearing that copy of the costume it’s gone, and if you don’t have more in the dressing room you need to go back into whatever level it’s found in and collect a key and then collect the costume again. This is a huge pain in the butt and a bad mechanic.
The game would be substantially better if you just had a life meter and kept all the costumes you collected permanently in the dressing room. It would allow you to have balanced builds with an attack costume, a platforming costume, and whatever specialized costume you need for that level’s challenges. Instead you just kind of grab whatever you can find so you can store more costumes in the dressing room to pull out when needed, and often have multiple copies of the same costume equipped as a result, restricting your moveset. It’s also incredibly annoying to lose a rare costume when you get hit. It’s not a hard game but it doesn’t have the best camera and like any game it’s possible to get attacked from an awkward angle or whatever and take an unintended hit, especially if you’re wearing a slow costume that can’t jump out of the way. The costume mechanic quickly becomes tedious. Many of the abilities are very close to one another so the sense of discovery fades swiftly, managing your costumes is often a chore, it makes you feel fragile even though dying in the game just instantly resets you to a checkpoint (because losing an important and hard to get costume is worse than losing a life in most games) and your moveset at any given moment is so restricted that even though the game has a ton of moves you can’t actually do much with them. This is especially true because there’s a slight pause when switching costumes, meaning that you can’t chain moves together like you can in a game with instant switching (no using a super jump to get high and then a glide to travel a long distance, for example.)
None of this is helped by the level design, which can best be described as basic and slapdash. There are 12 worlds in the game based around various themes depending on the character whose story the game is not telling (more on that later.) The first world is based around a farmer so it’s farm themes. Later worlds might be based around a fire fighter (fire themed) or a clown (circus themed) etc… Each world has 2 levels and a boss fight that’s it’s own level. There’s also a third, hidden, level for each world so there’s a fair amount of content, with 36 levels, 13 bosses, and 300 Balan statutes to collect. Each level has within it a number of collectables including at least a few costumes, 8 Balan statues (which act as the game’s version of Mario stars), a number of gem teardrops, which are like coins and serve a purpose in the game’s tiny hub world, and a final goal that you get to. Because each world has its own costume set and obstacles based on whatever the theme is (such as slippery ice in the snow world and swimmable water blocks in the water themed world) the quality does vary between them. There are some worlds that combine interesting abilities with decent level design to create a genuinely fun experience. All the levels, however, are just abstract assemblies of floors and obstacles and while some of them look cool and there are specific parts of some that are well designed, in general they’re kind of a mess, which isn’t helped by the fact that the game has such a massive potential moveset so if you have the right costume from a different level you can entirely skip over intended obstacles built for that world’s set of costumes. Giving the player to do a lot of things but only a few at any one time is sort of the worst of all worlds from a level design perspective, because a level can’t chain concepts together to iterate on ideas but it also can’t account for all the possible approaches a player might take. It never feels like the designers had a vision for how the game should be played but just kind of assembled various parts together and kept the difficulty low enough that the player could sort of muddle through, which you can. The game has combat with enemies that spawn in at certain points, some of which can be ignored and some of which must be defeated to progress, but it’s never particularly interesting or entertaining and mostly serves to waste your time or strip away one of your costumes.
Boss battles, on the other hand, are at least a little bit more creative. You face each boss in simple arena of some sort and there are always a couple costumes you can collect there that respawn so you can never be fully screwed. Bosses have unique mechanics that relate to the specific level, like the fire boss that is surrounded by a pool of lava and fires lava globs and flamethrowers at you, and you make it enter a vulnerable state by using water to jam its lava flows. You can earn 3 statutes in each boss level, one for each way that you damage it (for example stomping on its weak spot vs. shooting it.) This is a cool idea that allows you to either just repeat your actions to get through the fight or try to switch things up and earn more Balan statutes. These boss fights still suffer from the game’s basic problems of its movement and both overly restrictive and overly broad move set, but they’re tightly designed compared to the rest of the game and are easily the best part of the whole experience.
Now we get to Balan Wonderworld’s story. This is by far the strangest part of a very strange game. The game has lavish cut scenes that clearly devoured a big chunk of the budget. You get a cut scene before and after each boss fight, meaning that you’re playing most of the world without having seen one, and they show you something about the character and the trauma they’ve gone through, as well as the resolution of that trauma after you defeat the boss. A girl is shown swimming with a dolphin who attacks her and creates a fear of water, and then after the fight she is able to return to the water and reconnect with the dolphin. A child is ostracized by classmates for their love of bugs but then accepted after they show prettier bugs like butterflies. That kind of thing. You also get a weird little song and dance number after defeating the boss, sung in gibberish and showing your character bonding with the thankful person whose trauma you’ve cleansed.
What’s weird about all this is that Balan Wonderworld actually does have a much deeper story, it’s just not in the game. There was a book published alongside the title (including an English translation available for e-reader, though it actually costs money!) which explains who these people are and what they’ve gone through. It also gets into Balan himself and where he comes from (the game just shows your character running into a theater where he whisks them off to the hub world and then shows him lurking around in the background during cut scenes.) Each character, including the playable characters, have a backstory in this book and the whole thing is about psychological trauma and healing. Putting all of this into a book outside the game is, frankly, both scummy and absurd and I can’t imagine what they were thinking here. This is something that may have made sense in 1993 when carts had limited space for storytelling, but games have had complex and complete stories since at least the 5th generation of consoles, and putting it in another medium that you have to pay to access is an atrocious practice. There’s also a web site with some of this information in it, but not much more than is in the game. An Austin Eruption video gets into this deeper, and I did not read the book, but this practice is horrible and makes an already not great game a whole lot worse as it literally hides its story behind a separate paywall. The game even includes credits for the book that doesn’t come with it in its end sequence!
Balan Wonderworld makes a lot of terrible decisions in its design, though. In addition to everything I’ve said about the costumes and levels, a number of statutes in each level are locked behind Balan’s Bout QTE challenges where a long animation of Balan battling the game’s main villain Lance plays and you have to either hit a button when two pictures of Balan line up or mash a button when a bunch of little Balans appear on the screen. These get extraordinarily tedious very quickly, since the animations are very repetitive from one bout to the next and there are often multiple bouts per level. In addition you have to get perfect button presses from 4 to 6 times in a row to get the statue (otherwise you just get more gems) and if you “fail” a bout by, for example, getting 5 excellent ratings (when you do it perfectly) and one great (slightly off timing) you get extra gems but no statute and you have to leave the level and return to try again. Every part of this is horrible, and I once audibly shouted “no!” when I jumped into what I thought was a statute only to find it was a Balan’s bout I had to sit through. I did not get the statute because I messed up one press that time, and that was almost always what happened with these terrible QTE minigames. Like many parts of Balan Wonderworld this could have easily been made much better (just let you retry the bouts as much as you wanted, or be a little more lenient in the scoring) but it’s not. It’s just not better. Instead it’s very bad. The same can be said for the sports minigames that litter the levels and are all very bad.
And that’s my overall feeling on Balan Wonderworld. This was never going to be a great game. It doesn’t have good enough control or level design for that. It looks dated and even when you know the story it’s pretty bad. It was clearly designed for kids but has a lot of frustrating elements that modern kids will not enjoy. It’s not an unpolished gem by any means. But it could have been okay. There are certain levels, or points within levels, where Balan Wonderworld is a solid 7/10 game. If everything was just the quality of the boss fights then it would be even better than that. It just does everything it can to take those good elements and ruin them with tedious design choices and the inexcusable decision to rip the story out of the game and put it elsewhere. Even some of the side stuff that could be interesting is bad.
I’ve mentioned the gem tears you get in the levels. There are no extra lives in this game but they do serve a purpose. You also collect eggs from the levels for little creatures called “Tims” that live on the isle of “Tims” that is the game’s hubworld. Feeding gems to Tims causes them to get bigger and then you can throw another Tim at them to create another egg that you can hatch to create more Tims. All of these TIms then go jump into a wheel in the center of the Isle which counts up each rotation and at certain numbers creates another part of a central tower. At first this is an amusing little minigame of collecting more Tims and making the numbers go up and building your tower. Soon, however, the numbers you need to make them go up get quite high, and other than feeding the Tims whatever gems you have there’s nothing to do on the island, so to complete the tower you need to just wait around and watch them jump through the wheel. It quickly becomes a big waste of time. What’s the purpose of all this? I don’t know. The Times follow you into the levels and do things like collect gems or eggs and bring them to you, or sometimes stun enemies for you, but it’s never clear which ones will follow you in or why or if you get more if you breed more on the island or any of that. Does the tower play into this? Who knows. It’s a cool concept of using the collectables to play this minigame and at first it seems kind of like Sonic Adventure’s Chao Garden but it quickly shows itself to be a soulless, shallow, time suck. There’s no point to any of it.
And there’s no real point to playing Balan Wonderworld. I was excited to play it just to experience the hot mess, but it’s not enough of a hot mess to be funny. The design choices are baffling and fascinating, but playing the game doesn’t give you more insight into them than reading or watching videos about it does. The bad decisions are executed relatively competently, and the game feels technically solid. It’s just kind of boring, when it’s not infuriating, The “why did they do it like this?” element is about the whole project, not specific decisions within the game, and it’s sad to see what a bad game Yuji Naka made as likely his last big budget project, and maybe the last 3D platformer Square Enix will ever try. Usually I find weird bad games fascinating and kind of fun. This one was just kind of depressing. I played most of it in August and then a bit more in September before I got to a part that was frustrating and put it down for another two months before picking it back up again. If I hadn’t wanted to blog about it and it hadn’t been a gift from a friend I don’t think I would have finished it. It’s just not a game I got much from playing. I don’t hate it, I’m not amused by it, I’m just glad it’s done and I don’t have to play it anymore. At first I thought I’d legitimately love Balan Wonderworld. Then I thought I’d find it hilarious. In the end I just kind of want to forget it exists, and based on its reception I don’t think that will be particularly hard.