Two months ago, I covered the demo of Square Enix’s latest game, Balan Wonderworld. Despite the criticism it received, I enjoyed it despite having a couple of issues, mainly with the controls. However, once the full game was released, the general backlash only continued—but I admittedly ignored those reactions and went into the full game open-minded.
Balan Wonderworld is a platformer where the player takes on the role of Leo Craig or Emma Cole and travels through different worlds that are constructed of people’s insecurities. In order to fix these worlds and help the particular individual, they must collect costumes and Balan statues to defeat the evil that has strengthened these insecurities.
While the story is basic, it’s the gameplay that makes Balan Wonderworld shine. Enjoyment of this game depends entirely on whether players enjoy this style of gameplay, as well as whether they are concerned with graphics and visual quality. The game was directed by Yuji Naka, the lead programmer of the original Sonic the Hedgehog series, and this game has the feel of platformers from that era. The moment the game starts, the player is immediately welcomed by a bright and colourful theatrical opening scene of the lead characters discovering the theatre, titled Balan Wonderworld, before being thrown into a world of colour and light. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s ok; it exists to be a visual delight and it succeeds at this. Furthermore, each boss fight ends with a musical number between Leo/Emma and the individual that has been saved. While this aspect may appear strange at first, it quickly became a delight—especially for someone like me, who was raised around musical theatre. It also made me want to progress, just to see what the next musical number would be.
It also helps that the soundtrack is fantastic. Square Enix by now have experience when it comes to cinematic soundtracks, and they have implemented their musical skills into this game. While it’s not as dramatic as their other franchises like Final Fantasy, it still elevates the wonderous environments that are explored. The direction taken is a joyful and innocent one, resembling the young avatars in the game. Even the musical numbers are joyous and wouldn’t look out of place in a “day in the life”-style anime. Seeing as music is an important aspect of Balan Wonderworld, the soundtrack is a crucial aspect to get right.
The controls and collectibles are also a crucial part of Balan Wonderworld. In the game, the player must collect various costumes, each with their own ability, in order to reach certain areas in a level. For example, the first two costumes are a Wolf and Rabbit costumes. The Wolf one gives the player a tornado spin (like Crash Bandicoot’s), while the Rabbit costume has a high jump that ends in a small hover. All the costumes collected can be switched around throughout the game too, which was a welcome addition. This was also something that didn’t work when covering the demo, so I’m glad to see this aspect work. It’s an extremely useful tool when completing each level and reaching a specific area too. Furthermore, the controls are extremely responsive.
Balan Wonderworld also offers the “Theatre,” where previous cutscenes can be replayed. This is an aspect that was common in Playstation 1 games but seems to have faded away in recent years, so it was nostalgic to see this in a modern video game.
However, while the gameplay is fun and the environments look beautiful, the actual visual quality and resolution is a different story. To put this lightly, it felt like I was playing a Playstation 2 game at times. White lines could be seen around a lot of the environment edges, giving the impression that they were pixelated when they weren’t. Furthermore, I experienced occasional lag, mainly when there was a lot onscreen. I also experienced this at a sharp turn or when an enemy was defeated. It’s a great shame to see this after praising the visuals in the demo. While I’m used to seeing a certain visual quality (because I still regularly play Playstation 1 and 2 games), I know that this is not the standard for this type of game and for Square Enix, so it’s disappointing to see here.
Overall, if you can look past the occasional lag and poor visual quality, Balan Wonderworld is a fun and colourful platformer resembling an era long forgotten. The environments are interesting and the costumes are adorable, each with their own unique ability. The game even gives players a couple of additional aspects outside of the single player mode, with the Theatre and multiplayer mode. A certain standard is now expected from a publisher like Square Enix, which can be both a good and bad thing. While it may not meet everyone’s standards, for someone who still regularly plays games like this, I’m happy with what I have been given, and I appreciate the game’s existence.
[A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes]