Square’s new and family-friendly platformer Balan Wonderworld has launched for consoles and PCs – how did the eagerly anticipated title turn out? We played it on a PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation 5 console.
In a summer without major trade shows, a few announcements and videos were all that stood out, and Balan Wonderworld was one of them. A platformer where the development team featured a lot of the people behind some of the Sonic games was enough to capture the interest of genre enthusiasts, and with a major publisher like Square behind it people immediately started to expect good things.
As a new IP, Balan Wonderworld also introduces new protagonists – Leo and Emma. You can control both in split screen co-op, but for a single player adventure you make your choice and then head into a theater where you meet Balan, a strange demon who uses his powers to transport you to a world full of color, wacky outfits and extravagant characters.
Individual sections of the game world all loosely represent real life personal issues, like loneliness, loss or fear. You’re there to help those affected by this, and one of your biggest tools in doing so is your wardrobe. That may sound weird, but every item/costume grants you specific abilities, from generic ones like jumping to very specific ones that you’ll rarely use but come in handy in certain circumstances. This can include beating one of the game’s bosses, which for some odd reason ends with you and the boss performing a silly little dance together.
While you’d think that opens up a world of possibilities in terms of gameplay mechanics and controls, that’s only marginally true – Balan Wonderworld has one of the simplest control schemes out there, with the in-action commands being mapped to a single button. While that is great in providing an experience that’s accessible for younger players as well, it also makes the game a less streamlined experience than you want if you’re older and more demanding. Switching between outfits breaks the flow of the gameplay, no matter how adept you are at switching between an agile jumper and a fierce attacker.
During the times where you’re simply exploring the world, these issues almost vanish. Looking for little statues (which you need to open up other levels) lets you appreciate the unique art style for the game, and if you gain access to new abilities/costumes later on you can always come back and find more statues – adding a very small metroidvania element but mostly additional replay value. Extra collectibles are in the shape of gems and eggs, both of which help you unlock things like the clock of happiness and the tower of tims, which are cute little birds. None of it’s essential for the core story, but it’s nice to have all this extra content to uncover through side objectives.
That diversity in content and gameplay translates to other elements of the game as well, like the little minigames that you stumble on every now and then. Some are inspired by real life sports, others try to tie into the game world by featuring Balan – but come away as a bit of nuisance when they’re essentially quick time events that lack creativity in terms of gameplay design. In a way, that’s the story of Balan Wonderworld – it oozes creativity in many ways, but can falter in its ability to deliver upon it.
To enjoy the game as best as possible, I’d recommend playing the PS5 version if you can – the PS4 version (at least at launch) feels unoptimized and lacking in terms of performance, while the game is smooth as silk on Sony’s latest flagship console. Both versions feature the same stellar soundtrack though, which is one of the highlights of the game – which unfortunately otherwise feels like it could have used a bit more time in the oven to capitalize on the creative ideas that were put into it.