Balan Wonderworld (PS5) Review

Richard Walker

What is Balan Wonderworld? That's what you'll be asking yourself the moment you start playing the self-titled debut from developer Balan Company, and it's what you'll constantly be asking yourself throughout its twelve painful chapters. Opening with a baffling cinematic, the game becomes increasingly confused the deeper you get into its sickly sweet, candy-coloured world (a wonderworld, if you will), and for days now, I've had bizarre nightmares about dancing characters that dissolve out of existence when you get too close, a jump that yanks you back down to earth with a thud, and a story that isn't a story at all. Balan Wonderworld makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.


The Elastiplant is one of the first costumes you'll wear.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Balan Wonderworld is the product of Mr. Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, and artist/character designer Naoto Ohshima. The game is a colourful adventure in which you play as either Emma or Leo, and proceed to help people who have lost something they hold dear. There's a farmer whose farm is a mess (or something), a girl who has lost her dolphin, a girl who has no friends because she likes insects, and other needy folks to help, if you can be bothered. In the background is the eponymous “mysterious maestro” Balan himself, a gangly creature decked out in a crisp white suit, a hat with red trim, and stupid green hair peeking out at the back, who apparently runs the show. Your sole objective is to collect golden statuettes of Balan, tucked away in each of the game's 12 chapters, in order to progress. Collecting a gold top hat will initiate a profoundly dull mini-game featuring Balan himself, in which you have to match his shadow to an action he performs in a sequence. It's really rubbish.

That's essentially Balan Wonderworld in a nutshell. Different outfits you can unlock by gathering keys (usually situated conveniently next to the little pod in which the costume is contained) grant new abilities, and some of them inexplicably remove your ability to jump. For some reason, someone thought it would be a great idea to have every button do the same thing, so with the exception of the L1 and R1 buttons, used to switch outfits, every other input is 'jump' or 'use ability'. Why one button isn't a default jump button regardless of which costume you're currently wearing, is beyond me. And that's really Balan Wonderworld's most cardinal sin – it's a platforming game with bad jumping. Or in some cases, no jumping at all.

You're also never really sure why you're collecting different coloured gems then feeding them to little fluffy birds that follow you around, called 'Tims'. Upon completing an act of each level, you're whisked back to the verdant 'Isle of Tims', a hub region where you can look after your Tims, help them multiply, and have them complete secondary objectives for you at certain milestones, building new structures within the hub. Ultimately, it all feels quite pointless. At least in a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, you knew that Dr. Robotnik had ensnared animals and stolen the chaos emeralds, so you had a mission, of sorts. But in Balan Wonderworld I had nothing to hold onto, narratively speaking or otherwise. You collect Balan statues, go to the next area, fight a 'Nega Boss' (enemy design, is, for lack of a better word, crap), and then you'll have a bit of a dance. That's the long and short of it.


The variety of outfits do keep things mildly interesting, whether it's using the 'Lovely Lantern' to light your way through dark areas, the 'Sickle Slinger' for hurling blades at enemies, or the 'Dusk Butterfly' to flap your way across gaps. And that's during a single level alone. Some costumes, meanwhile, present you with sports-based mini-games, like booting a football at targets, bowling, golf, and baseball distractions. This is definitely a case of throwing a whole bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks, and, unfortunately, a lot of it doesn't. Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I can't imagine this holding a kid's attention for too long, and if you're an older player, it's probably best to avoid it altogether.

I spent much of my time playing Balan Wonderworld with my cynical, curmudgeonly old face screwed up, but I'm sure there's someone less bitter than I am who will get something out of the game. Yet, on a fundamental level, there's little to recommend about Balan Company's debut. Your character's run animation is awful, there's no real story to speak of, the jumping is terrible, and the whole thing feels like a big perplexing mess. And if Balan is so keen to help Emma and Leo, then why does he insist that we bring him gold effigies of himself? Incidentally, the amount of backtracking required to bag every statue and make any meaningful progress is inexcusable.


Excellent? No. No, it's not.

When you're playing a game, and the overriding feeling is “what were they smoking?”, then there are probably a few issues with said game. There are myriad strange design decisions in Balan Wonderworld that I simply don't understand. I don't know how the jumping ability can be so ham-fisted (surely if you're making a platforming game, you'd nail that down first); I'm baffled by the lack of imagination in the level design, and at having to return to each act repeatedly to collect Balan statues. There are some nice ideas in Balan Wonderworld, and the game isn't without merit, but given the pedigree of creators Naka and Ohshima, it's a real shame that the execution is so uninspired, so insipid, and ultimately so, so boring. I'm sure that Balan Wonderworld was meant to conjure joy, but after wasting hours in its silly, senseless world, I'm angry.

Balan Wonderworld (PS5)

I understand that Balan Wonderworld wasn't made with me in mind – clearly it's meant for a far younger demographic. But even from an objective standpoint, I can't figure out why anyone would want to voluntarily sink hours of their life into such an annoying and incoherent game.

Form widget
30%
Audio
50%

Incessant looping music that's pleasant enough, but will soon drive you to despair. There are about three different sounds for your jump, and the only one with any voiced lines, is Balan.

Visuals
50%

Not horrible, just perfectly fine. While this is largely glitch-free, it's also utterly uninspired and unremarkable. Some of the characters are just plain ugly, too.

Playability
30%

A fairly wretched experience marred by an unsatisfying jump (which we've heard is quite important in a platforming game), some hit and miss costume abilities, and shoddy level design.

Delivery
30%

Hours and hours of doing basically the same thing repeatedly. The fundamentals simply aren't compelling enough to make you want to keep playing, and the enforced retreading of already completed levels is a headache.

Trophies
60%

A solid enough list with a decent spread, which unfortunately leans into hoovering up every collectible and completing every mini-game. If you want to put yourself through that, then all power to you.

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