Balan Wonderworld is the debut title from Balan Company, the new studio from Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS: Into Dreams creator Yuji Naka. Despite being absent from AAA game development since 1999’s Chu-Chu Rocket, if there’s anything to be taken away from Balan Wonderworld so far it’s that Naka and company still have all of the imaginative flair that made those ’90s Sega titles so wonderful. That said, it remains to be seen if Balan Wonderworld can truly stand on its own as a whimsical powerhouse in its own right.
Balan Wonderworld is set in the mysterious Balan Theater, a musical theater that changes its form to match the imaginations of characters who have lost something (or someone) dear to them in their lives. All of this is curated by the equally mysterious Balan, an entity who assists the player multiple times throughout their journey.
The opening of the Balan Wonderworld demo, which is available later today to players looking to get their hands on the game before its March 26th release date, allows the player to pick between two playable characters, a boy named Leo Craig, and a girl named Emma Cole. This immediately elicits memories of NiGHTS: Into Dreams, and that’s only the beginning. What follows is a gorgeous animated cutscene from Square Enix’s Visual Works team, the studio behind all of the company’s incredible CG cinematics, including cutscenes from Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Kingdom Hearts 3. This demo introduces players to the premise, and the theater itself.
Then the player finds themselves in the Isle of Tims, the hub world for this demo and likely the entire game. Here is where the player will spend most of their time between levels and feed the Tims, bird-like creatures that follow the player through the main levels of the game as they collect drops. These are tear-shaped items which are fed to each Tim in the Isle of Tims to increase their unique abilities. For example, red Tims will attack enemies during platforming stages, while pink Tims will collect items for the player.
The first of the Balan Wonderworld demo’s levels is Chapter 1 of “The Man Who Rages Against the Storm,” which follows a farmer whose home has been destroyed by a fearsome tornado. This is not only the first level of this demo, but also the entirety of Balan Wonderworld, and as such acts as the tutorial to the main game. This level introduces players to many of the game’s core platforming mechanics, including the game’s costumes.
Costumes in Balan Wonderworld act most comparably to the costumes Mario utilizes in most of the mainline Super Mario games, allowing players to take on certain abilities, such as the kangaroo suit allowing the player to hang in the air for a few extra seconds. How Balan Wonderworld diversifies this is by locking the player out of certain collectables (of which the game seems to rely on very heavily) until they have unlocked ones in later levels. For example, a costume earned in the demo’s final level, which turns random gears found throughout levels, helps unlock Balan Statues in the demo’s opening level.
Speaking of Balan Statues, these seem to act as the game’s main collectable, with progression throughout the Isle of Tims gated off until the player unlocks a certain amount of them. Thankfully there are seven of these to be found in each level, with boss levels containing just three. The demo even gives away in its pause menu that the final game will contain a whopping 228 of these items to collect. While the levels in Balan Wonderworld follow a very linear pattern, searching for these statues forces players to stray from the beaten path, discovering many nooks and crannies that might not have seen otherwise. In this way, some of Balan Wonderworld‘s design calls to mind 3D platforming classics such as Spyro the Dragon and Super Mario 64, despite the actual level design barely reflecting theirs.
The demo’s second level, chapter two of “The Man Who Rages Against The Storm,” the game introduces its approach to puzzles, which see the player guiding giant metal balls into holes in the ground to progress. While it might not challenge the player’s mind, this segment somewhat reinforces the limits of Balan Wonderworld‘s linear level design in a way that hopefully continues in the final release.
Of the levels included in the Balan Wonderworld demo, chapter one of “The Girl and the Kitten,” is by far the most exciting. Without spoiling any of the story surrounding it (which has already been revealed by Square Enix in pre-release teasers), the way that the level’s clocktower setting relates to the story it’s based on is surprisingly nuanced compared to the earlier levels. This setting also lends itself to some interesting platforming puzzles, while also introducing the aforementioned gear costume, which is great. It’s also the most visually busy level in the demo, which seems important to mention.
Being mindful of the game’s March 26th release date, it’s hard not to discuss the shortcomings of Balan Wonderworld‘s visual presentation at times, at least in the levels present in this demo. Grass detail is constantly popping in and out in the Isle of Tims hub world, accompanied by some distracting item pop-in during levels, while items and characters pop in and out at short distances during levels.
Given the game’s approach to storytelling, in that it does not use any spoken dialogue, the levels in this demo can also feel visually lacking at times, with NPCs repeating the same animations and fading out as the player approaches them. While this does seem to be a design approach that plays into the gameplay from time to time, with some items being placed underneath enemies after they fade out, the implementation of this design element can look somewhat unflattering.
It is again worth reiterating that Balan Wonderworld isn’t slated to release until the end of March, so many of these problems could still be addressed by the developer before its release. The game is also being developed to scale all the way from Nintendo Switch to PlayStation 5, although these visual elements can detract from the game’s overall presentation. Speaking of the PlayStation 5 version, this demo also demonstrates Balan Wonderworld’s haptic feedback and adaptive trigger implementation, which kicks in whenever the player utilizes a costume’s unique ability.
While not breaking new ground, this Balan Wonderworld demo sets the upcoming 3D platformer up as a title that fans of the genre should keep a close eye on. Furthermore, fans of classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS will be happy to know that Balan Wonderworld is shaping up to be equally as charming and heartfelt as those 90s classic, aiming to stand alongside them while also setting itself apart enough to appeal to an entirely new generation, whether it will achieve that goal remains to be seen.
Balan Wonderworld will release on March 26th 2021 for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
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