Balan Wonderworld Review (Xbox One) – Not So Wonderful After All
From the moment I first saw the trailer for Balan Wonderworld, I was totally hooked. I couldn’t wait for it to be released, and I was so excited to finally play it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype. Not by a long shot.
Table of Contents
The initial moments of the game were deceiving in that the intro got me incredibly excited. I was glad to see that there were multiple language options, as I love to see accessibility features like that. The music was upbeat and felt almost magical. It set a great atmosphere for the game. The font on the ‘new game’ screen was easy to read, if a little boring. But the star of the show was the opening cutscene.
It felt cinematic and incredibly high quality, like I was watching a movie. The animation was beautiful, and the characters truly felt alive. The dialogue was in Japanese, but there were English subtitles. It was quite trippy, however, and there was lots of flashing imagery. I feel that there should have been an epilepsy warning, and it seems like a dangerous oversight by Square Enix. The only thing I didn’t like about the animation was that the characters had abnormally large hands and feet. I understand it was a style choice, but it was very unnatural and uncomfortable to look at.
The customization screen gives you a choice of 8 preset characters – four boys and four girls. They each have different skin colors and hair, so you have to find the one you like most. It’s frustrating that you can’t customize further, as I wouldn’t say I liked the character’s hairstyle with my skin color. Still, it’s nice to have a choice of gender and design, as most 3d platformers don’t offer this.
The First Level
Unfortunately, that first scene was the last time I felt hopeful about Balan Wonderworld. After that, it throws you straight into the first level. There’s no tutorial or anything to teach you the controls, so you just learn as you go. This would be fine if the gameplay were intuitive, but honestly, it feels clunky from the outset. When I got into the levels, I saw characters ahead that I assumed were enemies, but when I got nearer, they disappeared. I thought maybe they were teleporting enemies, because they kept returning when I took a step back. It took me a while to realize they were depictions of one of the costumes you can wear in the level. Eventually, I figured out that I needed to get a key and open the box they were ‘guarding.’
The box contained a Tornado Wolf costume, and when I put it on, I gained a new skill. Whereas before I could only jump, I could now do a spin attack in the air. However, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t do anything else. The game only gives you one button to do everything. So this means each costume only has one particular skill. This becomes much more of a problem later in the game, but we’ll discuss that later on.
Eventually, I worked out where to go, but I was left with a sour taste in my mouth from the lack of explanation. I think the game would have benefitted by having some kind of dialogue or subtitles mechanism to explain what to do and where to go.
If I had to sum up the gameplay in one word, I’d go with lackluster. It’s not terrible, I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t bring me any joy. It just feels empty, like I’m going through the motions. There are a few different areas to consider when it comes to Balan Wonderworld’s gameplay, so let’s look at those in more detail.
I love the idea of having different costumes with another skill, but the execution was poor. They could have made each costume have multiple skills or the ability to jump, but they didn’t. Because there’s only one button that does anything (you can use A, X, Y, or B, they all serve the same purpose), there’s no challenge to it.
Some costumes have range attack-based powers, such as throwing a weapon or shooting a fist. These powers would be incredible if it weren’t for the fact that when wearing those costumes, you can’t jump. As Balan Wonderworld is first and foremost a platformer, you can see how this would be an issue. Switching between costumes is too slow to make this an effective concept. You can have three costumes in your inventory at once, and switch between them at will. However, it’s a good second or two waiting for the costume to change, and the game doesn’t pause at this time. They could have had costume switching as a clever and quick mechanic for use in combat, but instead, you have to choose one and commit.
Another problem with the costume system is that you only pick the costumes up one at a time. You find keys throughout the levels, which you use to open boxes that contain the costumes. That costume then saves to your inventory, but you’ll lose it if you die wearing it. The only way to ensure you keep a costume is to pick up multiple copies throughout the level. However, the only way to do this is to either replay the level, or go all the way to the end and come back again, waiting long enough for the box to respawn. This feels like an unnecessary step, and is really inconvenient.
I do like that there are so many costumes, though. The fact that you can only have 3 in your inventory at a time means you have to consider which ones to take with you. You can change costumes at checkpoints throughout the levels so that you can adapt to your surroundings. The range of costumes and skills is fantastic, it just should have been managed better, and there should be multiple skills per costume.
One of my biggest gripes with the gameplay is the movement. It’s not unplayable like some 3d platformers (the original Super Lucky’s Tale comes to mind), but it’s not as smooth as it should be. It’s certainly not as intuitive as you’d expect from a company as esteemed as Square Enix. Even the indie developers Playful Studios were able to recognize the flaws in their game, and make New Super Lucky’s Tale which moves beautifully. With a game as large as Balan Wonderworld, you’d have expected movement to be a top priority for them. There’s no excuse for it not being perfect right off the bat.
The controls seem to randomly decide whether to be sensitive or not. Sometimes a small tap of the analog stick will barely move you, other times you’ll walk off the edge of a platform and plummet. There’s little to no consistency.
The camera angles are a nuisance too, because they seem to have a mind of their own. The camera controls have full 360 degree panning, as well as being able to look up and down, but don’t waste your time setting up the perfect angle for yourself. Because as soon as you take a step, the camera will snap back to where the game thinks it should be. And that place rarely makes any sense at all. This is especially frustrating during combat when you can die due to a poorly timed angle fluctuation.
Personally, my favourite thing about platformers is being able to collect things, so that’s one thing I did like about Balan Wonderworld. There are two main things to look out for during a level – drops, and statues. Drops are these pretty crystals that are plentiful throughout the levels, and they’re shaped like raindrops. They come in 4 colors – yellow, red, pink, and blue. I’m not sure if the colors are relevant, as they’re stored separately, but the difference is never explained.
The statues are more limited and usually 8 per level, although it’s not easy to find them. They can usually be found by using skills from specific costumes or venturing to hard-to-reach areas. I do really like searching for statues, and it’s exciting to collect them. There’s also an incentive to return to earlier levels, as you often need a costume from a later level to access certain areas.
There are also eggs scattered throughout the level, although they’re quite few and far between. The eggs hatch Tims, which are adorable creatures we’ll discuss more in the next section. The eggs, along with drops and keys, can sometimes be found and brought to you by the Tims you bring with you into the level.
Each level also contains a golden replica of Balan’s hat. When you find it, you enter a bonus mini-game called Balan’s Bout. It’s mostly a cutscene featuring Balan, and you need to interact at certain points during it. When Balan’s shadow lines up with his physical body, you need to press A. You’ll get graded on your performance, with your score being somewhere between ‘Excellent’ and ‘Oops’ depending on how late or early you press it. The round is essentially a test of your reactions. At the end of the cutscene, you’ll get a drops multiplier depending on your score. Balan’s Bout is fun the first couple of times you encounter it, but quickly grows old.
As you can imagine from a game with only one button, combat is exceptionally simplistic. For starters, there’s no health bar. You get hit, you die, and you lose your current costume. Most of the time you’re in a position to find a box and unlock another one, or to go to a checkpoint and wear one you already own. As such, I have no idea what happens when you lose all three costumes you’re carrying, but I can only assume you have to restart the level.
The boss fights are boring, again due to the fact you only have one button. Their moves are repetitive and rarely bring any excitement. You wait patiently for the end of their attack cycle so you can launch a counter attack. You don’t even have to think about which costumes to use, as it places a couple of keys and boxes on the screen. The game makes you use the costumes it wants you to use, and then off you go. Boss fights are supposed to be challenging and creative, but these feel so bland.
The worst part is when you die due to the costumes taking too long to change or the camera angle changing suddenly by itself. The combat itself is never challenging. The only things that make it difficult are the poor movement controls. Platformers aren’t renowned for combat, but there’s usually some element of skill involved. In Balan Wonderworld, it’s just about spamming the same button over and over.
The story is a tricky one to address because it’s somewhat disjointed throughout the game. While the opening cutscene at the start of the game is entertaining to watch, it doesn’t explain what’s going on or who Balan is. He’s just kinda… There. And he’s not even there most of the time; he shows up now and then in cutscenes.
There’s a homeworld from which you enter all the levels, and this is where the Tims live. I love the Tims. They’re rather pointless, but they get a pass because they’re just so phenomenally cute. They’re these sweet, bouncy creatures that you hatch from eggs, and you feed them with the drops you find in levels. The more drops you feed them, the more the homeworld improves, and you can upgrade Tim Tower and create more small buildings for them, such as a little trampoline. These extra objectives don’t have any real purpose, but it’s fun to see the homeworld evolving all the same.
The levels themselves each have totally different stories. You enter the chapters from the homeworld, and each chapter is split into 2 acts and then a boss fight. The levels have hints of a theme, but honestly the themes are underdeveloped and rarely relevant to the gameplay. It’s the endings where you get to see more of the story. It shows a cutscene introducing the characters/ concepts that the chapter was meant to be based around. Then after you beat the boss, you see a positive resolution, with Balan somewhere in the background. It’s implied he helped, but it’s never explained, and it never really has anything to do with the levels you’ve just played.
Ultimately, the individual stories told through the cutscenes are great, they just don’t really have any connection to each other. Balan Wonderworld feels more like a series of mini stories, rather than having any overarching link. The game seems to have a charming personality, and parts of it feel almost like an anime.
Audio and Visuals
Where to even start with the visuals? As mentioned before, the Balan Wonderworld cutscenesare stunning, and if the entire game had the same style, it would get 10/10. Unfortunately, outside of cutscenes, the graphics are overwhelmingly poor. I remember back in 2006, when the PS3 came out, and it felt like graphics had peaked. I distinctly remember being stunned with the way games looked, and thinking “it can’t get any better than this”. But of course, it could get better than that, and it did get better than that. Not for Square Enix, apparently.
The visuals in Balan Wonderworld look at least a decade behind their time. The resolutions are embarrassingly low at times, and the textures feel so flat and basic. At the start of each level, the camera pans to show you the whole map, and this is the point where it becomes most clear how lazy Square Enix have been. A lot of the assets were simply reused throughout the level creating little visual differentiation. Everything about it just looks so basic, and you’d never guess that there was an entire team working on it. The only thing I find beautiful within the levels themselves, are the heart crystals at the end. When you beat act 1 of any chapter you get a stunning heart-shaped crystal, and these are truly beautiful.
The audio, on the other hand, is excellent. The music throughout the levels is engaging and high energy, whilst keeping to the theme of the level. The sound effects mostly work well, and I don’t have any complaints about audio. Unfortunately, any potential immersion is lost due to how weak the graphics are. Again, they’re not terrible; they’re just nowhere near as good as they should be.
At the end of each level, there’s a weird song and dance scene, and honestly I don’t know how to feel. I’m sure some people love these scenes, and I concede that a lot of effort has clearly gone into them. However, for me, it feels bizarre and out of place. It’s like an anime OST, and in my opinion, it just doesn’t work in a gaming context.
One thing that I cannot overstate is how unfinished this game feels. The game is full of lag and glitches, and they’re so persistent that there’s no way Square Enix weren’t aware. Even the most basic of playtesting would have revealed these flaws, so clearly they just decided to overlook them. Your character will freeze at random moments. Sometimes you’ll backtrack slightly without having pressed anything. There will be frequent lag during combat scenes.
The worst are the full on glitches. During the game, there were numerous occasions where situations occurred that shouldn’t have, but one in particular stands out. In Chapter 3, there’s a cubby hole containing Balan’s golden hat partially obscured by a web. It’s not accessible at the time, but of course, I didn’t know that for sure, and so I tried to get through. I ended up glitching through the web and ended up on the other side. However, once I completed Balan’s Bout, I found myself stuck in the cubby hole with no way out. The game has no respawn options or even options to return to the homeworld. In the end, I had to force quit the game from the Xbox menu, and lost all my level progress.
There’s also no genuine concept of out of bounds. This sounds like a pro, but in practice, it doesn’t work. Some level areas are entirely pointless, and their accessibility feels more like a developmental oversight than an extra layer of exploration. It’s frustrating when you’re looking for collectibles, and find yourself in an area that you shouldn’t be in, and that contains nothing of worth. There’s no easy way to differentiate between hidden areas, and areas that should have been bordered off.
I really wanted to love Balan Wonderworld, but I just didn’t. The whole game felt unfinished and lacked anything that made it truly special. As 3d platformers go, this one was the middle of the pack. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either, and it really should’ve been so much better.
Summary – Balan Wonderworld is a disappointing platforming experience that falls far short of what you’d expect from a company as large as Square Enix. Decidedly average with clunky gameplay and poor quality graphics, it’s definitely not worth the price being charged.
Genres – 3d Platformer
Platforms – Xbox One (Review Copy), PC, PS4, PS5, XSX, Nintendo Switch