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As an longtime Sonic fan, I was excited for Balan Wonderworld. This is Sonic creator Yuji Naka’s first project with Square Enix. I hoped that free from the shackles of Sega, perhaps Naka could recapture some of that Sonic or Nights magic.
Sadly, Balan Wonderworld isn’t so wonderful.
That’s how I feel after playing a PlayStation 5 demo of the 3D platformer, which includes the first few levels. This comes out March 26 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The demo I played will be available for everyone on January 28.
After a spiffy intro, Balan Wonderworld throws you into its first level, which reminds me of Kansas in the opening of The Wizard of Oz. Less favorably, it also reminded me of the kinds of Old McDonald art stickers that you’d find posted around a kindergarten classroom. It’s a green land full of oversized vegetables. It’s not the most visually stunning theme for a video game level.
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But I could get over the aesthetics. The level design and game mechanics are harder to forgive. In Balan Wonderworld, you play as a kid. As a kid, you can’t do much besides jumping. You need costumes to unlock new abilities. A wolf outfit lets you do a tornado spin, or a pig suit gives you a butt-stomp.
Each outfit only has one ability, which is then mapped to pretty much every button on your controller. So when you’re in the wolf costume, all you can do is that tornado spin. You can switch between your outfits, so you’ll have access to something resembling a decent set of moves and abilities after awhile. But having to shift between these different outfits takes a second. It’s not much, but it means that you won’t be seamlessly swapping between different outfits and their abilities.
Compared to Mario’s acrobatic moveset in even Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of all 3D platformers, you just don’t feel like you can do much in Balan Wonderworld. And the early levels reflect this. You don’t find any interesting or challenging platforming sections. You simple run ahead, using your suit abilities when they’re obviously required for progression. You can discover some trophies hidden in each level that require some actual exploration, but I found the stages so dull that I was happier to just be done with them as soon as possible.
I don’t want to give up on Balan Wonderworld yet. The music by Ryo Yamazaki is nice and fanciful. After you beat the demo’s boss, your character and a bunch of people do a bizarre group dance that I couldn’t help but find amusing.
But I don’t think Balan Wonderworld is going to be able to stand out, especially when we’ve been getting so many good 3D platformers lately. Compared to, say, Crash Bandicoot 4, Balan Underworld feels like a sloppy experience. Character animations are stiff, levels lack detail, and the action feels slow. In some ways, it is like a Saturn game brought into the modern era.
Turns out, that’s not a good thing!
Hopefully the game can become a bit more ambitious after these first few levels. Otherwise, I don’t expect Balan Wonderworld too find many fans on our normal, average world.
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