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After three levels in Balan Wonderworld, I was lost. I did not understand how to unlock the fourth stage, so I spent a half-hour wandering around the hub area trying to figure it out. I would’ve spent much longer if it weren’t for the chat in my livestream. It turns out that I needed to go back and get some more collectibles to unlock the next stage. And that’s when I knew how little respect Balan Wonderworld had for my time as the player.
Balan Wonderworld is the 3D platformer from publisher Square Enix and developers Arzest and Balan Company. Yuji Naka, one of the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog, is Balan’s director, and he worked with artist Naoto Ohshima, who collaborated with Naka on Sonic Adventure. It’s available on consoles and PC for $60.
The game has players controlling a character who gains powers by wearing different suits. It might sound like a strong premise (or like Super Mario Odyssey), but it does not come together. This is a bad video game. At its best, it is boring and uninspired. At its worst, it is shameless in its efforts to pad its length and to cut corners.
Balan Wonderworld is one of the worst $60 games I’ve ever played from a major publisher. Let’s get into why.
Baffling, slippery controls
Balan Wonderworld doesn’t feel good to play. Jumping is floaty and running is slow but also slippery. Jumping is also all the main character can do. Every button on the gamepad does the same thing, with the exception of the left and right bumpers to switch between costumes. Otherwise, A, B, X, Y, LT, and RT are all jump — or they are all attack if your suit has that capability (but then that probably means you cannot jump anymore).
This foundation is rotten, and the rest of the game falls apart on top of it. The action can never get too complex, because you often can not jump and attack at the same time. Swapping out costumes is not possible in the air, and even when you’re on the ground, the process takes a few seconds.
This simplicity might sound wonderful for young players, but that is not the case. The game occasionally puts you in a situation where you need to jump and the only suit you have cannot jump. That is thoughtless to the point of cruelty, and I would expect any player of any age to feel frustrated in that situation.
Absurd progression that is disrespectful of the player’s time
Balan Wonderworld’s developers gated progression behind difficult-yet-inane collectibles to justify its $60 price. To go unlock levels 4, 5, and 6, you need 25 Balan statues. And you will need 50, 80, and 110 statues before you can fully beat the game. And it’s not like these easy-to-find collectibles that you get while playing through a level. They are well hidden and often require suits from other stages to unlock.
These hard gates are how the game goes from what should be 5 hours to beat to something closer to 12 hours to finish.
What’s even more infuriating is that the game does not tell you that you need these statues to progress. Instead, a meter on the pause screen displays what you need (say, 15 of 25 things) for a train. It does not say what those things are, and that’s how I ended up lost for a half-hour.
Balan Wonderworld is truly disrespectful of the player’s time. The only stated objective the game gives you in the user interface is a command to build a “tower o’ Tims” by feeding collectible gems to the fuzzy Tim creatures. But this is a meaningless distraction.
But perhaps the most offensive aspect of Balan Wonderworld are the bonus Balan’s Bout challenges. These are the sections that have Balan flying around like a Nights game. But you don’t control the Balan’s flight. Instead, you only need to watch these cutscenes so that you can press a button the moment that two identical pictures line up correctly.
Balan’s Bouts start off boring and distracting, and somehow they get worse as the game progresses. These special stages get longer and longer in the later levels. You will spend multiple minutes just staring and waiting for your chance to press a button. And as a kicker, you only get the Balan Statue (which you need to progress) if you get Excellent timing throughout the Bout. This also gets more difficult later in the game.
Oh, and if you don’t get Excellent on one of the prompts in a Balan’s Bout, you cannot simply retry. You need to leave the level and start it over again from the beginning to get another attempt.
Now, that’s a $60 value!
Ugly and boring
I don’t like the way the game looks and sounds.
It’s colorful and crisp enough on a stream, but everything else is disappointing or even incomplete. Your character’s running animation is loose and disconnected from her actual movements. NPCs often dance around stages as you play, but they disappear if you go in for a closer look. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and it makes it feel like I’m playing a prototype.
It tries to pass off giant floating assets as artistic design. The levels are actually so nondescript that it makes navigating and placing yourself in the environment feel like a chore. In other games you can look at a set of puzzles and understand what you need to do, but this is rare in Balan.
The one bright spot is the fun dance numbers and cinematics, but that doesn’t save Balan Wonderworld. Instead, these just serve as a reminder that the story is nonsense. Oh, and the soundtrack has multiple songs that feel like carbon copies of tunes from other works (such as Return of the Jedi, Super Mario Odyssey, and Ghostbusters).
Balan Wonderworld is not worth $60
Balan Wonderworld is a $60 game, but I wouldn’t recommend it for even $10. It oscillates between boring and infuriating. The most fun I had with it was when I got costumes that made it feel almost on par with a mediocre Sega Dreamcast platformer in terms of capabilities.
The kindest thing I can say about the game is that it does make for an entertaining livestream. I broadcasted my play on Twitch, and my audience seemed to really enjoy watching me suffer. So I guess this is a great one for all those fans of masochism out there.
Let’s call it The Room of video games.
Balan Wonderworld is available now for $60 on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation.
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