I’ve never quite been able to get a read on Balan Wonderworld. Its announcement trailer featured a degree of theatricality and weirdness that immediately brought me into whatever it was offering. It helped that it also seemed to be narrated by the same guy who narrated trailers that used to say “Coming Soon to DVD.” The enigmatic ringleader, Balan, seemed delightfully bizarre and the game is dying to jump off the screen it seems. Unfortunately, after some time with a demo releasing on Jan. 28 for the public, I don’t know that it quite succeeds in doing that.
Balan Wonderworld, a new 3D platformer coming from Square Enix, represents the first collaboration of director Yuji Naka and art director Naoto Ohshima since Sonic Adventure and Nights Into Dreams in the ‘90s. While this is likely exciting for fans of both titles and franchises, Balan Wonderworld unfortunately feels stifled by this reality. Instead of feeling like a loving homage to that era of platformers, the game feels more and more like an indictment of it.
The premise of the game is somewhat simple: you’re a kid (either a boy or a girl) who is drawn to a theater where a magical showman with a hat for a face/head named Balan informs you that you’re missing a piece of your heart. Balan proceeds to put on a show and essentially kidnaps you (!), bringing you into his world, where you will complete levels in an effort to find all the pieces to your heart and presumably escape. In the meantime, you get to hang out in a hub area and tend to these tiny furballs named Tims in a system that not so subtly resembles a Chao Garden from Sonic Adventure. You collect different colored resources to feed to them in order to nurture their growth and build out the hub world, though my time with the demo didn’t yield any results in this regard.
From this hub, you get to travel to different themed worlds which sometimes quite literally unfurl around you, which aids the game in its presentation. As you explore its nooks and crannies, you’ll find costumes that resemble traditional powerups you’d find in a platformer. The game promises to have over 80 of these when it launches and they will affect your attacks and movement abilities, which are often one and the same. That means that with some of these, there is a tradeoff.
Take the dragon outfit, for example, which lets you shoot out fireballs but actually takes away your ability to jump at all because the action’s tied to the same button. On the other hand is the sheep outfit, which takes away your ability to attack but lets you blow up into a wool ball and float above fans or vents. And there are happy mediums like an outfit that gives you a midair homing attack ala Sonic the Hedgehog. This move helps you attack enemies but also helps you get around by honing in on objects that can bring you to other sections of the level. You can have up to three costumes at the same time, and this system and accompanying balancing act seemed to be the most promising feature during my time with the game, adding a wrinkle of complexity. Knowing what to have equipped and what to use will also help you find all the collectibles, because of course there are collectibles.
Nothing I’ve said probably sounds too out there—despite its look and charm, there just isn’t much to Balan Wonderworld but this. It hits every mark a 3D platformer should hit, except it feels more wooden to play than most. Your player character isn’t exactly agile or expressive, which robs the movement—a key part of a game like this—of a sense of fun or excitement. All you have is the ability to run and jump and the only way to add to this repertoire is by equipping different costumes. These certainly help add some flair to your look and sometimes affects movement, but once again often feel slow or one note. Despite its influences, Balan Wonderworld couldn’t feel tamer compared to Sonic Adventure’s speed and Nights Into Dreams’ floaty freedom.
Balan Wonderworld isn’t without charm. It has a pretty art style, even if the art itself isn’t too refined upon closer examination. From a distance, you’d think it’s a looker, but up close on my launch PS4, it showed some rough texture work, particularly in grass which made up most of the levels I was provided. The farm, which is the first world you go to and can fully explore, looks charming enough, though the simple premise undercuts what could be a more imaginative game. A later level, set in what appears to be a clocktower, looks much better, though once again lacks in creativity. Character designs also look fun…so long as you view them from afar.
The music in the game is the star for me. By the end of the brief demo, I was already humming along to the whimsical fantasy tunes, which felt like they were out of a Kingdom Hearts level. I was even just standing idly just to listen to them. This however gave me conflict, because it just didn’t feel like it belonged in this game. The music feeling out of touch with the world around it only complemented the feeling that Balan Wonderworld is this weird amalgamation of influences that don’t quite add up to something cohesive or entirely successful.
By the end of my time with the demo, I’d taken on about half a dozen levels scattered across the game and I walked away still not knowing entirely how to feel. I ended up being able to forgive how shallow some of the platforming felt just because it felt good running around listening to the wonderful music in it. Though I wish the actual act of playing it felt more enjoyable, it’s also a game that my little cousin walked in on and was entranced by, so I can see children falling into it with the most ease. For people looking for complex, mechanic-heavy platformers this probably isn’t the game for you, but if you’re looking for a throwback that actually feels like one, you’re probably not going to find anything better than Balan Wonderworld.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.