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PLATFORMS: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC
RELEASE DATE: March 26, 2021
DEVELOPERS: Arzest, Balan Company
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10 and Up
NOTE - A digital copy of this product was provided by Square Enix for review purposes. Gaming Instincts is an Amazon affiliate and does get financial benefits if you choose to purchase this product on this page.
One of the hardest things to grasp as a critic, or even as a general fan of creative media, is that sometimes talented people with the best of intentions will drop the ball in spectacular fashion. Great filmmakers have churned out wretched movies, compelling authors have released dreary novels, and beloved game designers have produced awful video games. This hard truth is once again proven correct with the release of Balan Wonderworld.
Made by a team of veteran developers and backed by a major publisher, Balan Wonderworld had what it needed to succeed, yet at every turn it fell short of its aims. Its pleasant fantasy atmosphere can’t disguise a shallowness of narrative content, nor can it make up for infuriating choices made with regards to regular gameplay. The sheer pileup of poor decisions is staggering, raising vital questions about how things went so wrong.
Not A Promising Start
Wonderworld’s missteps begin right out of the gate with the introduction of its selectable heroes. Players can choose whether to play as the girl Emma or the boy Leo, neither of whom are defined in-game beyond their basic role as protagonists. In fact, outside of the game’s opening and closing cutscenes hinting at their motivations, neither display any personality or work toward any meaningful character development. Of course, if the game’s problems were limited to just unremarkable leads, this might be a different conversation.
Alas, the game’s opening sequence makes clear how committed it is to this creative direction. Emma and Leo find themselves drawn to the rundown theatre hideout of Balan, the titular entertainer who is as impressive in his performance as he is enigmatic in nature. After a brief flurry of colors and sound, the player’s hero of choice gets pulled to a grassy island between worlds, without explanation or guidance from Balan. It is only once the dust has settled that one is able to recognize this extended cutscene as a twisted mission statement.
Balan Wonderworld keeps going with this mix of overwhelming imagery and limited context, not concerned about player investment or even basic comprehension. The first world alone bombards the player with curving level maps, a sudden introduction of another character with their own backstory, and a boss fight that concludes with a musical number. Aside from swapping out vertigo-inducing architecture for other visual gimmicks, this is the fundamental structure to every world, right down to the lack of a coherent plotline. So it goes with Wonderworld, a game that seems to reject the notion that players would want any depth to their aloof fantasy story.
The biggest problem with the narrative is how little it cares to explain the stakes, its central players or even its themes. Wonderworld does have a villain - the jester-like being Lance - who crops up on occasion to throw disposable enemies at the player and prey upon a few characters’ insecurities. However, the game never explains the precise purpose behind Lance’s actions or what ramifications they will have for Leo, Emma, and the rest of the cast. The audience is left adrift to find what meaning they can, which is not helped by the absence of dimensions to its eclectic cast.
The characters of Wonderworld being so underdeveloped happens to tie into one of the game’s most bizarre artistic choices: its refusal to engage in any kind of exposition. Balan Wonderworld does have rare instances of spoken dialogue, but only conveyed in a language invented for the game. Most of the time, the player is left to find meaning in the wordless cutscenes and vague pantomiming. As we’re never given a clear sense of why characters act the way that they do, it’s therefore difficult to care about what fate befalls them.
These questionable narrative decisions all build to a climax that feels at once unearned and hollow. The final battle and what it implies about the heroes’ alleged personal arcs are predicated on the audience being invested in the heroes’ plight. It tries to recontextualize the entire game as a story about friendship persevering over personal strife, but the rest of the game doesn’t do the legwork to back up this assertion. Thus, Balan Wonderworld ends on a note that comes across as disingenuous, an insincere whimper to cap off a string of escalating disappointments.
Tired and Out of Step
Speaking of disappointment, the final release is a rude awakening to anyone going into Wonderworld imagining that the game could deliver on its particular conception of the 3D platformer genre. The game’s overall design has an undeniable resemblance to seminal works like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, but stumbles when it comes to capturing a similar sense of charm and wonder. Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Whichever of the game’s twelve worlds a player happens to be exploring, the experience of traversing each world’s two levels quickly settles into a tiresome routine. Players are tasked with reaching the glowing tree-like constructs at the conclusion of every level, which entails a great deal of jumping, evading dangerous obstacles, and beating enemies into submission. The specific arrangement of puzzles and the look of platforms might change, but how players interact with levels remains static and unaltered for the entire game. For as bad as the repetition gets, though, it might have been acceptable had Balan Wonderworld’s twist on the time-honored tradition of hero power-ups panned out.
Unfortunately, the game’s costumes bring with them a whole range of other issues. While there are dozens of distinctive outfits themed after various animals and abilities, many are rendered redundant by better costumes introduced in later levels. The costumes are also tied to a token system; players collect crystals that grant individual uses of a specific outfit, losing them should they get injured or fall from the level. One wonders how the infuriating nature of the costumes managed to slip past everyone involved in the game’s production.
Compounding the problem further, few of the game’s worlds manage to overcome a habit of overwhelming the player with traps and infuriating platforming. Many levels feature environmental hazards that can’t be leapt over with ease, enemy placement that forces the player to risk falling to their death, and checkpoints that are spread too far apart. It’s a miracle when a given player can find any moment of joy amid the harsh level design.
That having been said, Balan Wonderworld does on occasion manage a degree of basic competency with its world design, which can keep the player going for a time. Chapter 8’s frozen wonderland setting is a genuine delight, balancing a creative variety of ice-related obstacles with a constant feeling of momentum. Some earlier worlds, like the farmland of Chapter 1, also work well as abstract representations of the emotional state of their central characters. Still, the broad appeal of certain levels can’t compensate for every other area where the game falters.
Consider, for instance, how Wonderworld avoids clarifying the relationship between the multicolored Drop collectables and the strange Tim creatures. It’s never explained that obtaining Drops during levels and feeding them to the Tims is a key part of time spent at the aforementioned island hub. In addition, the game neglects to mention how this leads to Tims growing in size and later spawning new Tims from eggs. Balan Wonderworld appears content to let players guess how its various systems work.
This tendency to obfuscate its intentions is best exemplified by the Balan’s Bout minigame, a recurring sequence laden with quick-time events. Each instance of this segment has Balan flying through an unknown sky and blasting through debris, with the player’s input limited to lining up still images of Balan’s upcoming maneuvers with the actual Balan’s motions. Besides these sequences being further divorced from the already threadbare plot, they suffer a great deal from the timing on the image matching being inscrutable in places. Even with the most tangential of elements, the game can’t help but annoy its audience at nearly every turn.
Aggravating as the game can get, its visual presentation does elevate the experience for a moment or two. Balan Wonderworld’s pre-rendered cutscenes, created by Visual Works, are handsomely produced and infuse the game with its rare flashes of charm. They often hint at the character motivations that the surrounding game refuses to acknowledge, while delivering a stunning tableau in the process. Sadly, even the quality of these scenes comes at the cost of highlighting another of Wonderworld’s shortcomings: its technical performance.
For many console players, it’s an unfortunate reality of game development that Balan Wonderworld looks and runs worse depending on one’s system of choice. Going by the Xbox One version, Wonderworld appears to be afflicted by bouts of stuttering, hitching, and visual artifacting. These issues grow in frequency during the later levels, but even in the early game they are not a rare presence. It’s just one more reminder of how wrong everything has gone.
Balan Wonderworld is, without hyperbole, a heartbreaking tragedy of a game. Whatever the designers sought to accomplish was undone by shoddy level design, mechanics that lacked explanation, and a thin veneer of storytelling that confuses rather than entertains. Brief glimpses at good ideas and compelling imagery couldn’t rescue this lifeless and miserable production. Watching this work fall apart at the seams evokes not catharsis, but profound sadness.