The new game from the creators of Sonic, Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, arrives to present a surreal and magical world. The initial premise is very nice, but … Does it fulfill as a 3D platformer? It is not every day that one can discover a video game conceived by Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog. Each of them, the first game programmer and the second character designer, have followed very different careers, but several years later, they collaborate again within the new group Balan Company, which belongs to Square-Enix.
Naka directs this Wonderworld Balan, which has just arrived on all current consoles and PCs. It is a game that has been giving a lot to talk about in recent days, as we will now see. Broadly speaking, it is a 3D platformer game , organized in turn to a hub from which we access the 12 worlds , each with its corresponding acts. Come on, in the style of classics like Super Mario 64 , but contributing several ideas of their own harvest.
Balan Wonderworld’s story revolves around two children, Leo and Emma , who seem to be worried for some reason. Have you lost your heart? When they go down the street, they discover the magical world of Balan, a being who wants to help people who no longer find the path of their happiness . At the beginning of the game, we choose to play with the boy or the girl and we travel to Tim Island, that hub we were talking about. From there, we enter the different worlds, each of which is set in the story of some frustrated person: a bird lover who sees her built-up forest, a child who wants to create a machine to fly but cannot.
In the beginning, each of these worlds has two acts and when we overcome them we travel to the duel against a final boss, which is a manifestation of the frustration of the protagonist of that world. When defeating it, the person is “purified” and celebrates it with a dance with our character.
Thus, the setting of Balan Wonderworld has a childish tone (in the best possible sense), surreal and very cool, which of course translates to the great contribution of the game: its huge amount of costumes. And it is that our character is capable of “transforming” into a total of … 80 different states ! And each with their own ability. For example, we can be a penguin that moves better on ice, a rabbit capable of stopping time in certain sections or a chess piece that shoots in 4 directions at the same time.
Some of these costumes will be required to overcome the levels in which we find them, while others can serve only as support or to obtain secondary items. Here comes one of the great attractions and, at the same time, a great problem of the game: there are sooooo many costumes that many end up being excessively similar to each other in terms of their usefulness, while others have uses so, so punctual, that it is difficult to remember in which act of which world there was a part where they were good for us.
And it is that we can only wear 3 costumes at a time (just press a trigger to go from one to another). If we find one more costume, the last one on our list disappears. In order to change between those that we had previously unlocked, we have to reach certain checkpoints on the stage that allow us to access our dressing room. There, we will have available the suits that we have taken and have “stayed in the bedroom”. But beware, if we exhaust the uses of a costume, we have to find the icon corresponding to that costume again in the act that it touches …
Come on, being able to wear a specific costume at an exact point can be a really unnecessary fuss. This can become a problem as you progress further in the game. And, to unlock the new worlds, we need to find a specific number of Balan statuettes , something like the stars of Super Mario 64. Each act hides several of them and we can also obtain from 1 to 3 depending on how well Let’s fight the final bosses.
But in the more advanced stages, the statuettes will not only be very hidden, but will also require the use of very specific costumes, something that, as we have seen, can be a mess. The result of this is that, when we have reached world 6 and want to unlock the next 3, we will surely have to revisit the previous acts over and over again and scrutinize them thoroughly to try to find the statuettes of yore … It’s a shame, because passing each level itself is not usually very complicated. Both the platform and the small puzzles to advance have a good balance for any type of player, but it is when looking for those secondary items that things get too complicated.
Apart from the statuettes that, as we have said, end up being necessary, the stages are full of colored crystals that we have to use to feed the Tims, some little birds in charge of restoring a clock of your Island. When that clock and its mechanism are fixed, we unlock new challenges in each world. The scenarios also hide eggs to increase our “collection” of Tims and some hats that take us to a special bonus phase, in which we have to overcome a simple quick time event while Balan faces the forces that torment the protagonists. To top it off, there are some points that unlock sports minigames to earn some extra crystals.
Come on, there are a huge amount of challenges, which gives a lot of variety to the adventure, although these challenges are explained in a very irregular way and that makes not all secondary objectives interesting at first: if I do not know what I am going to achieve with it, why spend minutes and minutes on that task?
The last big downside to Balan Wonderworld is its camera . This tends to reposition itself behind the character, which hinders progress on many occasions. Luckily, we can change the camera to manual mode from the options, but that does not prevent it from sometimes getting stuck in certain points of the map where we barely have visibility. And in a game like this, in which you have to search deeply and jump in three dimensions, it can be a major obstacle. So if there are so many issues, why haven’t we lowered the grade for this game further? Because, on the other hand, it has some facets that really get through. To begin with, the graphic section has very simple, but endearing character designs , with costumes that may seem naive, but that are very charming.
The scenarios, which are representations of frustrated dreams, offer very powerful surreal moments : the protagonists of gigantic size watching us, flying whales to jump over to walk on their back, rivers suspended in the air through which we dive … That dreamlike tone is really intoxicating at times and appeals to a target audience that we should not forget: children . On a personal note, I can tell you that I prepared the review while my 5-year-old son watched me play. And he was enthralled when he saw how a child disguised as a locomotive soared through the skies or a person turned into a spider discovered secret paths through the trunk of a tree.
Therefore, this 3D platform does not fully work in many aspects, but it triumphs in another that not many reach: stimulate and make our imagination fly. And that’s something to keep in mind. In a way, it reminds of that Nights: Into Dreams that Naoto Ohshima himself directed and Yuji Naka produced.
For this reason, the multiplayer mode can be a good option for gamer parents to enjoy with their children: you have to collaborate and combine the skills of the respective costumes to reach the end of the level. We do not want to end without talking about the music, the work of Ryo Yamazaki, a beautiful mix of styles, from music hall to tribal tones or Celtic melodies, which help to enhance that dreamlike style of the set. Without a doubt, this is one of the best pieces of the product.
In short, Balan Wonderworld has left us a bittersweet taste . There are very good ideas on the table, a lot of imagination and a “staging” that offers many flashes of brilliance, but at the same time it gives the feeling that there has been no filter when it comes to presenting the skills of the players and the challenges . There are too many redundant powers, too much imbalance in the challenges of the scenes and the camera and, sometimes, too narrow information about what is expected of us when we take command.
The game has received fierce criticism from some media and users and, although from a certain perspective it is easy to agree, it is also true that the game reproduces that certain Childish charm in which it is inspired, as if it were a child’s drawing: the lines are very irregular, but its joy becomes contagious at times.
From a fantasy perspective Balan Wonderworld can surely pick your interest, but from a story, gameplay and level design perspective the team behind this game really didn’t think things through or they just didn’t have enough time to finish the product properly.