Balan Wonderworld is Balan’s Nightmare: Demo thoughts

It has been a week since the demo for Balan Wonderworld dropped on multiple platforms, and I still have yet to accept my immense disappointment with it after begrudgingly completing what little it had to offer.

I experienced the demo on arguably the worst platform for it — the Switch — so while my points will be centred on how it ran on Nintendo’s hardware, it is worth pointing out that it seems to have performed better on all the other platforms it is available on.

Let’s get this out of the way so I can forget about it sooner than later!

Why all the excitement for Balan Wonderworld?

Balan Wonderworld is the first title from Balan Company, a new subsidiary of Square Enix formed by industry legend Yuji Naka. This marked the first reunion of Naka (Sonic the Hedgehog’s original programmer) and Naoto Ohshima (Sonic’s character designer) in 20 years — they last worked together on Sonic Adventure in 1998.

While we all know their names as being those who brought one of Sega’s biggest IPs to life, my fondest memories are from their conception of NiGHTS. This in turn explains my personal interest in Balan Wonderworld, as I was hotly anticipating a nostalgic trip back to what the NiGHTS series had delivered. NiGHTS focused on the whimsical and fantastical meshing of reality and dreams, making for wonderfully imaginative designs and visually stunning levels that make you feel you’ve been whisked away to — and want to stay in forever.

Balan Wonderworld

In comparison, Balan Wonderworld makes us feel like we’ve been forced into a nightmare, despite its endearing and heartwarming plot. Each chapter has a new main character who has their own worries and fears clouding their happiness. As either Leo or Emma, we have to restore their positivity before we get to discover and seek the imbalance of our own. It sounds like a reassuring and sweet tale, but it’s been dampened greatly with its very disappointing demo release that has shown its shallow gameplay and issues with presentation.

What makes Balan Wonderworld a nightmare

The aesthetic of Balan Wonderworld gripped many of us from the moment its concept art was shown, and the excitement to see even more news drop about the title heightened to an all new level when the gorgeous opening cutscene was revealed.

We got a look at the titular Balan, who appears to borrow greatly from NiGHTS. This is no surprise with Ohshima taking the reins of the character designs; Ohshima was the reason why NiGHTS looked so appealing, and was so fitting as the centrepiece of their whimsical adventure. Both character designs set the tone of their respective games, with Balan clearly being this title’s NiGHTS. So consider me bitter that we do not play as them!

To rub salt in the wound, we do occasionally take brief control of him in a quick-time event sequence called Balan’s Bout, as a means of collecting a golden hat item. These sequences transport the player to a location which is unclear and vacant, all in a simple, single coloured and uninteresting background; Balan randomly floats about, kicking enemies when we indicate to do so, in what appears to be a recycled animation for each level. It feels far too random, awkwardly implemented and executed, and receiving a trophy for passing it feels like a bit of a hollow victory.

This is just one example of the many small but noticeable gameplay design choices that are detrimental to the title; all of them feel downright wrong for a platformer.

The running animations for all the characters look far too jarring and move at an exaggerated, quick speed despite how slow their feet appear to be moving. This is made even more awkward as the animation for each costume change takes far too long; we come to a complete standstill waiting for it to finish.

It all feels very disjointed and untested in every way, from the static movement when jumping to the requirement for standing still when using attacks in certain costume forms. And the control scheme feels overly simplistic; under most circumstances, all of the buttons do the same thing — jump.

On the other hand the title tries to bite off more than it can chew in one certain aspect. Balan Wonderworld’s full version offers a whopping 80+ costumes to collect, allowing for different moves to be used when wearing the costume. It’s in a similar vein to Super Mario’s power-ups and A Hat in Time’s hats, but unlike these examples, Balan Wonderworld’s demo makes a worrisome issue all too apparent: one of the costumes already feels redundant even at this early point, and there are only three costumes in the demo.

For example, the Dainty Dragon costume has no jump mechanic because its one function is an attack using a burst of flames. The Tornado Wolf costume, meanwhile, allows you to jump and attack at the same time, making Dainty Dragon feel useless. This has me a little concerned; do all 80 costumes offer this shallow a choice? It would have perhaps been better to have fewer costumes and flesh them out as much as possible. Quality over quantity, maybe?

Questionable design choices aplenty

Balan Wonderworld

This brings me to my next problem; the platforming is far too easy and most obstacles in your way can be completely avoided. This pales in comparison to newer 3D platform titles such as Super Mario Odyssey, which provide optional challenging objectives for older fans and experienced players as well as remaining accessible for newcomers. The same can even be said of New Super Lucky’s Tale, which despite having a more childish appeal, still provides different gameplay segments of varying difficulty, and its own challenges suitable for adults who love their platforming titles. It was not all hand-holding.

Balan Wonderworld somehow trips up when it is meant to be helping the player despite its overall low level of difficulty. Tutorials are near non-existent, with only a simple help window popping up each time you pick up a costume. The many different collectible items are not explained, which made for a confusing moment when I stumbled on the first golden hat that triggered the quick-time event mentioned above.

The costume damage was also another surprise; when you’re attacked while wearing one, the costume disappears in place of your health — something the game never warned you about. It feels unnecessarily redundant to have to backtrack to pick up the costumes. And on the topic of confusion, the hub world had no indication that the suddenly appearing, numbered doors were the levels. It all feels so random and disorganised.

Outside of these functions, the level designs are also incredibly disappointing. The stages have an overwhelming sense of an uncertainty about them. They are mostly designed as linear paths, with bizarre placements of the many collectible items scattered around the straight line; it feels lazy and unimaginative. Level designs feel disjointed, which could be interpreted as an effective sign of the game exploring its characters’ mental states, but it simply comes across as far too incoherent and unengaging.

All this is made even worse with a few stages having warping backgrounds, which ended up affecting my eyesight so badly I had to keep taking breaks from this hour-long demo. It breaks my heart to say it, but it feels and looks very rough.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the demo’s performance on the Switch was aggravating the majority of the time. It has flat textures, and looks noticeably “dark” despite how colourful its design is, making it for an inconsistent appearance that is a little unpleasant to look at. There are countless lag problems and frame-rate drops, from every time you jump, to encountering enemies, to arriving at a new level as it comes into focus.

It even lags and jitters on its loading screen, which is a basic white background with the game’s logo on the bottom right of the screen. Additionally, NPCs also have a sneaky ability of disappearing in front of your eyes as your character closes in on them, and the group of them that appear to celebrate for you at checkpoints move awkwardly and disappear while dancing.

But quite possibly the very worst culprit is the T-posing boss. Scratch that, it was most definitely the worst.

Balan Wonderworld
A truly cursed image

Closing thoughts

At a retail price of £49.99, and its release date next month on March 26, we can only hope for Balan Wonderworld’s release is pushed back to polish up its few evident hiccups.

Balan Wonderworld has an intriguing and heartwarming premise, with brilliant character designs and a promising soundtrack. I adore the main screen of the hub world, and I enjoy how nostalgic it feels when raising the “Tims”, who follow us on our adventure — they are reminiscent of how the Nightopians behaved. But looking at the few positives makes this all the more sad.

It has not been easy speaking so negatively on a video game I have been so excited to play but my disappointment, has felt far too heavy to simply ignore discussing it. Balan Wonderworld deserves to be better than what we currently have. I’ll be here, waiting, and keeping my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, what did you think of the demo?

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Lilia Hellal
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