It’s been a few weeks since Balan Wonderworld released, a game that seems to have received a lot of negative coverage from the press and a mixed reception from gamers – but was this justified? The game is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with a simple story and gameplay mechanics so that everyone of all ages can enjoy this beautiful-looking game. I’ve completed the main game, unlocked a lot of the costumes, finished some of the bonus stages, and built the Clock of Happiness – but did I enjoy it?
Balan Wonderworld was developed by Arzest and the Balan Company (owned by Square Enix). Arzest are better known for the 3DS versions of Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World, Hey! Pikmin, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, so seeing another cute adventure game seems perfect for their portfolio. This is clearly the Balan Company‘s first game, and I sincerely hope we see future sequels after my experience with this title. Square Enix published the game, releasing it on all the major platforms – as well as a digital novel, which supposedly expands on the story and answers questions that the video game leaves unanswered…
I went into this game with little expectations, I’d played (and hated) the demo, seen some negative review scores, and been told by a few people not to play it, yet after a few hours, I was hooked. The game may not give the best first impression, but once you open your heart and really get into it, it becomes super addictive and a joy to play.
The first thing which left me with many questions were the opening introductions. You get to play as either Leo Craig or Emma Cole, two children who seem to have issues with their life. The videos we’re shown are Leo breakdancing, receiving praise from other kids, then walking away depressed, as if he has some sort of social anxiety or issues with making friends. Emma is the child of a wealthy couple, living in a massive house with servants. She sees the staff whispering about her and hiding when she looks, leaving her feeling anxious, paranoid, and confused as to why they’re talking behind her back – this leads to her running away from home.
From here, the story is merged in a brilliant way, showing both of their first interactions with Balan, a magical overseer of a wonderful world, simultaneously yet separate. The Balan Theatre appears to these two as they are troubled, allowing them in so that Balan can seek their help in restoring happiness and passion back into the hearts of twelve other similarly troubled individuals across the world, through the mystical Wonderworld.
You’ll travel to twelve distinct worlds, each with its own enemies, visuals, music, and bosses. You’ll find costumes that grant you new and exciting abilities and powers, allowing you to progress and discover the six Balan statues hidden within each of the initial 24 stages. You’ll also have to beat 48 QTE segments, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, and then replay all twelve worlds again for a third bonus stage upon completing the game – with another bunch of statues to unlock!
The game is big, there’s a lot to do and a lot of back-tracking involved. The way I describe this game to people when talking about it is – it’s a ‘Japanese LEGO game’. Not sure what I mean? Let me explain…
You take control of either the young boy or girl in Balan Wonderworld, there’s no difference other than the way they look out of costume, as cross-dressing and looking both masculine or feminine happens a lot based upon what costume you put on. As a ‘naked’ character, you have one command – Jump. I’m not joking, the command is mapped to L2, R2, Triangle, Square, Cross, and Circle, with only L1 and R1 being a new command – to change your costume. However, once you don one of the costumes, this single command changes based on what you’re wearing.
Why is this the ‘Japanese LEGO’ game, because you need to unlock new costumes (characters) which have unique abilities and then return to previous stages in order to find previously unobtainable Balan statues. If you’re familiar with LEGO games, that’s pretty much the core mechanic within those, other than smashing the heck out of anything which isn’t screwed down! But, Balan Wonderworld has one strange and questionable ‘feature’, the costumes are durable as you can lose them and have to go back and obtain them multiple times. I’ll get to this later on in the review, as I have a lot to say about it!
Once you’ve completed a stage (two for each world, plus a boss battle), you return to the Isle of Tims. No, this isn’t an island full of people called Tim, it’s an island full of adorable little fluff-balls which are known as Tims. This reminds me a lot of the Chao Garden from Sonic Adventure, which makes sense as the director is Yuji Naka (the former head of the Sonic Team), you can feed your furry friends with the gems you collect in stages, watch as they grow then lay eggs to welcome more into your island, and throw them into a machine to build the Clock of Happiness.
Gameplay progression is locked behind obtaining a certain number of Balan statues, but I never had an issue with this. You need to have a certain amount to unlock the next batch of two or three worlds, but with over 42 statues on offer with each new batch of levels opening, obtaining enough is quite simple. However, obtaining 100% of all statues is where your skill and patience will be fully tested!
I simply adored the worlds within Balan Wonderworld, each one is just as magical as the last one. They are all very colourful, themed differently, the music is a delight to listen to, and they can be quite challenging if trying to collect everything. What I will say is, don’t be put off by the demo – like I was – that’s just the first level and barely touches on all the different abilities and fun you’ll have in the other stages. Each stage is a self-contained mini-world based on the tormented person’s fears, anxiety, or troubles, offering its own set of hazards, enemies, mechanics, and visual styles.
As you play a stage for the first time, you’ll soon come across three costumes, each with its own ability. Some may allow you to jump higher, shoot, spin and kill enemies, or even travel through streams of water like it’s a futuristic tube system (like in Futurama). These initial costumes are essential, you need these to complete the stage you’re in – that’s why you’re given them. But, you’ll notice areas you can’t reach or blocks you can’t destroy, that’s why you’ll need to return once you’ve unlocked different costumes as you can easily swap the three you’re holding once you stand on a waypoint within a stage.
Each stage, bar the third secret stage you unlock upon completing the game, has between one and three ‘Balan’s Bout’ QTE segments. As a person with very crappy reflexes (and no way to calibrate it in-game), I wasn’t a fan of these. Basically, they’re cutscenes of our non-controllable titular protagonist attacking his nemesis and large crystals in a relatively short CGI video. What you have to do is push the Jump button, ala anything, as his shadow-like overlay matches his current position. If you’ve seen that “happykelli” on TikTok, just imagine her videos, but with Balan instead of her!
If going for the platinum, you have to not only find every single Balan statue in each stage, but you also need to get every statue from Balan’s Bouts – to get the statue in those requires you to get an ‘excellent’ on every QTE, miss just one and you have to complete the stage then re-enter it to try again. Balan Wonderworld is quite a challenging and tricky game to 100%, especially if you play it on your own and refrain from looking up guides or hints.
Each of the twelve worlds has its own boss, a demonic manifestation of whatever is troubling the person the world is fueled by. These are massive enemies that all require three hits to defeat. But, as a way to make this rather unique, you get rewarded based upon how you actually hit the enemy – if you do the same thing three times, you’ll only get a single Balan statue, for example.
Every boss has three ways to inflict damage upon them, usually requiring you to use the various costumes you’ve obtained within that particular world. as such, the fight will often have keys and costumes which appear for you to collect, so you’ll always have what you need right there. For example, you may be able to hit the bosses weak spot by just jumping into them, but then they’ll fire rockets at you. Jumping on a rocket will reflect it and hit the boss, granting you a second Balan statue.
Figuring out the requirements to find all three ways to damage the boss was fun and quite original, it makes you think about what’s going on and how you can use that to your advantage in order to take them out.
Once you’ve destroyed the source of the despair, it’s time for something I really wasn’t prepared for – dance time! That’s right, after every single boss battle, you, the character you’ve just ‘rescued’, and all the costumes you found within that stage, all start dancing and singing in a big elaborate dance routine. It’s like the end of a children’s movie, or ‘comedy’ movies these days, where all the cast dance during the credits, only it’s a bunch of fantastical creatures and derpy humans! It’s glorious.
This is why I’d say Balan Wonderworld is a game aimed at children and not the adults who reviewed it elsewhere and gave it a low score simply because it’s simplistic with short levels. If a game has a dance number every time you save someone, that’s not a game created for people aged 25+ (although I’m 36 and loved it). However, the game did get hard towards the end, and frustrating, so although the visuals and concept seem like it’ll be perfect for young children, I felt that the difficulty spike was very out of place (which I’ll come to later).
In Balan Wonderworld, you can be whoever you want to be. Seriously, there’s a tonne of costumes for you to play dress-up with! Okay, in realistic numbers, there are 81 costumes (although online it only states 80, I think I got an extra one for playing the demo). As mentioned above, these all have their own unique abilities which allow you to progress within the stage and/or reach secret statues when you return to the stages you completed previously. However, these costumes hide a frustrating and annoying mechanic, one which had me screaming at the TV a few times…
Although the costumes work in a similar way to the characters in LEGO games, they are basically consumables within Balan Wonderworld, not permanent unlocks which you can swap into whenever you like. Let’s say you just played world two and picked up the lightning costume twice then completed the stage, you’ll now have two of those costumes in your closet. Should you equip one of these then get hit once, or fall off the ledge of the floating world, then that costume is gone. If that was the last costume you had for that particular one in the closet, you now have to return to the world where it originated and find a new one before you can use it again.
This is where the frustration kicks in, as some costumes are quite hard to find. So, if you find one, then go into another stage and then lose it by accidentally getting hit, you have to waste time going back and collecting another one before you can return to doing what you wanted the costume for. Luckily, each required ability is usually placed on multiple costumes (just used slightly differently), but some are unique such as the suit which least you see all of the collectables through walls.
I honestly don’t mind that you can only carry three costumes at a time, requiring you to stand on a checkpoint to swap out the ones you have if you’re mid-stage, but having to return to previous stages to stock up on costumes because you lost it – that seems a bit unfair. Maybe the developer could add an ‘easy’ option that allows you to keep costumes even if you die? It would make the game much more user friendly for children and clumsy people (like me). Also, you don’t just pick up costumes, they’re in locked bubbles so you’ll need to find a key in the stage and then unlock them – but the keys are usually near the bubbles from what I’ve experienced.
The Isle of Tims
I simply adore these fluffy feckers! you start off with a handful of the cute and cuddly critters, watching as they follow you around in this colourful hub world. You have one use for them initially, throw them into an exercise wheel and watch as they make it spin and increase a counter. Then, as you mean certain goals, new things will open such as the base of the Clock of Happiness. After a few minutes, you’ll notice that the Tims will stop working, despite picking them up and throwing them into the machinery (no animals were harmed during this game) – this is because they need food.
Within each stage, you’ll collect literally hundreds of multi-coloured gems, more if you successfully beat Balan’s Bouts. These are used to feed your whimsical workers, they love the crunchy texture of the gems as you throw them over the same coloured flower patches. The more they eat, the more energetic they become, returning to work and increase your counter. Well, that or they’ll grow to about three times the size! As you further increase the counter, you’ll unlock ‘trampolines’ which the big Tims can jump on to join in with the work, eventually shrinking and laying an egg once they also eat too much.
You can also find eggs within the stages, which you can hatch on the island and increase the number of minions you look after.
When you’ve fed them all and you’ve built a lot of the tower in the centre of the island, you can take an elevator and simply watch as they start working for you. This consists of them taking an elevator up the tower then going around it, through cogs and spirals, as they somehow trigger the counter and further add towards the progress of finishing the construction. I honestly found this quite relaxing and therapeutic – I’ve actually got it on my second monitor right now, as I write this review, watching as they roll all over the place and finish up building my Clock.
Almost every stage has a mini-game to find, other than the Balan’s Bout QTE game. These are simple little distractions that reward you gems based upon how well you do, games such as football, baseball, and golf. If going for the platinum, you’ll need to find and play all of these in every level they appear within, if you’re not too fussed about the trophies then they simply exist to provide you with bonus food (gems) for your hungry Tims on the island.
I’m surprised, considering how much the game loves its music and dancing, that there wasn’t a DDR-style minigame for you to dance along to! It seems like a missed opportunity if I’m being honest.
Balan Wonderworld has a photo mode – something I wasn’t expecting. It’s hidden in the menu – Options > Miscellaneous > Photo Mode – and is quite basic, but it’s a fun addition. It has a few frames and you can rotate around the protagonist, but it’s not as free as other games and you can’t apply filters or mess with the character models as we saw in the brilliant Atelier Ryza.
Also, if you’re playing in single-player, if you hold the camera down (or up if you play un-inverted) then the camera will position itself within your head, allowing you to look around in first-person. This is mostly pointless, but it makes looking for hidden statues or lining up good photos easier.
There is an option to play with a second person, locally, via the main menu. I thought I’d try this out, so I remoted into my PS5 with my PC and played as a second account via my DualSense (as I only have one PS5 controller) – the result was rather underwhelming. First of all, the camera is only focused on the first player and the screen doesn’t split, so the second player can easily run off the screen and carry on playing without anyone knowing what they’re up to. Also, when you enter a stage, I couldn’t get the second player to actually unlock costumes, even if they picked up the key – so I don’t know what I was doing wrong.
When playing a stage, if you get both characters (one boy, one girl) to bump into each other, both the first and second player can control both characters at the same time, as they seem to join together. You can tear them apart by running in opposite directions, but it seems strange that either controller can control both if stood next to one another. Then I thought, maybe it’s so you can let your child play on their own, despite having two characters on screen, then you can jump in and help out in parts where the game gets too difficult?
As I mentioned above, the game does have a few spikes in difficulty which seems a little off considering it’s a perfect game for younger children. Some boss battles, specifically the final one, will be very hard for young children, and some stages are very confusing. One such stage is based around an artist, so you flip the perspective as you turn the rooms upside down or on their side, trying to figure out what orientation you have to be in order to proceed to the next part – with no guidance or markers showing you where to go.
So, Maybe the co-operative multiplayer is for this purpose? If not, I have no idea why it doesn’t have a split-screen mechanic in effect and why the second player can’t unlock costumes from the bubbles.
Everyone’s seen an animated Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks film, right? Well, the CGI cutscenes in Balan Wonderworld are on par with those, they look simply gorgeous and so playful. All of the characters have their own personalities, the worlds are beautifully crafted, Balan is mysteriously magical, and I would love for an animated movie or series to get produced off the back of this. I’ve re-watched the cutscenes a few times, as they unlock in the ‘Theatre mode’ once you’ve seen them in-game, and the quality is brilliant.
What I really enjoyed was the removed requirement to play the game twice. Basically, once you decide if you’re a boy or girl at the beginning of the game, you can’t change that. That important choice has its own unique short intro and final cutscene (which shows how they’ve overcome their issues and discovered the truth behind what they were paranoid about). Basically, once you’ve unlocked your character’s movies, you can flip the gender and watch the other persons in the Theatre as well, without having to play it again as the other protagonist.
I do have one issue with these CGI movies – an issue I have emailed my contact at Square Enix about, but I’ve not heard anything back so I’ll email them again today. Throughout the game, all the cutscenes are dialogue-less, played with sounds, music and dancing instead. However, Balan talks about three or four times,
in Japanese – I’ve been informed that the language he speaks isn’t Japanese, it’s a new language created for the game. When this happens, the game subtitles what he’s saying so you can understand the context and follow the events in your own language. Except for the final cutscene – where he’s saying something deeply emotional and important – here, the game has literally no subtitles. You kind of get the gist of what’s going on, but it seems the developers simply forgot to enable the subtitles in this one (crucial) scene.
I’m hoping they can easily enable them so I can just go back and re-watch the ending. And no, there is no subtitles option in the settings menu, as other than these few scenes, the game is entirely voice-less.
On the PS5, Balan Wonderworld looks fantastic, it’s a visual feast for your eyes with all the colours, cute characters, and diverse worlds to explore. I have no idea what the specifics are, other than a few news articles saying it’s 4K/60 on the PS5, but the game both looks and feels great to play, in terms of the performance. I never had any instances of frame drops or crashes, and the visuals had me smiling throughout. But what about PS5 specific features?
Does Balan Wonderworld utilise the DualSense triggers and haptic feedback? Yes, but not as well as I’d hoped. Each costume activates a subtly different trigger resistance, but it’s always very weak and never at a level where you actually notice it’s enabled. Plus, considering almost every button does the same action, I found myself often just using the Cross button to perform the action rather than the triggers. It’s the same with the feedback, it’s there but not at the level where you’d feel and notice it.
I imagine the reason these hadn’t been implemented better, with a more defined presence, is because the game is multi-platform and none of the other platforms supports these features.
Loading is very snappy, within nothing more than a few seconds at the longest – you can easily jump between stages, change your costumes, and load your saved game without even being able to reach for a drink or check your phone for messages.
I’ve not read any other reviews but I have seen the scores, after spending hours playing through the entire game, and then even more going back and playing the new third stage and collecting all the statues, I honestly don’t see the issues they must have had with the game. The game was fun, it got quite challenging in parts (especially the end boss) and I know I probably won’t complete all of the QTE segments, but I enjoyed my time with the game and found each of the worlds a delight to play through.
As a lover of the LEGO games, unlocking the costumes and then working out which I had to use in each scenario was very rewarding. I did get lost on a few levels, but I feel we’re just too spoilt with modern mechanics and games which hand-hold you every step of the way, Balan Wonderworld was clearly inspired by old-school 3D platformers and collect-a-thons, leaving the exploration and working out to the player. In that sense, the game was a breath of fresh air as it had a goal and a vision that didn’t get adjusted or altered to pander to those who were going to obviously complain about certain mechanics and processes. However, a toggle to enable unlimited costumes would be very welcome!
As I stated earlier, I didn’t like the demo so I was a little sceptical about if I’d like the final product. It took a few hours for me to get into it, but once I’d progressed through a few of the worlds, I really started to enjoy myself. Yes, the gameplay is rather simplistic as you only have one action per costume, but you have over 80 costumes, each one looking as cute as the others. If you like 90s 3D platformers such as Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, or even modern inspired games like Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time, then you should enjoy Balan Wonderworld.
Although it may not be for everyone, I personally found Balan Wonderworld to be a delightful 3D platformer that is oozing with charm and fantastic visuals – especially the cutscenes. Some people may see the backtracking to collect costumes so you can progress in other stages as a negative, yet I enjoyed this as it reminded me of the LEGO games and it felt like I was always progressing. Some boss battles were a little tricky, and the unlocked third stages are harder than the previous two, but it’s a fair challenge that can be overcome with time and practice. My only issue is that the game is clearly one aimed at children, yet the consumable costumes and frustrating bosses may actually be a little too annoying and/or difficult for them to enjoy.
As stated above, there is a demo that lets you play both stages and the boss of world 1, then the first stage of world 4 and 6. It may not give you a great first impression, but stick with it and see the demo through to the end – It should give you enough of an indication as to whether you’ll like it or not. I became obsessed with the final game once Square Enix gave it to us, seeing it right through to the end without stopping – and that’s someone who wasn’t initially interested based upon the demo.
Buying the game digitally on PSN grants you both the PS4 and PS5 versions of the game. I don’t believe you can transfer your save from one to the other either, so you can’t complete on the PS4 and then get the platinum within seconds on the PS5.
Also, whilst writing this review I found out there is a digital 237-page book that goes into the story and talks more about the characters and the worlds you’re about to explore. As such, I’ve just bought it as it was only £5.59 on Amazon HERE. I’ve not looked at it yet, but reviews say it contains things that the game doesn’t, answering questions and expanding on the events which happen. If this is the case, it’s a shame the game didn’t reflect the story they clearly knew (as it’s in the book). I’m still happy with the game, but if you’re looking for more Balan post-completion, check out the book too – I have.
- - Very colourful with lots of cute characters and costumes
- - Each world is very different and fun to explore
- - Over 80 costumes to collect, each with its own ability
- - Just like the LEGO games, you have to return to previous stages once you've obtained new costumes (abilities)
- - The music and CGI cutscenes are fantastic, they should make a movie or series to flesh out the story
- - Some people may not like the consumable costumes and having to backtrack to re-obtain them
- - There are a few difficulty spikes
- - The QTE segments have no calibration tool, so you could find those pretty hard if your TV has some lag
- - It takes a while to really get into the game
- - There isn't enough buttons for jump!