Balan Wonderworld review – NiGHTS into nightmares

Balan Wonderworld – one foot in the past (pic: Square Enix)

The creators of Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS team up for the first time since Sonic Adventure, with this brand-new old school 3D platformer.

When Balan Wonderworld was first announced fan excitement was high. Yuji Naka, creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, was returning with a spiritual successor to NiGHTS Into Dreams, helped along by artist Naoto Ohshima, who was the original’s director and lead artist. There’ve been innumerable 3D Sonic games over the years, almost all of which have been awful, but here was a chance to do right by Naka’s other great creation. It’s unfortunate then, that Balan Wonderworld immediately fell victim to the Sonic cycle of disappointment and disillusionment.

The hype train for Balan Wonderworld was initially derailed by the playable demo released back in January. Nobody wants to discourage publishers from releasing demos but the one for Balan Wonderworld was so underwhelming it was extremely difficult to stay optimistic about the full release. We did try though, because even ignoring the history of the creators there are some fun ideas at the game’s core and it’s very rare nowadays to see even a medium budget, old school 3D platformer.

The first thing to realise though is that despite the obvious homages this really isn’t much like NiGHTS at all. It’s a much more straightforward 3D platformer, vaguely in the Super Mario mould, where the main gimmick is your ability to don dozens of different costumes, all of which give you different special abilities. That’s not an especially original idea for video games (it’s not far off Super Mario Odyssey’s cap) but if nothing else Balan Wonderwold goes all in the variety of options and abilities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help though.

There’s not much of a story to Balan Wonderworld but what there is revolves around two children whose hearts have become ‘out of balance’, with both suffering from low level social anxiety. They end up in the Balan Theatre where the titular NiGHTS-alike charges them with healing the hearts of various other people, as a means to solving their own problems. Which in practical terms means punching a lot of shadowy monsters that look a bit like the Heartless out of Kingdom Hearts.

If we’d been told Balan Wonderworld was some kind of long lost Dreamcast game, found half completed and then finished up for release on modern formats we’d easily have believed it. The graphics are better than anything Sega’s final console could’ve managed, but not by much, and the frictionless movement and expressionless main characters all feel like they’ve just jumped through a portal from 1999.

That is, presumably, meant to be part of the charm but the novelty of playing such an uncomplicated, unpretentious game lasts mere minutes, as you realise just how much things have moved on in the last 20 years.

Despite what you might be imagining the camera isn’t that bad, although your experience may differ depending on how you familiar you find the old school level design, with its puzzle-like platform placement and hidden areas. There’s the occasional leap of faith but generally the game plays fair, although falling off only to have to spend five minutes climbing back to where you were is not uncommon.

The art design for each level is usually more interesting than for the characters, with surreal landscapes of rolling hills and clockwork towers, but the real highlight is the boss battles, which start off fairly mundane but eventually become more involved, as they make the case that old school Japanese boss battles are still a spectacle that modern Western-led design cannot match. Especially as each one in Balan Wonderworld has multiple ways you can defeat it and you’re rewarded for discovering them all.

Balan Wonderworld – only good in theory (pic: Square Enix)

When it comes to the main selling point of the gameplay, the costumes, Balan Wonderworld is far less convincing. They’re generally split into costumes that grant new attack abilities, special kinds of movement, or unique abilities and include everything from a kangaroo outfit that lets you jump further to a sheep that lets you float in the air. There’s all manner of elemental attacks, including lightning and tornadoes, as well as some with more specific uses, such as dressing as a train to rail grind.

Given how many costumes there are this all seems mildly clever at first, except many of the costumes are only minor variations on each other and most of the abilities are ones that normal video games characters would have anyway – so it never feels like you’re becoming especially powerful, just making up for obvious deficiencies. There’s also lots of niggly problems, like the irritating second wait to switch costumes and the fact that they act like extra lives, so that if you’re damaged and lose a costume you either have to have the same one in reserve or go back and find another.

You can swap at any time between a small hand-picked selection but you have to go back to a checkpoint to pick out any extras you didn’t realise you’d need. Frankly, it’s all a bit of a faff and quickly begins to seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

There’re some decent ideas at the heart of Balan Wonderworld, and the 3D platformer is absolutely a genre we need to see more of, but this really isn’t a very good game. There’s lots of content but too much of it feels like filler, from the large number of pointless costumes to the irritating QTE sequences with Balan, that the game forces you to compete on an increasingly regular basis.

Balan Wonderworld is a welcome reminder of how 3D games used to be, but in the sense that you’ll come out the other end thankful for how much things have improved over the decades. Balan Wonderworld isn’t awful but rather than proving that the old ways still have merit it only makes the case for leaving the past alone.

Balan Wonderworld review summary

In Short: A slightly embarrassing attempt to recall the early days of 3D platforming, with a central gimmick that never really captures the imagination and clunky controls and gameplay.

Pros: Some good boss battles and the level design and the general atmosphere can be agreeably surreal.

Cons: The controls and most of the costumes are never much fun, with flaccid combat and constant interruptions and needless backtracking.

Score: 4/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Balan Company and Arzest
Release Date: 26th March 2021
Age Rating: 7

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