When people bring up Yuji Naka, they emphasize the great games he’s made. This means fondly remembering titles like Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, Billy Hatcher, and NiGHTs into Dreams. (Hopefully, Monster Manor and Ultimate Angler get nods too.) But people tend to forget about the “misses” like Rodea the Sky Soldier and Ivy the Kiwi? Which is a shame, because then people might have had a better idea of what was coming with Balan Wonderworld, a bland and confounding game with missing pieces and bad design decisions.
Because so much is missing, you only have the vaguest idea of what is happening in Balan Wonderworld. Your tale begins with one of two children who is very sad. You don’t know exactly why, exactly, because Balan is the only “person” who speaks. In the case of Emma, my avatar, she runs out of a mansion sad because the maids are looking at her and whispering. She finds herself at Balan’s theater and learns her own heart can be repaired if she aids others. She finds herself in the colorful Wonderworld, where 12 people in despair are trapped in 12 worlds. You restore them by donning costumes with special abilities and collecting enough Balan statues to unlock the next group of worlds.
The general premise doesn’t sound bad. If better executed, it could have been fine. The animated cutscenes at the beginning and end of a world do a great job of reaching out to a player’s heart and inspiring sympathy for the people troubled and led into despair by the villain, Lance. Soshi Kawasaki’s Balan Wonderworld: Maestro of Mystery, Theatre of Wonders is far more elaborate and full of insights. This could have been a great movie, perhaps with a few of the more interesting stories plucked for an abbreviated adaptation. (The farmer, firefighter, and girl with a kitten would be good candidates.) It might have been a great TV show too! But the game condenses things so much that you barely get any explanation or motivation for your actions.
Which contributes to a general sense of blandness. While character designs can sometimes be great and those brief vignettes fun, there’s nothing exciting about any of the levels. I felt as though I was walking (rather effortlessly) through each one. I only returned when I had to in the name of additional Balan statues to advance. Sometimes regrettably, as worlds with ground that swells and odd camera angles or movements could make me feel a little queasy. If someone asked me about the stages, I could certainly say, “Well, there was a farm one, an underwater one, a forest one, a city one…” and so on. But I couldn’t really point to any defining artifacts about what made them special.
This applies to the costumes too. Balan Worldworld has a whopping 80 costumes to acquire. Except it suffers from a situation where you don’t need 80 if you have a fraction that work well. Especially since many costumes offer the same abilities as others, only better. So say Jumping Jack can jump and has something of a Yoshi flutter jump. Well, Pounding Pig also jumps and can flutter a bit, but it also ground pounds. Which one are you going to choose? Hm? Dynamic Dolphin and Jellyjolt both can swim through water blocks to reach new areas and jump, but Jellyjolt’s jump is electrified and better for also dealing with enemies. Decisions, decisions! It’s especially worse since both of those examples involve outfits found in the same worlds.
But those aren’t the only frustrations tied to outfits. Some feel useless. Lovely Lantern lights up when it feels like it in your immediate area. But Balan Wonderworld really never feels dark enough to need it. It’s not the only when it feels like it costume, though it isn’t as offensive as the Box Fox that turns into a box with your movement momentum and sometimes could send you careening off the world map. All costumes are locked by “keys,” so you can’t just grab one and switch. Except the keys are normally very close by. Which makes that seem pointless. Especially in a boss fight when you’re moving quickly and tactically.
But wait, there’s more! You always only have one action available, which means wearing certain costumes robs you of the ability to jump. Oh, and you can only have three costumes at once and the one in the right-most slot will be ditched if you grab a new one, so make sure you have your least favorite or useful one in that slot if you grab a new one. Which wouldn’t be as bad if the costumes in cubes were easier to ascertain, but I played on the Switch and it was sometimes difficult to see what was inside until I grabbed it.
It isn’t just some costumes that can feel worthless. The Tims, bird-like blobs that follow players around, sometimes seem a bit useless too. Yes, if some are around when you’re in a level, they might do things for you depending on their color. (Sometimes, one would carry a costume key over to me or attack an enemy.) I hoped they’d be a Chao Garden-like feature. Instead, they’re rudimentary, and I often forgot they were even there if they weren’t bringing me a key. I didn’t connect with them in the way I did other mascots.
Balan Wonderworld is not comfortable or fun to play. It isn’t memorable. If you want to understand everything happening, you have to buy the ebook and go to that outside source for an explanation. It is bland, repetitious, and has design choices that are the opposite of ensuring a good quality of life. It is a clear example of a situation where you should read the book, rather than play the game. There are times when it feels like a fever dream, something too weird to actually be true, as it fades from your mind. But then you look at that icon in your system’s Home menu and know it really happened.
Square Enix‘s Balan Wonderworld is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC. The Balan Wonderworld: Maestro of Mystery ebook is available.