Initial release date: March 26th 2021 Director: Yuji Naka Publisher: Square Enix Composer(s): Ryo Yamazaki Developers: Square Enix, Arzest, SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft Windows
"Review Copy Provided By Square-Enix"
What happens when you take one of gaming’s greatest minds who created Sonic The Hedgehog in Yuji Naka and allow him to effectively make NIGHTS Into Dreams 2 but without the name, gameplay, or IP? Well you get a game that’s basically it’s spiritual successor and I’d even goes so far as to say it exceeds that classic in many ways and matches it on several as well as draws inspiration from other classics in the genre such as Klonoa, Tomba, and Kameo. So the question now is does Yuji Naka’s Balan Wonderworld live up to being a great spiritual successor to NIGHTS or does it deserve to be ridiculed and called a soulless uninspired platformer that many critics have been so adamant about deeming it as? Let’s find out!
Balan Wonderworld takes place almost entirely in Balan Theater which is a magical realm overseen by the mysterious Balan. The Balan Theater appears when one’s heart has lost its balance and is then connected to the Wonderworld which is a merger of reality and fantasy created from the hearts and memories of people. Leo Craig and Emma Cole find themselves drawn to the theater due to past traumas and social anxieties and must traverse through 12 worlds that are born of the hearts of troubled children and adults alike. To oppose them is Lance, a counterpart to Balan who commands the Negati monsters that are born of the darkness of the Wonderworlds visitors. Can Leo and Emma assist Balan and defeat Lance and put an end him and the Negati? It’s time to enter the Wonderworld!
Let’s step into the DeLorean and go back to the 90’s/00’s era of mascot platformers and you’ll have an idea as to how this game plays out and if you loved that era of platformer then you’ll feel right at home in Balan Wonderworld. The game draws from many different source materials with its strongest draw being NIGHTS Into Dreams and Sonic Adventure which makes sense given that this is game made by Yuji Naka so you should expect some very strong Sega influence and references. Outside of Sega you can expect some references to yesteryears’ forgotten era of platformers like Klonoa, Tomba, Spyro, and Kameo as well.
The controls are simple and responsive with you having very few buttons to press as almost every button does the same thing with you either jumping in your default human form or an attack or special ability in your costume state depending on the costumes you have available. You can obtain various costumes as you progress in the game such as the Tornado Wolf costume which allows you to do a tornado like jump attack, a Web Wrangler costume which allows you to climb various spider webs you find in the levels, a Dainty Dragon costume which grants you the ability to not only spit fire but charge it up for a rapid fire attack, and also a mermaid costume which allows you to swim through water ways to and jump out of water and stand on water at will.
There are numerous costumes you can find throughout the various levels with you seeing them in diamond shaped prisms showing what costume they are like classic platformers did in the 90s. You’ll need a key to access these prisms which are usually located right next to the costumes if not in the vicinity of them. You can maintain up to 3 different costumes at once and when you grab a new one it gets sent to the changing room which allows you mix and match any 3 that you’ve gained before setting back out. The changing rooms also serve as checkpoints in levels allowing you to restart there when you die instead of elsewhere; you’ll lose one of you power ups but will be able to continue onward. You’ll sometimes find Balan top hats which you can grab that’ll activate Balan Battles which are basically QTE’s or Quick Time Events with Balan fighting Lance and that require you to line up the after image of Balan with Balan in order to get one of 3 different results ranging from Excellent, Good, and Missed. These are optional events that occur within levels which often house other minigames such as Soccer, Baseball, and even Golf minigames.
In each level is a set of 7 Balan statues for you to collect which are often in out in the open areas and often out of the way areas which may even require you to get creative in your approach in how you plan to get to them such as using one costumes ability to break blocks in order to create a platform to jump onto with another costume. When you collect enough Balan Statues you’ll be able to access the Balan Express and open up more levels also known as Chapters and broken up into acts.
Levels are accessed from an overworld area that you’re effectively building up with the gems and eggs you collect to give to the Chaos…..er Tims which go on to build more structures in the environments that help lead to opening up newer levels in the overworld to explore. Each of the 6 Chapters have about 3 Acts to complete with the first 2 being the levels you need to get through and gain new costumes and then the 3rd being the boss battle for the chapter. There are mini bosses that you will run into typically in the 2nd acts which take about 3 hits to defeat allowing you to move on to the next area. The chapter bosses also require 3 hits to defeat, however, they also have set patterns that you have to learn to avoid their attacks and how to hit them as each time you hit them, they move to the next phase of their patterns requiring you to figure out what the next method of attack will be to topple them. Once bosses are defeated then you will be treated to a musical like song and dance with the original form of the boss which is incredibly cute and catchy!
The last aspect of the gameplay I will touch on is the Chao Garden…..er Tims area which essentially is a modern day take on the Chao Garden from Sonic Adventure with you being able to find Tims eggs in the chapters and they hatch in the hub world where you can feed them the various gems you’ve collected which they’ll eat and grow from and eventually be ready to lay eggs creating more Tims. In the center of the hub world is a wheel that the Tims can jump into to rotate it which helps create more structures in the environment. You’ll need to continue finding and feeding Tims in order to keep the wheel moving and more areas being developed.
All in all, what I absolutely love about this game is how the game doesn’t hold your hand and teaches you how to play the game based on allowing you to play the game and figure it out on your own without a super long overly convoluted tutorial. The levels are begging to be explored and replayed.
Graphically speaking, this game to me looks gorgeous as it harkens back to that simpler time when games were more about fun and creative experiences instead of hyper realistic and platformers were the very genre that were the most fun and whimsical of the time. The art style of this game is made even more magical when you take into account that it’s spear headed by none other than Naoto Ohshima who previously worked for Sega and is the artist who created the designs for Sonic The Hedgehog and Doctor Eggman.
The work made by the collaboration of Yuju Naka and Naoto Ohshima on Balan Wonderworld is essentially what happens when you make NIGHTS into Dreams your core foundation and then throw in a dash of Kameo, pinch of Billy Hatcher, and a drop of Tomba and you essentially have Balan Wonderworld. The game truly doesn’t at all hide its inspirations especially its NIGHTS inspirations.
The world is colorful with cutesy character designs and are incredibly vibrant. Balan and the foes that are like him are basically NIGHTS with how they are designed and how they move about and fly.
Since I’m reviewing the Nintendo Switch Version of the game; I did notice that the visuals compared the the PS5 version are not as detailed or sharp and are noticeably downgraded to be able to run on the Switch in both docked and portable mode. The game runs 720p at 30FPS docked and at 540p 30FPS portably, this isn’t the greatest looking game on the Switch but given that it is a game with rather simplistic visuals I can’t say I was bothered by the way it looked at all.
There are instances of draw distance and items loading in and out of the field of view but this is something that’s found on all versions of the game.
The music in the game is INCREDIBLE. The composer is none other than Ryo Yamazaki who was a composer for Final Fantasy X as you’ll find a lot of the tunes in the game sounding like they would fit right in with FFX. The music is calm and relaxing along with being upbeat and whimsical and just fits the general vibe and atmosphere of a game that’s basically NIGHTS 2.
Aside from the music there isn’t any spoken dialogue in the game at all as none of the characters speak anything other than a made up gibberish language and the animals and characters all sound cute especially the Chaos…..er….. Tims.
There really aren’t many downsides I can name that I experienced aside from the occasional framerate dips below 30FPS to what can be assumed to be around 24FPS which happens here and there both docked and in portable mode. There’s also the graphical downgrades in comparison to other platforms which I still find to be strange because there is no reason why this game cannot look as good as the other versions especially with how simplistic it is graphically. The last complaint I have is honestly with the camera as it can get pretty wonky at points which is kind of a given with platformers in general but is still annoying none the less.
Other than that, I didn’t run into nay of the issues that others have claimed to have had experienced and find that it’s pretty solid overall on the Switch.
We don’t get platformers like this anymore, honestly we don’t even get games like this anymore that want to be cute and whimsical because of the current demographic of gamer that is mainly into Battle Royales and yet even in the current climate of gaming there can still be magical experiences like this that is willing to take some creative chances and revive some older gaming troupes for a new generation. Balan Wonderworld is an incredibly fun, diverse, whimsical platformer that hits on all the nostalgia needed to draw in older gamers while still being creative enough and original enough to bring in the newer generation of gamers with tight responsive pick up and play controls, a beautiful OST, endearingly cute characters, and an adventure with near endless replayability. It may not get everything perfect and may have some technical issues here and there, but otherwise, Balan Wonderworld is a phenomenal game and worth the price of admission!