Balan Wonderworld Review: A Confusing, Frustrating Slog

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Balan Wonderworld prides itself on being a three-dimensional platformer that allows the player to call upon several powers from scores of costumes, and on paper, that sounds well and good, but in execution, the video game from Square Enix is definitely in the running for “Worst Video Game of 2021.” From simplistic gameplay to frustrating controls to confusing objectives, Balan Wonderworld is never quite sure what kind of video game it is trying to be and in that, it loses any potential for the bizarrely surreal story that it is attempting to weave.

The story begins with you choosing from eight pre-arranged characters that are barely distinguishable from one another, dropping you into a world where the most that you learn about your character is that they are amazing at break dancing, but also sad when people compliment them on said break dancing. Wandering into a mysterious theater, you are introduced to the spastic Balan, of the titular Balan Wonderworld, who immediately throws you into the proceedings of attempting to find your heart, or whatever it is he wants you to do to progress the story, as it is still a bit unclear. Accompanied by your “Tims,” small chickens that you feed crystals in between missions, the game only gets more bizarre as time passes with a story that has no identity of its own.

Balan Wonderland
(Photo: Square Enix)

The first thing you’ll most likely notice when you begin playing the game is that nearly every single button is designated as the “Jump Button.” Your character can do little else besides jumping, that is until the game introduces its core mechanic: the costumes. Balan Wonderworld touts the fact that it has over 80 different costumes that you can slap on to do particular tasks, but the costumes themselves are horribly designed and their functions are incredibly frustrating.

Now imagine, if you will, that you were playing another platformer that focused on granting special abilities to the players. Should you slap on a new hat, you might be able to fly into the air, and should you digest a flower on the ground, you might be able to shoot flames from your fingertips. Why Balan Wonderworld fails with their spin on this take is that they assign basic functions to individual costumes, and poorly, I might add. To do a “ground pound,” you are required to acquire the “Pounding Pig” costume, at which point you must transfer to it and then you’ll be able to deliver a “butt stomp.” These are attributes that should be wrapped into your character normally, sans needing to access a special suit to perform them.

In the first level, your first two costumes come in the forms of “Tornado Wolf” and “Jumping Jack,” a Tasmanian devil and a kangaroo, respectively, whose abilities are so close to one another that it’s amazing that they didn’t smash the two get-ups together. As a kangaroo, you can jump a bit higher and for a slightly longer period of time, whereas the Tornado Wolf allows you to break boxes, and then jump a bit higher. Later on, when you acquire a suit like “Dainty Dragon,” every button still does the same thing, though you can no longer jump but instead hurl disappointingly small fireballs from your gullet.

The game will also sometimes offer you mini-games throughout certain levels, that are very much like the costumes in that, though they might vary wildly, each is more tedious than anything else. At one point, you as a player bear witness to a celestial fight that Balan is a part of and must hit the “X button” when his shadow and his body are in the same spot. While completely goofy, each of these side quests simply has no fun to be found within them.

The game itself feels surreal and confusing in unnecessary ways, as well. In one of the opening chapters, titled “The Man Who Raged Against The Storm,” you find yourself attempting to free a farmer from a dark influence, but you are surrounded by farmers, some of which are the size of skyscrapers as you navigate a world that is slowly undulating beneath your feet. As of this writing, I am still not sure if characters are meant to disappear from your sight once you walk slightly by them or if it’s a glitch. I cannot remember a time where I have had a game make me motion sick, but Balan Wonderworld is the closest that any video game has, without a doubt.

Balan Wonderworld feels like an early PlayStation 1 platformer that has been given a next-generation splash of paint, a game that is as needlessly confusing as it is irritatingly simplistic. The gameplay is counter-intuitive to everything that you’ve been taught by other games over the years, which shockingly feels lazy, rather than ambitious. Balan Wonderworld is a lesson in how a video game can go completely wrong, missing every target it attempts to hit.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Balan Wonderworld is currently available for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and Nintendo Switch. A PlayStation 5 code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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