Hello and welcome to my extremely biased review of Balan Wonderworld. I have to open this review with that so you know it’s positive right off the bat. I couldn’t bring myself to click on any reviews of this game that past few months because of the wave of hate toward the game making all discussion unpleasant, so I am making it clear in the title that I like the game so hopefully more like me or more people who want to give it an honest chance click. With how the internet and social media have been ganging up on this game for nearly a year now I feel it important to make it known immediately that what I am writing now is my honest opinion on the game. I didn’t jump on a hate bandwagon and I didn’t force myself to like it as an act of counterculture. This is an honest review of Square Enix’s Balan Wonderworld.
Balan Wonderworld is a 3D collectathon platformer, a genre that was very prevalent twenty or even ten years ago with hits such as Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie but has now become a rarity in gaming. As someone who greatly enjoys collecting things and doing whatever tasks a game wants to 100% it, I greatly enjoy this genre and am glad it is slowly making a comeback.
Before starting with discussion of the gameplay like I usually do I find it important to start with factors that deserve nothing but praise first. Let’s begin by talking about the aesthetics and the soundtrack.
The game features a cartoony aesthetic often found in games by its director Yuji Naka, with the character designs being by veteran artists in the game industry Naoto Oshima and Masamichi Harada. The character design of Balan himself is wonderful as a platformer mascot and could have become iconic if not for the game’s reputation. This aesthetic is topped off with a musical theater theme. Each world of the game features backstage areas, cast members getting ready, and spotlights. In addition cutscenes are all presented on a stage like you are watching a show being performed. It’s a cute look for the game.
The soundtrack is to die for. The composers for the game were Ryo Yamazaki and Hironori Anazawa who have previously worked on games such as Chrono Cross and the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. The OST has a heavy emphasis on pianos as expected from a Square Enix game and the calming melodies of each world and the boss themes which all sound like they could be the final boss theme of a JRPG make Balan Wonderworld my favorite OST of 2021 bar none.
Alright now that I have praised the OST and visuals, it’s time to get into what gave the game the reputation it has now. The gameplay that a few influencers didn’t like and then thousands of people jumped on the opinion bandwagon.
Let’s address the biggest elephant in the room about the gameplay first, the one button control scheme. Every button on the controller does the exact same thing, what thing they do is reliant on which of the game’s 80 costumes you currently have equipped. This can be very hard to get used to and was a turn off to many people. If you have a costume that can attack then all your buttons become an attack button, thus taking away your ability to jump. While this unconventional control scheme is understandably a turn off for many I can sort of see what the devs were thinking with this.
It can be fun to get an attack costume like the punching pumpkin and alternate between the two triggers on the controller to simulate punching with your fists, it can be comforting to know that no matter what button you press during a QTE you’ll pass the QTE, the one button system gives players the freedom of being comfortable with their button presses no matter what costume they have equipped. In addition to this: Many of the levels are designed with the idea that the player at any given time can lose their ability to jump. You’ll never softlock yourself with the costume system as you’ll always be able to walk to another costume that will be able to jump or finish the level without needing to jump.
While I personally don’t really like the one button control system and would have preferred a normal control scheme, I can at least appreciate what the developers were doing and with the game being designed around it, I can’t get mad at it.
Let’s talk about the costumes themselves for a bit. One of the biggest selling points of the game was the wide range of powers with different abilities. While the game does have a lot of different powers, there are also many costumes that do the same action as others. While the selling point is 80 different powers it’s actually closer to around 30 different powers with 80 different looks. This is still a tremendous amount of abilities for a game to have. Of course some of them are just gags, like one that randomly turns you into a box. Meanwhile, some are just useless, like one that stops time if you aren’t moving, which sounds useful on paper but in a platformer doesn’t mean anything.
A majority of the Balan Statues you need to collect in order to unlock more levels and beat the game are just laying around the stage and either require you to just collect them on your way or use a specific costume to reach them. The main stage statues are pretty simplistic, but there are some that are collected via one of the game’s most interesting ideas in my opinion: the way boss fights work.
In most collectathons of this type, beating a boss will get you one of the things you need to collect, just an extra reward for doing a required task. Balan Wonderworld takes a more unique approach. Each boss can be damaged in 3 different ways and each of these ways will reward you with a statue. Some of these ways to damage bosses can be hard to figure out but you don’t need to do it, you can just damage it the same way three times if you want for a lesser reward. I love this concept and I think Balan Wonderworld pulls it off excellently.
100%-ing the game was by far the hardest platinum of 2021 for me. A casual playthrough of Balan Wonderworld won’t give you much trouble whether you be a child or adult, but going for every Balan Statue is a task that even I had trouble with.
Why is this so hard? For two reasons I shall now explain. The first is a minigame known as Balan’s Bout. Balan’s Bout is a QTE minigame that requires you to press a button in time with a silhouette of Balan overlapping with him. Do it too early or too late and you will pass but not get a statue for it. For the first few worlds where you need to find 2 Balan’s Bouts per world with QTEs that require 4 perfect button presses aren’t so bad, but as you progress through the game the number of Bouts per world and the number of button presses in each Bout increases (capping off at 6 Bouts per world with 6 button presses each).
If you fail a bout you cannot simply try again as they don’t respawn until you defeat the boss of the world. Can you emphasize with how hard it is to hit 6 perfect QTEs in a row with the pressure of needing to refight a boss if you fail hanging over your head? Each failure felt like a stab to the heart and it took an entire day just to do the Bouts.
The other thing that makes 100%-ing the game hard is an aspect of itss costume system that can be annoying. When you get hit, you lose your costume and the only way to get it back is to backtrack to an earlier world and recollect it from the same spot you got it before. When certain costumes are required for specific statues this system of constant backtracking can get annoying really fast. I feel that letting you select any costume you’ve already gotten from a checkpoint would have been a much better design.
However these issues only came about when I was trying to 100% the game. The majority of players just doing a casual playthrough will likely not have as big a problem with these issues even if they are worth mentioning. An adult or especially the target audience, children, just going through the stages and collecting whatever they can along the way will likely enjoy their time with Balan Wonderworld.
When the game was released, the internet and social media gave the impression that the game was unplayable shovelware. To this very day, I see people say insane conspiracies like that Square Enix made it as tax evasion. A majority of these insults were thrown about by people who had never even played the game, the social media effect of large influencers disliking it growing into an untrustworthy narrative about the game’s quality was in full effect here. The amount of vitriol that this game got is honestly ridiculous. It’s not the greatest game ever but it’s still a fine game. It’s far from the piece of shovelware that people say it is.
I don’t give numbers when reviewing games typically as I don’t personally believe in such a system, but for a controversial game like this, I feel like I must in order to give a comprehensive idea of my opinion on it. Balan Wonderworld gets a 6/10 from me. It’s not a fantastic game but it’s passable with okay gameplay, a cool aesthetic, and the best soundtrack of 2021