BALAN WONDERWORLD’ IS A WELCOME REPRISE OF YESTERYEAR’S WHIMSICAL PLATFORMERS
You also have access to The Isle of Tims, a hub world and something of a base where the cute and cuddly Tim creatures live. This area features a metagame in itself not unlike Sonic Adventure 2‘s Chao Garden. There’s a lot to take in here, but that’s good, as the world really needs a hefty chunk of Balan Wonderworld to understand it a bit more.
Balan is a colorful, bombastic game that dares to feature dancing characters cheering you on (who look uncannily like the Spider-Man dancing meme) with cute, furry animals, huge nonverbal farmers, collectibles and energetic, joyful music that always puts a smile on your face. These days, it’s certainly a bit odd to see all of those things in a game, but here we are.
Being frank, upon first look, Balan Wonderworld looks as though it began life as a Wii U-era game and continued development until it was sufficient for a rebirth of sorts on PlayStation 5. It’s rudimentary and simplistic, with basic character models and textures. Get closer and take everything in and you’ll realize it’s only designed that way — this is very much meant to feel like the classics of yesteryear.
Jumping into the demo sweeps you up into the wild world of two kids who meet Balan, a maestro who speaks in backwards Japanese, and only offers a tiny bit of narrative staging. It’s difficult to say what’s going on right now, especially without the added context of spoken dialogue, but the game follows kids Leo Craig and Emma Cole as they explore a variety of areas throughout the Wonderworld, a mix between reality and the imaginary.
There are several unfortunate, jilted individuals within the dreamworld. Playing as one character or the other (or together with co-op) means you’re tasked with bringing them back to their senses and turning them back to normal after they inevitably grow into monsters. Each stage is surreal, colorful and dreamlike, for sure. There’s a distinct aesthetic of “unrolling” as you move forward, very much like you’re seeking chaos emeralds in a classic Sonic game or viewing the city rolling out before you in the film Inception. Otherwise, it plays much like any other platformer, but your abilities are limited to the special suits you unlock throughout each area.
There are over 80 suits to collect in-game, and you can swap between three at will in each area. The suits also act as your lives, so you’ll have to be crafty with how you go about using them. Each suit comes with its own quirks and powers. The Tornado Wolf suit lets you spin into enemies like Crash Bandicoot. The kangaroo-like Jumping Jack affords you a longer jump. The Elastiplant costume turns you into a Cuphead-like flower and extends your body so it can reach higher platforms. The Dainty Dragon costume is a fire-breathing dragon who can smash through articles. There are even more in the demo, too, like the Pounding Pig, which is a piglet who can ground pound into pegs and other blocks. Soaring Sheep, Aero Acrobat, Box Fox and several other suits look as though they were torn from the pages of a new Sonic video game design document and they’re all impossibly charming.
Not every suit will get you through every situation, so you need to be shrewd with which suits you collect and when. You won’t always have access to the one you need to complete certain tasks and when you die, that’s it. You’ll have to collect the suit again if you want to use it, which adds another element of challenge.
You can make a beeline for the goal if you want, but doing so would rob you of the sights and sounds available to take in along the way. It would also make the entirety of the first chapter, The Man Who Rages Against the Storm, feel exceptionally short. The game trusts that you’ll spend time exploring and unraveling the secrets found within each locale, and if you’re going to find all the Balan statues to unlock the next chapter, you’ll have to do just that.
Of course, there are plenty of things to collect. You’ll want to make sure you get as many colored Drops as possible while making your way through the levels. Keep an eye out for top hats to enter special quick time events called Balan’s Bout, where you’re challenged to press buttons at a certain time for a big bonus.
There are golden Balan statues hidden everywhere throughout the world. You must collect most of them before you’re able to unlock another area to travel to in the hub world. This isn’t any different from games like Super Mario Odyssey or other similar platformers, where you need to make sure you have enough trinkets to progress. It also encourages exploration.
When you finish a chapter or individual part of one, you go to the game’s hub area, the Isle of Tims, which is especially intriguing. The Tims themselves are absolutely adorable and fun to play around with outside of when they follow you through each level. You can pick them up and throw them, which means you can position them as you like in the field. Their main purpose is to accompany you throughout each chapter, but spending time in the hub world is like a game in itself. When you get back from a chapter, you can feed Tims the drops you collect of different colors. Tims have specialties based on color, with pink Tims sniffing out items and red Tims attacking enemies. You want to raise as many Tims as possible, so it’s imperative to come back and feed them and hatch new ones from eggs.
You’re also tasked with using the Tims to rebuild the Tower o’ Tims, a structure that begins as a concave foundation in the middle of the island. The more Tims you have working to move the wheel out front, the more the ticker will slowly rise until you’ve reached the next building phase. There are milestones to meet, like at 210 revolutions, you can build a new Tim trampoline. At 500, you can make another section of the tower.
At this point, Tims will jump into the Mouse Trap-esque tower complete with slides and ride all the way down into the bottom part, where the counter out front ticks down. It’s positively adorable and though the demo locks you out at 500, it’s going to be one of the most exciting parts of the game to see how the tower grows and evolves. Of course, the Tims being so cute has nothing to do with it, right?
Such magic is infused in every part of the game. Unfortunately, at least in the demo, Balan Wonderworld didn’t make use of the DualSense controller’s special features, be it the touch pad or the adaptive triggers. That’s a bit disappointing considering it’s one of the first new PS5 games to hit the system that isn’t an enhanced version or a classic game in some time, but you really don’t need to muddy things up when a game partakes in so many simple joys.
Balan Wonderworld is one of the most unique and exciting games the PlayStation 5 currently has to offer, and even though some might call a variety of its mechanics dated, it feels fresh and exciting to go back to a simpler time when we didn’t have to worry about if endings were gritty enough or if ray tracing made every single shadow look realistic. Those things are great and all when it comes to realistic gaming, but it’s always fun to see what games can do when they dip into their creative ink well, too.
Balan Wonderworld is set to debut on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on March 25. The demo is available for everyone to play on Jan. 28.
Photo courtesy of Square Enix