From the reunion of the two founding fathers of the Sonic Team, Balan Wonderworld was born, a collectathon inspired by 90s platform games.
When it happens that a historic association is strengthened decades after the last published work, it is normal that a part of the videogame audience immediately begins to shine the eyes. In the case of Balan Wonderworld, available for a few days on consoles and PCs, we are talking about a collaboration that to define noble is even an understatement. The flamboyant 3D platform game, formally signed by Square Enix, Arzest and Balan Company, is in fact the result of the joint commitment of Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima, two pillars of the Japanese industry, co-founders of that Sonic Team that so many joys has been able to give away during the nineties, its best years.
And it is all in all intriguing that the duo decides today to return to the field with a product that, rowing against the current of the waves of modernity, is proposed in an openly vintage guise, from both a playful and technical point of view. These are operations, those that try to slavishly replicate the canons of certain glorious past, by no means extraneous to the contemporary market – of the (ab) use of the so-called “nostalgia effect” in video games, by now, we discuss every other day mashed potato. Having said that, more than words, it is always useful to look directly at the facts. And the “facts” of Balan Wonderworld, unfortunately, leave something to be desired.
We will soon see that not all that glitters is gold, but we still have to admit that, in specific situations, the sparkle of Balan Wonderworld knows if nothing else is captivating. This is the case of the filmed sequences, with the introductory one ahead of all for spectacularity and capacity for involvement. Seized by a moment of despair, the protagonist character (Emma or Leo: it depends on the user’s choice) begins to walk until he finds himself on the threshold of a theater.
Once inside, the young man is welcomed by Master Balan, a lanky, grinning and well-dressed being who, after a show full of fireworks and cabaret music, throws the hero into the realm of Wonderworld, a parallel dimension with distinctly dreamlike features. The mission will soon be clear: one of the protagonists will have to instill new hope in the broken heart of some people who, for one reason or another, find themselves living in a state of profound emotional crisis, whose physical incarnation is called Lance, a dark and sprawling demon. Each of the twelve game worlds exposes the parable of drama and rebirth of each of these subjects through genuinely well-constructed cut scenes, undoubtedly the best opportunity to appreciate an artistic direction perhaps not for all palates, yet centered in its own way. in continuity with the poetic and aesthetic vision of the authors. For sinuosity of shapes, vivacity of colors and atmospheres – between childish carefree and sweet melancholy – there are various points of tangency especially with NiGHTS into DREAMS, one of the brightest pearls of the Naka-Oshima production.
The soundtrack also contributes to the cause, which finds particularly fertile ground in musical-style interludes that with granite regularity close every narrative arc; hyper-Japanese curtains, extravagant and high, but capable of snatching some genuine smile. Bad luck wants that the “dream” component of Balan Wonderworld runs out in these few moments, which are not playable: after that, you have to deal with the sad reality.
Having to summarize the gameplay of Balan Wonderworld, one could say that its formula essentially revolves around two key elements. The first is that of collecting, and indeed, to want to place the game in a specific genre cage, it should be emphasized that it is in all respects a collectathon.
The levels, in short, contain many objects to collect: countless crystal drops useful to feed the Tim, plump little animals that inhabit the central hub; various golden Balan figurines, essential to access the worlds following the first; finally the costumes, without which it is almost impossible to overcome the obstacles that dot the progress.
Just disguises are the basis of the second main mechanic, around which the whole experience revolves. Each stage contains only a few, sealed in chests that the player can open after collecting any of the keys scattered around – not that it’s complicated: they are almost all near the containers.
From the first to the last setting it is possible to acquire over eighty different outfits, each characterized by its own special ability: to give some examples, the dragon suit allows you to breathe fire, the arachnid one to climb on cobwebs, the gear one to activate certain devices that move platforms and raise gates. To reach specific Balan statuettes it is mandatory to wear ad hoc clothes, which most of the time, however, are not present within the scenarios in which they would be needed. It is at this point that the dynamics of costume management become pressing, showing the side of a series of rather relevant critical issues. The game allows you to carry up to three camouflages with you, giving you the opportunity to switch from one to the other by simply pressing the back buttons of the pad. On the other hand, the remaining items of clothing are gathered inside a dressing room and it is possible to substitute them for the three already equipped only and only on condition that you go to the platforms placed here and there along the paths.
It is a convoluted system for many reasons, starting from the fact that unlocking a new type of costume does not automatically mean having it available in the locker room, whereas what counts is the number of disguises of the same type confiscated while wandering around the worlds. Hit by the opponents while you are wearing a particular suit, this will shatter: once all the units in reserve are exhausted, you will have to remember in which stages there were copies and then go to retrieve them.
If initially the backtracking does not weigh much on the pace of the game, it becomes instead a drain in the advanced campaign, when the categories of clothes to be administered increase together with the locations to be retraced in order to find the statues of Balan not yet intercepted. It is not always easy to associate the correct power ups with the places that require their use, also the fault of a level design which, in terms of creative references, is almost never able to leave its mark.
Another questionable game design choice is that many costumes are basically “mono input“. Using some of them it is possible to make jumps, others allow you to shoot, still others to solve small environmental puzzles, but in many cases the characteristic action is also the only one that can be performed. The question is controversial especially as regards the leap, fulcrum of any self-respecting platformer experience, yet, in Balan Wonderworld, treated as if it were a skill that can be renounced. If a disguise does not provide for its use, in short, to jump it becomes necessary to change clothes; a replacement which, moreover, is subject to a non-interactive animation lasting a couple of seconds, to the further detriment of the fluidity of the game.
In search of identity
Small ancient worldIt is not known that the graphic-technical sector of Balan Wonderworld is rather dated – whether by full will of the creators or for reasons of force majeure – is widely known. On PlayStation 5, if nothing else, the title sports a good optimization, a matter not at all obvious after the playtests carried out months ago by our editorial staff. Of course this does not change the basic traits of a roughly poor work in terms of polygonal size, motor skills of the avatar and general scenographic quality (those who have tried the Balan Wonderworld demo will remember the horrid Inception-like folding levels, unfortunately still there at their own place, almost equal to before).
The deeper you go into Balan Wonderworld, the more the impression that you are dealing with a substantially out of focus title grows, who never knows exactly which path to take. The product clearly looks to an audience of very young people, so elementary in terms of mechanics, overflowing with colors and based on a challenge that is largely easy to complete, both in terms of progression and fights and boss fights (many of which, at least, enjoy a nice character design). On the other hand, identifying and reaching certain collectibles – with trafficking in costumes – is not even a health walk, and indeed, between a playful muddle and the other, it turns out to be a task that could create a lot of frustration precisely in the smaller.
It is a cat that bites its own tail, since even the users of the old guard, to which the production winks with its artistic touch and a platform look similar to that of the good old days, will hardly find sufficient stimuli within the offer, especially knowing how many other amarcord video games have been conceived in an infinitely better way.
So much so that Balan Wonderworld, among other things, gets confused in proposing its own contents: too many are the elements thrown into the pile without logic, from the insipid quick-time events with Maestro Balan protagonist up to equally inconsistent sports minigames, passing for a component “à la pet game” totally decontextualized with respect to the supporting adventure.
Balan WonderworldVersion Analyzed PlayStation 5In intentions, Balan Wonderworld it really wants to be a love letter addressed to an era of the platform game now over, although always alive in the memories of the “ninety” users; but, in practice, it is a letter written with an uncertain handwriting. The nostalgic breath is felt, and it cannot be denied that some idea, if treated in a different way, could have easily given its fruits. Yet, the new effort of Naka and Oshima collapses under the weight of a shoddy, disoriented realization, mostly unable to pay homage to the old days without being unnecessarily cumbersome. What Balan Wonderworld finally, it is an imaginary that could be worth taking up again in the future, as long as you find a less crumpled playful dress.