When Balan Wonderworld was revealed for the first time, a new IP by SEGA and Sonic Team veteran Yuji Naka, fans of Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights Into Dreams were tentatively drawn in. With a titular character resembling Nights, it was easy to get excited for something new inspired by the 1996 SEGA Saturn classic. For me, it was a chance to see something new and interesting from the people who created so many enjoyable video game memories when I first started playing them.
Balan Wonderworld is the first game developed by Balan Company, a studio with Yuji Naka at the helm, alongside artist Naoto Oshima, someone he hasn’t worked with since the days of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast. When I think back to that game, I remember how fun and creative the level design was and the charming character designs. For many fans, this seemed like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, Balan Wonderworld is not the game people were expecting.
The game puts you in the shoes of one of two protagonists, Leo Craig or Emma Cole, who are called to the Balan Theater by a being called Balan after their lives have taken a turn for the worse. The theater transports them to a magical place called Wonderworld, where the children traverse through twelve chapters to help people who have different misfortunes and are being attacked by the Negati, monsters born from their anxieties and fears.
Balan Wonderworld’s story is pretty much non-existent. There is no dialog, and it is unclear what the goal of the narrative is. Balan looked like such a neat and interesting character, but we learn nothing about him and this really makes the entire experience feel worthless. Compare this to Nights into Dreams, which also had no dialog. The cutscenes get right to the point even without words. You really feel for the children and you want them to become more confident after one is humiliated by a group of older kids, and the other becomes stricken with stage fright. In Balan Wonderworld they attempted to show the problems that Leo and Emma faced in a similar way to Nights. Leo has isolated himself from society after a big argument with a friend years before, and Emma worries about what others might be saying behind her back. The game doesn’t make you care enough about these issues the kids are faced with, because the cutscene that introduces them doesn’t show the deep emotional trauma of their psyches much like Nights did before.
When it comes to the stories within each chapter, you are introduced to the character who needs saving through a short cutscene. In the first chapter, a farmer is afraid of a storm destroying his corn. We see them corrupted by the darkness and create the boss. With what little time they had to show the story of these characters it is acceptable. When you have 12 small stories to tell, it doesn’t really leave room to flesh them out. After you save them, however, the main character and the person you just saved perform a dance number to a strange song in a fake language. If you cared about them before you will most certainly not after seeing this stupid display. And this happens many times throughout the game. Why not show more scenes with these characters instead of wasting time with the dance number?
The main gameplay loop of Balan Wonderworld has you collecting Balan Statues throughout its levels to progress the story. To help you do that you’ll need to wear one of 80 “unique” costumes giving you the power to complete puzzles and reach hidden areas. Each stage has its own specific costumes based on the creatures that inhabit them, which can be obtained by finding various keys to open the gems containing them. The keys aren’t even hard to get, so you can basically pick up as many as you want to save for when you lose a costume or want to pick up a different one.
The costumes in general are a mixed bag, ranging from good to downright terrible. Some of the good ones include the Tornado Wolf that lets you rapidly spin to destroy blocks and deflect tornado attacks, and the Dusk Butterfly that has a neat ability limiting its flying to the night by triggering timed switches. On the other hand, the Box Fox is one of the worst costumes. It changes you into a box, but you can’t control when it happens, causing your character to slide around and fall off the stage. Several costumes that are used for attacking disable your ability to jump, such as the Dainty Dragon and the Sickle Slinger. It quickly becomes apparent that 80 costumes is way too much, and so many of them end up being completely useless. The Lovely Lantern is a good example of this, with its pointless ability to light up dark areas, when the stages aren’t even that dark to begin with.
It isn’t much of a challenge to go through the levels either. You may find yourself going back through a level a few times to collect all of the statues needed to unlock new stages, but completing them multiple times feels like a chore, especially with their lackluster design providing very little challenge. Even after finding all of the statues in the level proper, you still have to locate a top hat and do a QTE mini game with Balan called a “Balan’s Bout”. Matching his pose perfectly on each attempt will nab you a statue. Get even one not so perfect match and you’ll have to come back and redo it. These sequences feel very whimsical, but the same-animation-every-time routine that plays out gets old quick.
The catch to collecting the statues comes with the fact that not every one of them can be reached with the costumes in that specific chapter. At each checkpoint you can change your set of three costumes from ones you have picked up in other chapters, but if you happen to lose said costume, you’ll need to go back to the chapter it’s originally from and grab it again. It would have been so much easier to have the costumes available from that menu without having to go pick them up again.
Once you finish two levels of each chapter, there is a boss fight, which are best routed by using the costumes specific to that chapter (though they’re all easy regardless). Beat them three times using different costumes and strategies and you get Balan statues. At times it feels like there should be a second phase to the fight when the screen pauses for a moment. If that were the case there might have been room for more gameplay variety. Boss fights in other games produced by Yuji Naka like Sonic Adventure 2 have interesting mechanics that make many of them fun and challenging the first time you play them, such as adding in new attacks to the bosses after a few blows to their weak spot, or using items like a timer to activate a panel revealing the sunlight to help weaken them.
Similarly disappointing compared to Naka’s past works is the Isle of Tims. Upon completing a level you will return to this hub full of little bird/rabbit like creatures named Tims that can be fed drops that you collect during the game. Once one gets big enough, it will show a bubble with another Tim in it. You’ll need to throw a smaller Tim at the big one to make it breed a new one. This isn’t the only way to get new ones, as the Tims follow you around in the levels and bring you new eggs to hatch when you return to the Isle. The point of collecting so many Tims is so they can ride a mechanism on a tower so many times that it will grow higher. This unlocks secret costumes and new Tims with different looks.
On the surface it feels like they tried to make the Isle like the Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure, but with less complexity. The Tims are certainly a cute addition to the game, but they don’t have that same effect as Chao did back in the day. If they wanted to do something similar, they could have added in some mini games similar to Chao Racing to do with the Tims, and made the system for them growing when eating drops more interesting, such as changing their color based on what color drop they ate the most of, or certain drops making them appear with new features like ears, a hat, or a tail.
One of the only strong points for this game is its art direction. The designs of the bosses and the creatures in the game are quite creative and colorful. If you check out each specially made artwork for all of the creatures that the costumes are based on, they are actually really cute and look like something out of a children’s story book.
Unfortunately, nice art and colors do not save this game from being a bland waste of potential. Everything was there for a brand new fun experience with Yuji Naka on board to bring us a game in the spirit of those old SEGA games so many people loved in the 90s and early 2000s. Potentially, if the game was delayed, they could have fixed a lot of issues, such as removing a lot of the unneeded costumes and allowing the ones that can’t jump that ability, but as-is the game is a misguided mess.
Balan Wonderworld is a mediocre experience that failed to capture people like the classics it’s inspired by. It’s sad to see Yuji Naka attached to something that doesn’t live up to the hype it cultivated. It feels like most of the budget went into the opening cutscene and it shows. The standard price point of sixty dollars is downright ridiculous. Lately it got so much negative press that the demo was removed. If you are still curious about it, waiting for it to become dirt cheap would be best. However it’s clearly not something to write home about.
Balan's Bout in Wonderworld is just a sad attempt to capture the magic of the Sonic Team days.