Call me a pessimist, but so far 2021 isn’t shaping up to be the best year for video games. I’m not surprised – the Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 were released in November, and, in the past 15 years, it seems there are rarely killer apps immediately available for brand new game consoles. Development teams have to shift priorities and often initially struggle to take full advantage of the new hardware.
One example will almost certainly be “Balan Wonderworld,” a musically inspired 3D platformer with happy-go-lucky visuals and plenty of Japanese anime inspiration. The game won’t release in full until March 26, but a substantial demo was made available to download on most platforms as of Jan. 28. I spent a couple of hours with the demo on Xbox One and, honestly, I couldn’t wait to go back to playing something else.
Perhaps a better name would be “Bland Wonderworld” because aside from some very impressive cinematic cutscenes, the game is shockingly bereft of inspiration. The character models and textures are vibrant but look barely any crisper than a mid-00’s Nintendo GameCube title. It’s a standard 3D “collect-athon” platformer, wherein gamers explore an open playing field to look for trinkets and tokens to unlock additional stages.
So far, I’ve described a game that fails to be unique but sounds passable. Unfortunately, it gets worse. “Balan Wonderworld” is conceptually sound enough, but it fundamentally falls flat on its face with regards to actual moment-to-moment gameplay. Players switch between costumes, such as a wolf or dragon, to access different abilities. Some are tailored toward combat like shooting fireballs, while others are based around exploration such as a hovering jump.
The trouble is each costume has just one action button. Some costumes don’t even allow players to jump, and you have to stand in place for two seconds to switch between costumes. That’s a veritable light-year by platformer standards, which traditionally reward quick thinking and good coordination.
I’m all for innovation when it produces entertainment value, but this clunky and unintuitive system means you can’t creatively string together moves, ruining any chance for the game to have depth. These are amateurish missteps, which is baffling given the big names attached to “Balan Wonderworld.”
It’s being published by Square Enix, with direction by Yuji Naka and art direction by Naoto Ohshima. Square Enix owns massive franchises like “Final Fantasy” and “Kingdom Hearts,” while Naka’s technical know-how and Ohshima’s excellent character design have brought the gaming world innovative and successful titles like “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “NiGHTS Into Dreams …” and “Burning Rangers.”
Between Square Enix’s resources and the lead creative duo’s veteran status, the stage is set for greatness – but I’d wager “Balan Wonderworld” is a flop in the making. It might seem like a hasty conclusion given I only played a demo, but it’s a sizable demo with issues far too fundamental to the core game design to be fixed within a couple of months.
There are a few technical issues present – noticeable framerate drops and intermittent freezes – but I’m sure those will be fixed by the time the game is launched. I will say this: Its simple gameplay loop and bright, cartoonish visuals might make the game a joy for younger children.
Even with that in mind, I believe there are plenty of superior 3D platformers that have recently hit the market that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike – namely “Mario Odyssey,” “Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time,” “Sackboy: A Big Adventure” and even the brief but inspired “Astro’s Playroom.”
My overall impression is that “Balan Wonderworld” has charming characters and excellent music and sound design – and while it’s difficult to ascertain from a demo, it’s likely to be a fairly easy, laidback experience. If that appeals to you, it might be a good purchase, although its asking price of $60 seems steep. As with any new game release, it’s best to wait for full reviews to come in and even wait for a price drop or sale.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at email@example.com.
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