Balan Wonderworld announced release in the July of 2020, by Square Enix and Yuji Naka (famous for creating Sonic The Hedgehog and Night Into Dreams). The coronavirus had already spread to every continent, minus the poles. Many countries were scrambling to get their policies in order. It was still unclear how big the problem was about to be, and lockdowns were happening haphazardly – kids leaving for spring break would not return to the physical school building until late next year, depending on their district. It didn’t come out until March of 2021, another deeply chaotic time as vaccines approached completion and the death toll worldwide approached 1,600 per million infected.
The idea of the game was, in theory, fine. The plot is a pretty standard affair divided by chapters and aims to follow the Hero’s Journey very closely, which many critics said was to its detriment. It’s a child-friendly game, it doesn’t have to be a storytelling masterpiece – although, a much more successful game by the name of Psychonauts has a somewhat similar theme of ‘troubled hearts’ and how to help them recover, so the story clearly isn’t why it wasn’t a hit. Graphics and sound design, too, are completely fine and in line with stuff you’d expect from a family game, bright and cartoony, with a lot of motion.
Why did it fail if all of the pieces are – in theory – fine?
All of The Pieces
Everything making up the game is fine… by itself. Graphics? Fine. Music? Cute, fine. Characters? Not much to them because the game has no dialogue, but fine. Levels? Fine.
They’re all… just fine. Issues that could be forgiven if the rest was great are simply not up to snuff when everything else is at the same quality as the issue piece. And they come together in an incredibly milquetoast way! The writer’s attempted adherence to the Hero’s Journey worked against the game.
Remember Super Mario Galaxy where you, as Mario, travel to different worlds, collecting stars so Rosalina can power her ship back up? And along the way you run into all sorts of wacky platforming puzzles and enemies? Each individual level has its own flavor, but the levels themselves only contribute to the story via their completion outside of key boss fights – if you could randomize the levels, you wouldn’t be too confused about what’s going on as long as you always come back to Rosalina’s ship in between completing them. Rosalina needs stars, levels give you stars to give to her. You could realistically cut out about 85% of the middle of the game and the story would still make sense without re-writing. Super Mario Galaxy is very much loved anyway.
On the other hand, Psychonauts’ linear progression through the minds of people you’re trying to help is directly contributing to the story, as Rasputin learns and explores his new reality as a Psychonaut – you cannot complete levels out of order without screwing with the story or gameplay, because new levels give you new abilities that you’ll use in creative ways on the next levels. Every new mind helps Rasputin understand his own struggles with his family a little better. Dialogue is plentiful and often purely for story, and cutting chunks out would interfere with the story. Psychonauts, too, is very much loved.
Balan Wonderworld does not strike a balance between these two. Balan Wonderworld does not have dialogue, and the levels are supposed to be sort of linear and based on the Hero’s Journey, like Psychonauts, when it really should have been more like Super Mario Galaxy given it’s chapter-based nature and the ‘costumes’ idea, and the lack of dialogue. Characters were supposed to be able to collect costumes with special abilities, and they were also supposed to be able to use multiple different costumes to complete any given level – the end result was bland levels and dull gameplay that didn’t benefit from the chapter-based game sequencing or the costumes. Mario has the same abilities throughout. Rasputin gains new ones on key levels. Balan Wonderworld hit the worst possible compromise between these two ideas. The level-planning is already not great, but if the gameplay was satisfying, maybe that could have saved it.
Unfortunately, it is also very consistently pegged as ‘un-fun’ and ‘clunky’, a game too late for it’s time. Game reviewers often compare it to the early PlayStation games – the camera jumps around in a way that can make gameplay difficult, and the frame rate is not anywhere near Square Enix’s normal standards. The costumes, while a fun gimmick put to better use in games like the Kirby series, or Super Mario Odyssey, have a very severe drawback – they all only do one thing, and that prevents your character from performing other critical actions. Like jumping.
Designing around those jumpless costumes means that levels lose some of their dynamicity, something they wouldn’t have had to plan around if jumping was a character action and not a costume one. Of the costumes that do allow you to jump, it’s one of those games that completely erases forward momentum when you hit the button. No running starts!
Nintendo Watcher says Balan Wonderworld feels like a student project, or an especially ambitious indie game – not a game by the same studio who produced Just Cause, or Final Fantasy games. The author of the story, one of the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog, actually retired after this game did so poorly. It’s cute! It’s complete, it’s just… not very good. It’s definitely not worth the 60$ it’s still being sold at.