I came to Balan Wonderworld with a lot of skepticism. The last time a Yuji Naka game really grabbed me was 2003’s Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and while PROPE developed a handful of cool novelties, the studio’s most significant work ever was a Wii game smuggled inside a Wii U game case. Now with Square Enix, Yuji Naka has been given “one chance” to make a platforming game for the RPG giant, and we have our first taste in today’s new demo.
And having played it, I struggle to be optimistic. At all. Moreso with each platform I played the demo on.
Despite the style and story and world and characters that scream “NiGHTS into Dreams,” Balan Wonderworld is a basic-to-a-fault 3D platformer. The male or female protagonist in a bout of emotional strife find themself entering a magical theater. Your character is greeted by the ever energetic and whimsical Balan, given a bird, and told to find his or her heart in a fantasy world of memory and emotion.
The demo presents four levels and a boss: the whole of Chapter 1, as well as individual levels from Chapters 4 and 6. The levels themselves are presented as dreamlike sky islands themed around someone external to the story who is also experiencing difficulties in their life. Chapter 1 focuses on a farmer whose corn crop is ruined by a freak tornado. Its levels are full of giant corncobs, haybails, pumpkins, and picket fences. The chapter eventually pits you against the farmer himself, tainted by his depression and transformed by a mysterious masked being.
Balan Wonderworld’s controls are reduced to standard analog movement and a single action such as jump or attack. The costumes your character can equip are the game’s main gimmick, each with a special ability that replaces your action.
These special abilities add some variety, but they quickly go from novelty to obligation. On their own, the protagonist can only jump, but donning the wolf suit turns your jump into a spinning jump that can break blocks or damage enemies. Soon after, you encounter a kangaroo that replaces your jump with a single flutter-jump, akin to the jump in a Yoshi game. You’re never asked to get clever with these costumes; it’s always obvious which you need to use to move forward. Late costumes in the demo include a gear robot that can activate special gear boxes, a bat that can perform Sonic’s homing attack, and a fox that, and I am not joking, will periodically turn you into an invulnerable, uncontrollable box, but when the game decides to, not when the player decides to. The first time I got this costume, I immediately died, as my character became a box whose momentum slowly slid it off the edge of a narrow platform and into the abyss.
That inexplicable box might be the best metaphor for this game. It feels simple, yes, but also sloppy, unrefined, and aimless. As soon as you control your character, you’ll feel an incredible disconnect as their animation shows them sprinting at top speed… as they slowly trod forward at an agonizing pace. No matter what costume you wear, the character’s dismal speed and anemic jump barely change. Enemies appear infrequently, rarely pose a threat, and are dispatched with the most basic head-jump or suit power. Stage design gives some room to explore, but blocky layouts and ledges only give the illusion of scalability and hem you into the places where the game expects you to go. The game sells itself on the themes of expression and choice but doesn’t give the player the tools to accomplish either.
I opted to try the Switch version of the demo first, and was met with muddy textures, no anti-aliasing, and periodic framerate drops. The jaggies are noticeably worse on handheld mode’s 720p screen. I hoped moving to my Xbox One S would resolve this, and some of the lighting does indeed seem slightly better, but the game retains its incredibly cheap and unpolished visuals. Chapter 1’s stage geometry uses an effect that warps the level towards or away from you as if on the inside or outside of a sphere, but the seams where the stage deforms are incredibly noticeable from a distance and may actually be one of the culprits for the jerky framerate. NPCs constantly dancing in unison vanish when you get too close, and props that litter the stage don’t react to your presence or interactions. The whole environment feels static and detached from your character.
The Steam version came with its own complications. Running it on a 2080 at 1080p, anti-aliasing off and graphics set to their lowest, the game struggled to reach above 20 frames per second. The only exception was when I Alt+Tabbed to another window, at which point, the framerate shot up to 60, until I brought the game back into focus.
The back half of the demo shows some promise. It increases the complexity a bit, but the gameplay in this demo fails to grasp the most basic expectations of modern 3D platformers. If it hopes to deliver on a satisfying experience, the game has huge hurdles to overcome. It’s a $60 game competing with modern benchmarks like Super Mario 3D World, A Hat in Time, and New Super Lucky’s Tale. Keep an eye on reviews when it launches in March, but if you want to test it out now, you can do so on most major platforms.