Deep sigh… Where do I even begin with this one?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Balan Wonderworld is on a lot of people’s “Worst games of 2021” list and… I just don’t see it. Is it a flawed game? Very much so. Is it as bad as games such as Big Rigs or Sonic ’06? I’d have to say no. While I did see a game that was rough and unpolished, I also saw a game world I wanted to see more of. Instead of being the worst game, I might say it is the most flawed game that didn’t live up to its potential. And the biggest thing that didn’t live up to expectations had to be the gameplay.
The gameplay for Balan Wonderworld is both a blessing and a curse. The different worlds have really fun concepts: an artist world, a chess world, and a firehouse world are my picks for the most interesting. Even the pretty frequent themes that we see have at least an interesting enough appeal in that aspect of gameplay. But then… we come to one of Balan’s biggest flaws: the costumes.
Now, it’s important to note that aside from jumping, costumes give you your powers. Costumes can also take jumping away, so keep that in mind. There are a heck of a lot of costumes that are essentially repeats of themselves ad nauseum. In fact, if the game had reduced the amount of costumes I would score it higher. Some costumes – looking at you, box fox – were completely useless and added nothing. The only redeeming quality about them was never being required to use it after acquiring it. However, some of the worst costumes were the ones that had a specific role or impeded the game play, such as not allowing you to jump… in a platformer. I actually encountered a scenario where I wasn’t wearing a jumping costume and had to get hit in order to revert back to human to regain my jump. Not a good plan. If each costume had a jump button in addition to that costume’s gimmick? That would have saved the game a lot of issues right then and there. Also – let’s not forget that I lost my costume when I got hit. Why, game, why? Why make that a feature? It’s not fun to go back to a previous part of the level and regrab a costume, or have to stock up on a useful/needed costume for later. An actual hit point system would have helped the game’s playability instead of losing the costumes you needed to complete the levels.
Now, while the costumes were the most egregious, we do still need to talk about the Balan’s Bouts. Balan’s Bout aren’t necessarily required to complete the game, but they certainly help and are required if you’re going for 100%. Speaking of 100%, you’d better get all the QTE’s 100% correct because if you get anything less than a perfect on a single input, you won’t get your Balan statue. The statue helps to unlock additional worlds as there are regular Balan statues that don’t require Balan’s Bout. But to tie something like this behind a QTE is aggravating, especially if you want to try again because you need to beat the boss and then get back to that specific bout in that specific world. The better solution would be to give you the Balan statue as long as you didn’t miss any inputs and increase the amount of drops you get for perfect inputs. Drops – by the way – are little gems you get throughout the worlds as you play them and feed them to the bird like Tim’s who work for you and make your hub world have more and more pieces to the Rube Goldberg contraption. aka the Tower of Tims. Which, while it looks really cool, isn’t necessary for anything to beat the game. Lastly, I did have some slowdown and just chugging while playing Balan. I played the Switch version however and I’ve heard it runs the worst so I am curious how the others versions play.
The story for Balan’s is basically non-existent… kind of. There actually is a story, but it was released as a stand alone novel that you had to pay another $10 for. It also wasn’t in-game either. Each world had a self-contained scenario of a specific world’s troubled person, such as a tornado destroying all your crops to your classmates thinking you’re weird for liking bugs. There isn’t an overarching story that ties the world’s together, just bits and pieces scattered throughout. The opening cutscene shows how your character found Balan and his theater, and how you defeated the bad guy but… not much else. You do get to see how the people you helped interact with one another… in the credits. Sure, it is cute, but the game’s over at that point. Therefore, the only way to truly get the complete story is to buy the novel. As of this moment, I have not read the novel though admittedly I am curious, and will probably shell out the money at some point. The game length was acceptable to me. It took about 20 hours on stream for me to beat it, which is a reasonable amount of time. Take not I did not 100% the game, just played through the worlds, did some extras, and then game over.
Square Enix may be pretty hit and miss with their games, but they almost always hit the mark with the music. The soundtrack was honestly pretty great – enough so that I’m planning on picking it up in the future (I just wish they had it on vinyl). Now – that being said – there are some songs that sound way too similar to just be a tribute. Take The Firefighter with Heroic Aspirations: Main Theme from Balan Wonderworld and compare it to the Elmer Bernstein – Ghostbusters Theme (no, not that well known one, the other one, which also is a good theme) and play it at 1.25x speed. A little familiar? Admittedly some people also find that Balan Wonderworld’s Corn for Days and Super Mario Odyssey’s Fossil Falls also sound familiar, which they do, but not nearly as much or for long. This just seems to be something Square Enix does I guess?
All the worlds looked pretty and unique, which was really nice. Even the typical worlds had enough of a different twist to them which was enjoyable. The game had a lot of nice small set pieces that fit each world and were good. If you did look at things for too long, however, you would start to notice they could’ve spent more time on background graphics. Some of the backgrounds, like trees or dirt, just looked cobbled together and done hastily, although some of that could be attributed to running on the Switch. Overall though, the graphics were eye catching and enjoyable to look at.
Is Balan Wonderworld the worst game of 2021? No, not even close. The most flawed game with potential? That is a possibility. But at the end of the day, I can’t call it a bad game. I can see what they were trying to do and the game they wanted to make. And the game practically oozes with charm for each unique world. But, it still fell short of their goal and the game we got was still disappointing. And honestly, if the game hadn’t been shot down so much, it might have gotten a patch to address all these issues. But it didn’t, so we’re stuck with this version of the game. Just not what it could have been.
Gameplay: 2/5 It functions, and you can get through the entire game, but it is flawed. If the previously discussed issues were corrected, it could easily be improved upon.
Graphics: 3/5 The unique visuals of the worlds themselves are quite pretty, but once you look at something specific for a while it can start to be more and more marred.
Replayability: 3.5/5 To revisit the worlds themselves is something I did want to do as soon as the game was done. Now if this was about “100%ing” the game, it would probably be reduced to either a 2, or a 1.5. The Balan’s Bouts are just that unenjoyable.
Also to keep in mind, this score is also correlated to what I paid for the game. I paid $20, which I feel was an okay amount for this game. $40 would have been a harder sell for me but acceptable. If Square had released this at $30, instead of $60 initially, I think it would have gone a long way towards people not instantly hating it.
I didn’t find anything that happens to be terribly bad. Some of the costumes use magic but not in a way that’s demonic or malevolent. Some of the characters wear tight clothing, like wet suits or warm close-fitting clothes, but nothing that was intentionally meant to be provocative.