Balan Wonderworld is a game about mending broken hearts, and what better way to spread joy than with musical theatre?
Unfortunately, this game is unlikely to be getting an off-off-off-Broadway rendition anytime soon.
From Yuji Naka, the original creator of Sonic The Hedgehog, Balan Wonderworld is something of a spiritual successor to his other big hit Nights into Dreams. The game’s art style – all big eyes and oversized feet – is instantly recognisable, while the titular greatest showman Balan is eerily reminiscent of the jester from Nights.
Like those others, Balan Wonderworld is a bright, colourful platformer through a whimsical, wacky world. Playing as one of two children (the choice makes no difference), you’ll jump your way through levels themed around people with broken hearts – hearts that you’ll need to mend by defeating the boss. There’s a boy who wants to fly, a diver who gets bumped by a dolphin and… a chess player who loses a match. Hmm. It’s not exactly Les Miserables.
The musical theme does add some charm to it all. Each level is filled with dancing critters like the backdrop to the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland, while other levels play out like theme park rollercoasters. Each is divided into theatrical acts, the start of which are denoted by orchestral chimes, and they end with a bizarre song and dance number that’s surprisingly catchy.
Yet while the CG cinematics are fun and well created, the storytelling is wordless (except for a made-up language in the songs). It’s meant to reflect universality, but in practice makes the game feel ironically soulless.
The theatrics extend to the gameplay too, with the game centred on the concept of costumes. Throughout each level you’ll discover new costumes that provide extra lives and specific powers used to uncover secrets. There’s huge potential in this, but the game never capitalises on it. Instead, the powers are mostly variations on jumping seemingly copied from other, better, platformers: a tornado jump like Crash, a flutter jump like Yoshi, shooting fireballs like Spyro.
What’s even worse is that the game is patronisingly simplistic to a fault. The entire adventure is played with just one button, used to perform the action of your costume. That means you can’t even jump wearing certain costumes – yes, that’s right, in a platformer that’s all about jumping. Throughout the game’s twelve levels, it barely ramps up the challenge.
To progress in the game you’ll need to collect hidden trophies, which require specific costumes found in later levels. Again, this mechanic has potential for some clever puzzles but the overall lack of challenge makes the levels a chore to play through repeatedly.
There are also hidden top hats that spark Balan’s Bout, where Balan himself faces off against enemies in spectacular fashion. Except it repeats the same animations every time and requires the player to simply press a button when two images overlay – a boring mechanic that relies on reactions rather than skill and is repeated throughout the game with the same infuriating jazz track.
There are other oddities too. Your character slips and slides across the ground – and that’s before you get to the obligatory ice level – and there’s so little text in the game that it barely explains itself. Coloured teardrops collected in the levels can be fed to little creatures called Tims in the hub world, but how it works and the purpose behind it requires trial and error.
There are some fun ideas here, frustratingly. Boss designs are really well done, even if they lack challenge; the costume swapping is inspired but it’s never used in a clever way; and some of the imaginative level designs spark magic as they rotate around and put your head in a spin.
Yet Balan Wonderworld never fulfils its promises, lacking the creativity to make the game truly sing. Instead this wonderworld is playable enough, but bland and unoriginal. No amount of singing and dancing will help.
2 / 5
Balan Wonderworld is available on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch and PC.