Balan Wonderworld PS5 Review – I was really rooting for Balan Wonderworld throughout my time with it, but it’s a frustrating experience, even when you go in knowing exactly what you’re getting.
Balan Wonderworld PS5 Review
A Look Back In Time
Created with several of the original Sonic the Hedgehog team, Balan Wonderworld seeks to capture the magic of the platformers of yesteryear, and to its credit, it does actually succeed to some degree. The vibrant, chunky land of the titular Wonderworld does have the look of early 3D platformers and a family-friendly coating with a collectathon core. It also has some of that inherent oddness of that era, with a barely explained plot and some strange (a good strange!) character design.
Its visuals are incredibly easy on the eye, and its cutscenes, while rather limited in content, do look superb. The soundtrack matches it for quality, with theatrically cheery and melodramatic tunes prodding at a very particular gaming nostalgia in me.
The story, or as much as is given to you as an explanation for all this, sees two young heroes enter a world of pure imagination to help people who have lost their passion for the things they love. This is of course done by collecting things, finishing levels, and beating bosses. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of Nights into Dreams and Sonic to Balan Wonderworld, given the reunion of series stalwarts Naoto Ohshima and Yuji Naka for this game.
Levels are relatively small, but not without their own secrets and simple puzzles to discover. To find them all requires you to switch between special costumes that imbibe unique abilities. For instance, a dolphin suit allows you to swim through water pathways to access new areas, while a mantis costume (that bears some resemblance to a classic Sonic 2 foe) has the power to throw boomerang style blades in front of you to hit switches and attack enemies.
There’s a good amount of costume changes throughout the game (around 80 in fact), and it’s always fun to find out what new costumes can do for you on previously beaten stages.
The problem is you can only carry them over by keeping hold of them from a previous level, and you only have three slots to keep them in. Dying or being hit too much eradicates whatever costume you’re wearing, which means you have to head back to the level you got it from if it isn’t available in the one you’re currently in. What could have been an encouraging way to earn replayability through experimentation ends up being a frustrating slog. It’s made worse still by the fact that this system is necessary to find hidden statues to unlock later stages so you get plenty of experience in this unfortunate act.
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Memories From The Past
What’s really unfortunate is that the exploration and collection side of Balan Wonderworld is absolutely essential because the platforming is far too simplistic to glean much joy from it. Costume abilities aside, there’s just not much to the traversal and even the costumes don’t exactly provide much in the way of invention. At 13 or so hours of play, there’s nowhere near enough variety in the gameplay to justify the game’s length.
Some respite from this comes when you’re not galavanting about in levels. In the hub world, you’ll be tending to a garden full of cute critters known as ‘Tims’, feeding them colored crystals you find in levels and growing them and their numbers.
Why? Well because doing so constructs new parts in the hub, including an odd little playground for the Tims that ticks an ongoing counter over to a target number for the next part to be added. The more Tims you cultivate, the quicker the ticker ticks over.
This hub is reminiscent of the Sonic Adventure ‘Chao Garden’, which was a highlight of that game, and is definitely one for Balan Wonderworld. The lilting musical score and the adorable fuzzy little Tims make for relaxing company. Like much of Balan however, it is rather limited, and hardly a justification for recommending the game as a whole as there are superior critter-tending games out there at a much more agreeable cost that aren’t attached to underwhelming platformers.
It’s sadly becoming an increasingly normal thing to report, but Balan Wonderworld doesn’t make great use of the PS5’s feature set. Haptic feedback is present but underutilized and the adaptive triggers don’t get a workout. The help cards aren’t much cop either, rounding out a lacklustre package.
We’ve seen plenty of creators return to try and reinvigorate a genre they’ve had an impact on in recent years and fall short of not only capturing the correct aspect of fans’ nostalgia but also fail to modernize the old formula enough. See Shenmue 3 or Mighty Number 9 for such examples.
Rooted In The Past
Balan Wonderworld is unashamedly a game rooted in well-earned nostalgia, but lacking the necessary spark of genius that made it work. As vibrant, energetic, and wonderfully strange as it may seem, underneath the gaudy makeup and pyro is a tired, faded star, strumming the familiar notes of a ‘greatest hits’ selection without the old fire and enthusiasm.
Balan Wonderworld is available now on PS5.
Reivew copy provided by publisher.