TSS IMPRESSIONS: Balan Wonderworld Demo

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.

Screenshots and animation taken from Switch version.

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.

30 Comments

  1. I’m completely in agreement with you on this preview. The demo is incredibly bad, actually I’d call it a total embarrassment. It’s such a strange experience to play something so plainly uninspired, poorly made and ugly. There’s nothing even remotely impressive or fun about any part of the demo. Nothing to remember or enjoy.

    The game loop is confusing- you platform, animals are dancing and they vanish (?), you go through some plain platforming sections and then the animals appear around you in celebration for no reason. You touch a gold hat and Balon, in some other realm, kicks some random rocks for no reason (literally). You find a big flower and the level ends. There’s no meaning or context to the game and the activities taken, even implied. It’s very odd that the game feels like this.

    Finally, I disagree that the switch has some frame rate drops- the game essentially runs at 20 to 15 or less frames a second. I don’t understand why either since the game looks worse than most PS2 platformers I’ve seen. NiGHTs on Steam looks better and runs perfectly. Mario Sunshine, Sonic Adventure DX, so many old games are genuinely more visually interesting and impressive than this game, so there is really no excuse for how bad it looks and how poorly it runs.

    It’s a sad send-off for Yuji Naka to say the least.

    1. If you think PS2 platformers and the games you mentioned looked better than this, then your memory is slipping. I can’t even look at most PS2 games nowadays, whereas this looks just fine.

      1. I think when people say this, it’s that old thing of “they look like what we remember PS2 games as looking like” rather than what they ACTUALLY looked like. It’s still, ultimately, a criticism of what’s in front of them as looking like a simplistic in an unappealing way – something about the art style or presentation is not connecting with the audience as being intentionally simple or lacking in flair.

      2. I certainly and respectfully disagree. I was playing Sonic Heroes yesterday actually right after the demo. I also just finished Legacy of Kain: Defiance and Jak 3. Also NiGHTs (the PS2/PC remake). It’s not just about visual fidelity, it’s about design and appropriate application of technology. Balan uses tons of particals, VFX, bump-mapping, reflections, grass, etc. that are totally inappropriate for the game and don’t improve the overall aesthetic, nor does the game have a consistent or attractive visual design or even remotely acceptable performance. Go and play Seaside Hill in Sonic Heroes- it looks far, far better than the corn cube opening level in Balan. It has less effects, low res textures and poly count, but its overall timeless look, no jaggies, and great visual design is far better and runs flawlessly on the system (OK, PS2 had some frame drops but nothing like Balan’s 20fps max on Switch).

        Take the Isle of Tims. What is visually interesting about it? It has some floating stuff, flowers, statues and… what? Now go look at the island hub world of Diddy Kong Racing. Low poly, basic textures, but it’s a visually pleasing, interesting and memorable world. Look at Sonic Generations, whose mostly white hub world is more visually striking.

        Look at the animals’ dancing animations in Balan, then compare it to the animation in Sheep, Dog & Wolf on PS1. Balan’s characters look like puppets on strings, lifeless, like 3D models doing an animation, whereas Ralph and Daffy in that game move, look and feel like animated cartoon animals.

        In its current state, Balan is a mess of lacking visual design, disproportionate effects, poor framerate and uninspired visuals. If you prefer more modern comparisons, look at Yooka-Laylee and Hat In Time- both far, far defeat Balan in performance, visuals and design.

        Sorry, not being aggressive here, just clarifying my point!

    1. I don’t recall that demo, but Balan Wonderworld’s demo isn’t especially broken or obnoxious or unfair. It’s just plodding and dull.

        1. That’s actually just hearsay, I think it’s been recently proven that the demo had numerous glitches that are fixed in the final game. It was probably just a placebo effect of not having as much to go wrong in a single act of a single zone with a single character that made it seem more polished than the final game.

          1. You’re right that the demo came from a buggier build, but there were slight improvements. I played the demo up until release, so the differences (however few) were rather noticeable. The biggest ones to me were that the Homing Attack didn’t have as much cooldown between attacks, and you could Light Dash on every ring in the stage. I imagine other things we saw in trailers that didn’t make it into the final (such as wall jump animations) were also in the build used for the demo, but there weren’t wall jumps in that section of Kingdom Valley. The demo build had a little more TLC, but with more implementation comes more opportunities for bugs (in one of my playthroughs, the level glitched out and ran in slow motion; was able to rack up an insane score). With not much time left before the mandated holiday release, they had to roll with a slightly less buggy, yet also slightly more incomplete, build for the final game.

  2. I really hate it when people shit on 3D platformers for the most ridiculous gripes. Now if this was a first-person shooter featuring live-action humans covered in dirt in black/grey/brown environments, it’d probably get 9/10 praises. This is why we can’t have nice things!

    My only issue with this game is how campy the vocal song feels, almost if it were targeted at a younger audience (specially the same audience as Wonder Park). If we could just get a few sharp and edgy Sonic/shonen moments, these juvenile vibes will fade away.

  3. I really disliked the first half of the game, because I just didn’t understand what was going on. Later when I got used to it and understood more the exploration and last 2 levels were really fun. Even the taking away the jump ability makes the game a little more strategic. Although I do agree I’d liked it more if you could use all 3 costume actions at the same time, and the A button (or X on playstation) should always be a regular jump. That way gameplay would be less slow and more fun.

    Also I don’t understand the fox too…

    I really hope that there are more cutscenes in the actual game.

    I didn’t have any issues with the graphics or fps, but I played on the xbox series x

    Not sure if I am gonna buy it yet or wait for full game reviews, really want to see this succeed though.

  4. This is pretty much what I was afraid of. Having recently finished the demo myself, it was not bad but very dull. Music was nice atleast. Can only hope they make major improvments but I’m not holding my breath.

  5. “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.”

    How does that explain your skepticism? Rodea Wii was a great game.

  6. I’m really conflicted about the demo; I like the general style, the music is fantastic and I really want to like it. It also runs fine on a PS5 with the only framerate drops I’ve noticed being when enemies spawn in, and even then only for a second or so. I also like the folding and unfolding world. It’s sort of an inverse Animal Crossing from inside the tube, not on it.

    Changing to the different suits is a neat idea. There’s areas you can’t get to even in the first level that in theory a suit with a higher jump you’d pick up later could help with.

    Graphics are colourful but there’s nothing to push the PS5. It looks like the ultimate realisation of a Gamecube game which while limiting isn’t actually a negative for me. Unfortunately it plays like a Gamecube game too. Movement is painfully slow, the platforming clumsy and the 1st boss battle is insultingley easy. Also as much as I like the style I wish you played as Balan at points rather than watching him go through a QTE. He literally flies like NiGHTS and just as I thought I was going to control him after the first hat I picked up, the dissapointment of just having to press ‘X’ at the right time instead was devastating.

    That being said there were enough positives to keep me playing the demo for an hour. I’m not sure I want to spend £40 on it, especially when I’ve other PS5 games I’ve barely touched. But I’ll be keeping an eye on it in the future.

  7. One of the lowest moments for me in the demo would probably have to be when I I took a hit from an enemy in the wind level, then was forced to damage myself again because I was left with only the dragon costume from the first world and couldn’t jump.

    It’s sad to say this, but if this wasn’t a public demo and you told me that it was and alpha build of the game, I’d very much believe you.

    Part of me thinks it’d be nice if this game got delayed to fix some of it’s problems, but given the core design problems present in the demo, another part of me thinks they’d need at least a year to get it to a good state.

  8. You complain about Balan Wonderworld’s performance and graphics and then proceed to call New Super Lucky’s Tale a “modern benchmark”? I tried it a few months ago and the performance was abysmal even on 720p and with low graphics settings — all despite its butt-ugly graphics, looking like some cheap mobile game (even with the highest graphical settings). It ran at like 10 FPS, and the controls became unresponsive. Balan Wonderworld’s gameplay feels equally uninspired, but it performed perfectly well for me, and its graphics didn’t make me want to puke.

    1. I can’t speak to how you experienced it, but it seemed pretty alright when I played it on Switch. I believe that version had some visual and control improvements. It was also a fairly basic platformer, but it had its fundamentals down, and felt satisfying when it did ramp up the challenge. At the very least, Super Lucky’s Tale was full of charm and character, as was A Hat in Time. The Balan demo has decent cutscenes, but it doesn’t establish character or place or my motivations as a player. I know the folksy worms in Lucky’s Tale. They’re charming and weird and have funny voices and I want to help them. Who are these dancing animals that appear and then disappear when I get close? Do they solely exist as the manifestation of the costumes I can get in a world? Who is the farmer? Is this a Psychonauts thing where I’m dealing with an abstract interpretation of their mind? I hope the full game fleshes this out, but the demo does not.

  9. Was optimistic, played the demo, my optimism waned a bit.

    The Good: Vibrant visuals, pleasant music, the Land of Tims has the potential to be a nice successor to the Chao Gardens from the Sonic Adventure games, and the joyful, harmonious themes will be good for kids.

    The Bad: Very simple platforming, so the game works best as a collect-a-thon, and, in it’s attempt to make the game’s controls as simple as possible, all platforming actions/jumps/attacks, etc. are assigned to the SAME button, for EVERY button. Which means, if I want to do a jump, but I only have one costume left (and I am forced to wear it, because you get a costume, you can’t go back to your regular human clothes and jump) and that costume only has one function, which is to attack, which is mapped to ALL the buttons, then I LITERALLY CAN’T JUMP, IN A PLATFORMING GAME! It wasn’t game-breaking, but baffling that with a dozen buttons, they didn’t think to have a dedicated jump button? I get that you have to plan which costumes to keep, but if you only have one costume in your roster with the ability to jump, and you lose it, then you are basically halted until you find another one or die.

    Also, the characters move slow, like as if in water, the costumes are reminiscent of the cappy abilities in Super Mario Odyssey, but don’t feel nearly as exciting or distinctive in how they help you do certain challenges in a level, and overall feels aimed at kids who need an introduction to games like this but without any strong appeal for adults or anyone looking for additional challenge. The level design alone doesn’t have much breathing room for additional platforming or tests of reflexes.

    Overall: B-. It’s cute but basic, might be nice for kids but anyone looking for Sonic Adventure or Nights into Dreams, look elsewhere.

  10. Your issues on PC sound like something’s wrong with your own PC.

    I played the game in 4K on a 2060, and didn’t drop a frame once.

    You also can’t call New Super Luckys’ Tale a benchmark when the game is just as barebones and simple looking as this.

    The problem with this game is that people went into it expecting another Sonic Adventure or NiGHTS, when it NEVER promised anything of the sort.

  11. I don’t reallu agree with this assessment either, although I wouldn’t say it is wrong at all. It is absolutely true that the biggest problem is character movement/control. It is sluggish, and even though limiting the jumps does encourage strategic thinking, I think the tradeoff is too big. It’s a platformer, people want to jump.

    What I personally feel the problem is is that this game asks too high of a time investment cost BEFORE you reap the rewards. It isn’t pick up n’ play like it’s lauded contemporaries. It asks you to complete pretty much a minimum of three levels (to collect more costumes) before the real gameplay loop kicks in. Now that I have done that, I am having a lot of fun with the strategic costume management and re-exploring elements, but they have neglected the on-boarding process. This game will lose most people in the first ten or twenty minutes.

    I think there IS promise to the game, and that the puzzle element of it is fun once you have collected enough pieces (costumes) to actually get started. I just think the game is asking for a large investment with no promise on return until an hour in, which something like Mario Odyssey for example never did.

    I don’t think it’s a write-off, I am definitely going to pick up this game when it comes out. But I do feel like it could do with another six months in dev to 1) speed that character UP and 2) get those important first ten minutes up to scratch. Close the investment and return gap. I am over-simplifying and there are other things too (why is Balan’s minigame a dull qte?), but those are the two major issues I feel, and had they not been issues I think reactions to the demo would be totally different.

    Might be worth mentioning I am on Switch, and have no experienced any graphics or frame problems listed here. Maybe that’s pure luck, I don’t know. I am also more forgiving of the graphics/style because… I am playing on Switch which has Sword & Shield, and Fire Emblem PS1 Houses, so I really don’t mind that the game doesn’t look totally like a Pixar movie. I just want to have a good time haha, and there is a good chill time within this game. It just needs some elbow grease (more dev time) to bring it out.

  12. I honestly think the budget was blown on the CG cutscenes. Even the Switch version of them looks fricking beautiful but the rest of the game looks like a slightly less blocky SM64 clone with a Nights art style.

  13. could be better to delay the game until they fixes/improves the performance, frame per seconds (fps), better graphics (including the switch version), bug fixes and better controls

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