The real world of Balan Wonderworld
Yuji Naka's new game and its confusing reception
Goodness gracious me, you’d think with all the hullabaloo and impressions-as-performance that Balan Wonderworld causes beloved household pets to spontaneously combust or something. Granted, it didn’t have the most impressive demo in the world, but some of the complaints struck me as singularly bizarre. What’s with the weird aesthetics? What’s with the dancing animals and giant farmer? Mate, it’s a Yuji Naka game. Don’t try and make sense of it. Just let the madness wash over you and focus on the gameplay.
Because here’s the kicker – Balan Wonderworld is a good game. I know what you’re thinking. Here we go again. Stu the contrarian loves his being contrary. But that’s not me. Never has been. I’m not here to put myself over, but I’ve never said I like a game that I dislike or vice versa. With me the mania is very much real, and I’m quite proud of that. So please trust me when I tell you, once again – Balan Wonderworld is a good game. It’s far, far, far from the disaster it has been portrayed as. It has been compared to a PS2 platformer, but the frame of reference isn’t as broad as that. In fact, I don’t really know what it reminds me of. It’s a pretty singular experience.
Here’s what I get from Balan. Absolute sincerity. Painful sincerity. This feels like the absolute warts-and-all vision of its very, very divisive creator. It feels like a platform adventure made for people who love to explore and push against the limits of what they can do. Despite its somewhat “kiddy” look (hack, spit, what an awful criticism), it’s actually quite surprising how hands-off the game is. Gameplay is based around acquiring costumes which grant new effects, but the game doesn’t really tell you how to use them or what they do. The controls are always simple but it’s the application of the different powers that’s kept esoteric.
It’s also got that kind of exploration that really works for me, where you feel like you’re breaking the game a bit when you’re actually not. Powers can be used to climb bits of scenery that seem like they maybe shouldn’t be climbable, only to find this was anticipated and you’re rewarded with a Balan Statue – the Jiggys of Balan Wonderworld – or some gems, which you feed to creatures in the hub world in a totally inscrutable mini-game akin to NiGHTS’ A-Life system or Sonic Adventure’s Chao Garden.
I’m pretty good at platformers, I think. At the very least competent at them. And I rinsed out the first levels of Balan Wonderworld expecting an easy ride, only to find I’d missed four of the eight Balan Statues in Stage One – which is absolutely tiny. These things are well-hidden to a fault and the game grants you no respite in their acquisition. Criticism has also been levelled at the way the one-button control scheme makes some of the costumes you'll find incapable of jumping. Yes, that is intentional. You're supposed to switch costumes. Not being able to jump is a gameplay handicap placed there by choice, for a reason. Usually to make you think. Fall off a cliff? You drop your costume. Needed that costume for a Statue? Too bad, now you have to go and get another one. This has been listed as a flaw in many reviews, but why? There’s no lives system, why not introduce some kind of punishment for failure? It’s not like getting around takes very long on the next-gen consoles. Maybe don’t get it for Switch though. I hear bad things.
Speaking of bad things, the “Balan’s Bout” sections are rubbish. Essentially QTEs, they require perfect execution in order to get a Balan Statue. If your timing is slightly off, you’ll clear the Bout but won’t get the Statue, requiring you to leave the level and return. They don’t take long but this shouldn’t have been a thing at all. Fabulous music, though. The music and visuals throughout are wonderful in general. The undulating terrain has caused sickness complaints from some of my friends, so be wary of it, but I love how bizarre, colourful and – yes – dreamlike it all is. The soundtrack is brilliant and will be a future classic, I’m certain of it.
This is the thing with Balan Wonderworld, ultimately. It’s not a bad game. Not only is it not a bad game, I can’t see any genuine reason why anyone would suggest that it was, aside from pre-existing prejudices like the Sonic the Hedgehog connection, which I’m afraid I do believe is responsible for a fair bit of the backlash. The movement wasn’t great in the demo, but in the full game it’s fixed and as smooth as you could ever want it. I played the game on the Xbox Series X and found it a beguiling experience with fun, challenging gameplay and enjoyably off-kilter aesthetics. As I said, I don’t think the Switch port is supposed to be any cop, so I’d avoid it if I were you. But if you’re able to enjoy games that simply let you take them at your own pace and figure their idiosyncracies via trying and learning, I can only recommend Balan Wonderworld. It’s not perfect, but for the love of Christ's sake, you could at least try to enjoy a game that's very pointedly, very purposely and very effectively different from the norm, eh?