As mischievous kidnapping magicians go, Balan seems pretty alright. Sure, he lures Leo and Emma, our sad-looking protagonists down slightly dodgy alleyways and into derelict theatres, but once they get there they’re swept up in the moment and sucked into a whole dreamworld of brightly coloured platforming. Look, Balan’s probably going to end up in handcuffs for this (which he’ll promptly Houdini his way out of), but can this game Stockholm Syndrome its way into our hearts?
I dove into the Balan Wonderworld demo to find out, ahead of its public release on Thursday 28th January.
From its gorgeously produced opening cinematic, Balan Wonderworld’s demo opens on the Island of Tims, a floating rock filled with the cute fluffy birds from the intro and your hub world for the game. From here you can only see the first world, but two more acts from later worlds unlock over the course of the demo.
The first world – curiously titled ‘The Man Who Rages Against the Storm’ – is colourfully farm themed, so you can expect pitchforks, giant corn, and scarecrows (but not the scary kind). What we have here is a collectathon, of sorts. You explore the 3D environments of each themed world, looking for different coloured crystals, Balan statues, and a Golden Hat. There’s a few combat encounters sprinkled throughout and a few light puzzles to solve which mix things up a little, but the game is mostly incredibly straightforward, with jumping across the various themed worlds as the order of the day.
Throughout the levels are multiple transformations that can be unlocked with keys to give your character new abilities. These can simply give you a new attack to dispatch enemies and break boxes, or allow you to interact with elements of the levels. This is where a lot of the variety in the gameplay comes in, and some of these transformations control in a wildly different fashion. Jackrabbit, as one example, gives you a flutter jump to get across long gaps, while Tornado Wolf turns your jump into a spinning attack that can deflect tornados and break boxes to reach new areas.
As you scour each level, you will likely find that the transformations you come across in the level you’re exploring might not suffice in getting all of the collectables in that area. What’s a completionist to do? Well the game thankfully allows you to change your costume loadout at the beginning of each level and each checkpoint you cross. This means that so long as you have at least one in storage, you can use any transformation in any level going forward.
One last little shake up of the gameplay is the Balan’s Bout mini-game that appears in the levels themselves. By picking up the Golden Hat, you’re transported into a NiGHTS-like piece of flying nonsense, complete with a big band playing in the background. These require precise timing to match Balan’s mirror image to themselves, and are pretty fun palette cleansers to be fair. Furthermore, they don’t outstay their welcome, and get you a Balan statue if you do well.
There’s plenty to love about Balan Wonderworld, but this demo it isn’t flawless by any means. The biggest issue right now are the controls, which are tremendously slippery in movement and floaty in jumps. If you think of the abominable controls in modern 3D Sonic games, you’re pretty much on the money. The frustrating thing about this is the lack of consistency for players. With all of the transformations feeling different, this sometimes isn’t an issue, only for switching costumes to suddenly make simple jumps far more difficult than they need to be.
Also, as a slight warning about the two levels of the first world, it’s designed as if the player is running around the inside of a sphere. This is a neat idea and plays really well into several of the puzzles in these levels, with moving around giant balls to open doors and such, but it is disorienting almost the point of queasiness, especially when paired with the camera.
It is however a beautiful world that’s bright and colourful and filled with adorable characters. All of the character transformations are varied and distinctive while never landing on the side of being “too cutesy”. Also, the music is so tremendously catchy that I’m still sitting here singing the music from the first two levels as I write this preview, if that’s a testament to how good the music is.
As I played through the demo, I initially wondered to myself if the moment-to-moment gameplay would prove to be enjoyable in the long term. However, after more than two hours, I’m left wanting more from it. There’s more areas in the levels that the transformations in the demo can’t reach, Balan statues that I’ve left unfound, and obviously just many more chapters and acts that I’ll have to wait until the final game to play.
Honestly, I just want more of Balan Wonderworld, and look forward to seeing the remainder of the game when it lands in March. The demo is out tomorrow on Thursday 28th January, should you wish to give it a try yourself – it will definitely let you know whether or not you will enjoy the full game.