Following a narrative that combines the creepiest elements of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the reality show Strictly Come Dancing, you know you’re in for a ride immediately with Balan Wonderworld. Your character is missing their heart and is drawn into the world of the top-hatted Balan in an attempt to help you by, erm, helping a bunch of disparate other people trapped in the world.
The game opens on the Isle of Tims, an initially empty floating island that acts as the games hub. From here the player is tasked with aiding others that have sunk into despair, diving into worlds themed (often loosely) around their problems, and defeating a boss creature that is the manifestation of their despair. You do so by harnessing the powers of various costumes to traverse the areas and defeat those in your path.
These could be anything from giving the player the ability to flutter jump to weaponised elements like lasers or rocket punches. They’re mostly used for traversing of the levels, especially because their powers are used for the differing terrain and obstacles. You can have a load out of three costumes at a time, and can change this trio by standing on any level’s check point.
Each main level contains eight Balan statues, which you’ll often need to return to try and retrieve once you’ve unlocked a later costume. One per level is behind a Balan’s Bout, hidden in golden top hat. This takes you to an oddly monotonous minigame in which you need to time button presses as Balan’s shadows line up with him. If you get consistent ‘Excellent’ ratings, you earn the Balan statue – if you can master the weird timings required here.
The bosses then have three statues per encounter, which are earned by approaching the fights in different ways. This honestly isn’t well explained, and can be tough if you don’t have precisely the right costumes, but is often the quickest method of taking them down if you get it right it. These beasts aren’t difficult to dispatch in all honesty, but beating them earns at least one statue, and results in a gloriously excessive dance routine between your character and the one you saved. So there’s that.
These statues are then used to unlock new levels once you find enough to have Balan summon a train ride that inexplicably opens more worlds around the Isle of Tims. The unlocking of more worlds also means more Tims run around the place, eating gems, growing larger and changing colour. Using the device in the centre, they then gradually unlock the Tower ‘O Tims in the centre of the island for… reasons.
It’s hard to tell which is the more frustrating idea in the game; the controls or the execution of the costumes. Your character controls similarly to modern 3D Sonic games. To put it another way, the character control is diabolical. The camera is an ever-present obstacle, the powers don’t always activate, and the idea to map all actions to a single button (which is duplicated all of the face buttons) is baffling.
Yes, it simplifies the controls, but it means that the controls end up more frustrating than anything. There are several buttons here that could be used for separate actions, and you’re left puzzling over clumsy context sensitivity. You might have a power that activates only when standing still, which is just as irritating as you would think.
Then there’s the costumes themselves, which are excellent in premise, but fall short in execution. There are a lot of costumes in Balan Wonderworld, which adds some variety to how you can overcome challenges, but there are too many that are practically the same. It’s a strange sense of monotony that seeps in as you unlock yet another power up that basically lets you jump further.
Even when they’re more imaginative, the costumes are very inconsistent in their gameplay. Some of them are fantastic but others, owing to the controls, feel like they only have one, very specific use. Worse still, there are some that are – for all intents and purposes – utterly useless. Box Fox turns into an invulnerable box whenever it feels like it, and that’s exactly how it’s described in game. Again, I don’t see why this and abilities couldn’t have been mapped to a different button press.
This inconsistency bleeds into the visuals of the game. Balan Wonderworld is, for the most part, a very pretty world to explore. The characters are well designed and cohesive with the enemies and level design, and the Tims are possibly one of the cutest creations of all time. However, there’s just a roughness to the style that can’t be easily ignored and leaves the overall presentation feeling unfinished.
One area of the aesthetic that doesn’t fall short is the music, however, which is an excellent tour-de-force. From the big band inspiration of the theme that plays during Balan’s Bout, to the different genres and instruments used in each world, the entire soundtrack is stellar. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this is easily one of the most polished aspects of the whole game, alongside the gorgeous animated cutscenes dotted throughout.
I was one of those that played Balan Wonderworld’s demo and was left wanting more. Since diving into the full game, I’m still wanting. Balan Wonderworld is unfortunately one note. At its core, Balan Wonderworld is a cute and simple platformer, but the problems that were in the demo haven’t been ironed out at all. Although the game is gorgeous at points and is consistently beautiful to hear, it’s let down by frustrating gameplay mechanics and overly simplistic design.