Balan Wonderworld hands-on preview – the shadow of Sonic the Hedgehog

The creators of Sonic The Hedgehog and Nights Into Dreams create a brand new franchise and GameCentral has had early access to the demo.

It’s the 30th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog in June, with Sega so far offering no idea of how they’re going to celebrate it. Given how unhealthy the ratio of good to bad games has become over the years it’s harder than ever to cling to the memory of the classic Mega Drive games, a problem that series creator Yuji Naka knows all too well. In order to escape the series he left Sega in 2006, to set up his own studio, but recently joined Square Enix instead – and Balan Wonderworld is his first game for them.

Although Sonic dominated his time at Sega, Yuji Naka did work on other games, including Nights Into Dreams, Burning Rangers, ChuChu Rocket, and Phantasy Star Online. The latter was the most successful, and certainly most influential, but it’s always Nights Into Dreams that fans have been most keen for him to return to. But despite the design of the titular Balan, who looks very reminiscent of Nights (original Sonic artist Naoto Ohshima is responsible for both), this has very little in common with that game.

To be honest we weren’t really clear what Balan Wonderworld was when it was first announced, but having been given advance access to the demo, which will be released publicly on Thursday, January 28, we have a clearer grasp of what it’s all about. Balan Wonderworld is an old school 3D platformer and surprisingly reminiscent of Billy Hatcher And The Giant Egg, our favourite of Naka’s post-Sonic titles, in terms of its simple platforming and reliance on a single, entertaining gimmick.

Although the demo includes a lengthy pre-rendered intro we’re not really clear what’s going on in terms of story, except that the two child heroes have lost a piece of their heart, or something, and Balan gives them entry to a magical world where they can retrieve it. What this means in practice is a series of different scenarios featuring ordinary people being menaced by a dark presence which sees them give in to anger and despair.

The theme for the first world is a farmer whose crops are ruined by a tornado, which involves a lot of jumping over giant pumpkins and corncobs. Technically you’re only trying to get to the heart piece at the end of the level but along the way you also want to be collecting statutes of Balan, which are frequently the most difficult tasks in the game and are used as a currency for unlocking new worlds.

Even when the statutes are involved though the platforming is very basic and the controls rather flat, to the point where it’s obvious this would never keep anyone’s interest as a straight platformer like Super Mario Odyssey. Luckily it doesn’t have to though as the big gimmick is a selection of more than 80 different costumes, which you wear like something out of Fall Guys which all confer very different abilities.

The Tasmanian Devil style Toranado Wolf is the first you pick up, which has a spin attack that can deflect tornadoes used by enemies. After that is the kangaroo-like Jumping Jack which allows you to jump further and the Elastiplant which lets you stretch upwards, as if on stilts.

Some costumes, like the Danity Dragon, are primarily for fighting, while others are purely for locomotion, such as the Soaring Sheep which can float on air currents. Others manage to combine both, such as the highly useful Aero Acrobat that has a Sonic style lock-on that can be used to not only attack enemies but also zip forward in the air.

It’s a really neat system and all the costumes in the demo have a clear purpose, while they also double as extra lives since when you take a hit they disappear and have to be collected again. Avoid damage and you can have several available at once, flicking between them with the shoulder buttons – although there’s a strange wait between changing that seems to be intentional and not a loading pause.

There are other neat ideas too, such as the hub world where you try to fatten up ‘Tims’ with collected jewels of various colours. Tims are Balan Wonderworld’s equivalent of Chao from Sonic The Hedgehog and follow you around the level, occasionally helping out in a fight or pointing out hidden objects, depending on what kind, and how many, jewels you’ve fed them with.

The ingredients are all here for a fun, retro style 3D platformer, the sort of thing you could imagine appearing on the GameCube and nobody but you ever seeming to know about it. We’re sure Square Enix are hoping for more than that but the game seems a hard sell for anyone that’s not already a fan of the genre, with very low-tech visuals, an unhelpful camera, and limp combat. Although the local co-op is certainly a welcome option.

There is still a charm to Balan Wonderworld – 3D platformers are rare enough that any new one is automatically of interest – but despite the generous length of the demo there’s nothing much to get your teeth into and in gameplay terms it all seems a lot plainer and less exciting than the ideas underpinning it. Hopefully the final game will close that gap but at the very least it’s definitely better than the last several 3D Sonic games.

Formats: PlayStation 5 (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Balan Company and Arzest
Release Date: 26th March 2021

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