Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega Mega Drive and the Saturn gem Nights: Into Dreams are two of my absolute favourite games, of all time. Yuji Naka is thus one of my favourite game creators and "art director" Naoto Ohshima, who designed the characters Sonic, Eggman and Nights, is unsurprisingly also a god in my home. This of course made me celebrate loudly when Square Enix in 2018 announced that Naka + Ohshima had just founded a new game studio under the direction of the role-playing giant, and would develop a new platform game with it's roots in both Sonic and Nights. I was very happy.
A little under three years later, I am now sitting here anything but happy. Rather sad and feeling kind of empty inside. This is because I just completed a nine-hour marathon session together with the game that I have been waiting for nearly three years for, only to find that it is horrible. The newly-released Balan Wonderworld is bad. Really bad. And this text physically hurts to write considering all the potential that was there, all the talent that the two main creators possess, after all. Welcome to the stronghold of disappointment.
Once upon a time, mostly in the latter half of the 90's, colourful platform games with strong mascots in the lead roles were the single most important game genre for many publishers. Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, Spyro the Dragon, Donkey Kong Country, Banjo Kazooie, Gex, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Voodoo Vince... The gaming world was boiling over by them and in the middle of this stood Yuji Naka. Today, the genre is much less hot, but considering how well the re-releases of Spyro and Crash Bandicoot in particular sold, it is easy to understand Square's thought process when they poured money over Naka and Ohshima's ambitious project.
In Balan Wonderworld we get to follow the problem-laden kids Leo Craig and Emma Cole who are both in need of help. One is bullied while the other seems to be weighed down by difficult home conditions and it is during the introductory film sequence that we get to see how in the middle of all the sadness they happen to stumble across a hidden old magical theatre called The Wonderworld. Inside this dream world lives Balan, who like Nights, is some kind of enchanted dream demon and his mission is to mend people's hearts by improving their thoughts and getting rid of their dark, difficult memories. This is done by wandering around like an idiot on a number of useless levels and trying on different costumes in order to obtain different abilities through them. This is the very basic premise of this game. A wild mix between the platform layout in Sonic Adventure, the premise from Nights and the costume focus from Super Mario Odyssey.
The absolute worst thing about Balan Wonderworld is how thoughtlessly stupid and unfinished it feels. It's a bit like someone found a rough sketchbook in a trash can, picked it out and tried to base a game on all the loose ideas from it. The controls are bad to begin with. Leo and Emma move slowly, they can jump, but their ability to jump over objects is almost hopeless and the animations resemble a bad PlayStation 2 game, at best.
The 80 costumes are in theory not a stupid idea, but unlike Super Mario Odyssey, the implementation of these is completely ridiculous. I often activated a special suit to come to the conclusion that its special feature makes no difference or can not be used at all on this level. You often activate a suit and a special ability only to realise that it is not possible to complete the course with that suit, which means that you have to restart or backtrack, a lot. There are also lots of costumes whose "special ability" is just the same ability that Leo and Emma already have, from the start - to be able to jump (even though it's more of a "limited skip" if anything), which makes me think that Naka and Ohshima played a prank on me here. An expensive, ugly prank like the big trolls I now suspect they have gone and become.
In addition to this, Balan Wonderworld is ugly as hell. Really, really ugly. This being "optimised" for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and based on Unreal Engine 4.5 feels absurd, to be completely honest. The design is a bad mix between Sonic, Nights, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, and Cirque du Soleil and together with a presentation and a story that in many ways makes it incomprehensible to keep up with - it is easy to describe Balan Wonderworld like a complete and utter (expensive) failure. Just such a thing as each chapter dealing with someone's "dark" feelings and painful tragedies, but that each individual emotion and its impact on the person that Leo, Emma and Balan intend to help - is not told until you have completed the level in question, feels like pure idiocy. For the most part, I do not understand where I am, who or why and absolutely not what the goal is. And, together with the setting, the bad mechanics, the gimmick-like stupid costumes and the deplorable graphics, this makes Balan Wonderworld the worst game of the year so far.
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