Balan Wonderworld, a 3D action-platformer designed by Balan Company for Square Enix, looks like it belongs in a lineup of gaming classics beside the likes of NiGHTS and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. That should come as no surprise to folks who already know that the game was directed by Yuji Naka, who worked on both series during his time with Sega. That said, most of the similarities between Balan Wonderworld and Naka’s other works exist on a superficial layer. There is some shared DNA, sure, and the sense of whimsy is admittedly familiar, but Balan Wonderworld has a clear and unmistakable identity of its own. This will be apparent from the earliest moments in the demo.
In Balan Wonderworld, players choose between playing as Leo Craig or Emma Cole. These characters are unfulfilled children who are lured into the fantastical realm of Wonderworld by a theatrical being called Balan and told that they will be able to locate a missing part of their heart. There is nothing inherently extraordinary about either of these characters, at least not at a glance, but they have the strength to potentially save this imperiled land thanks to the power of magical costumes.
These costumes represent the core of Balan Wonderworld’s gameplay. When a character dons them, they gain access to a new, costume-specific ability that can be used to navigate the game’s stages or combat the game’s foes. All in all, they’re pretty simple in design. When a character isn’t wearing a costume, their actions are limited to moving and jumping. With a costume on, the function of the jump button is replaced with the costume’s unique trait, which is sometimes just a different kind of jump.
Playing through the demo of Balan Wonderworld left me with the distinct impression that not all costumes are created equal. Some, like a sheep costume that allows players to drift on gusts of wind or a dragon costume that is accompanied by breath attacks, feel substantial in nature. Others feel less inspired. In the game’s first world, for example, there are four costumes that imbue the character with a different flavor of the jump ability, each custom-suited for different obstacles. Because these obstacles don’t pose much of a danger, they sometimes function like arbitrarily-placed bouncers whose singular concern is to make sure that characters are following some kind of whimsical, mascot-based dress code. I should mention, in the interest of accuracy, that one of these costumes is technically created to allow the player to elongate themselves in order to reach floating collectibles. But releasing the elongate button causes the character’s feet to snap upwards toward their head, which functions exactly like a jump. Meanwhile, the collectibles could just as easily be attained by jumping, so the elongation ability might be fat worth trimming.
A later stage in Balan Wonderworld includes a gear costume that allows players to interact with cogs by walking into them for prolonged periods of time. Doing so might cause a door to slowly open or a platform to slowly rise from the ground. At this point, the character has been reduced to a convoluted, but otherwise typical, key. Running into cogs isn’t something that’s necessarily fun to do multiple times in a row. There’s potential for stages that include puzzle sequences that require the player to figure out what tools they need to use and in what order, but the relatively short demo itself didn’t demonstrate much of this sort of gameplay.
Costumes also protect the character from damage. When the character is hit by an attack or falls off a stage, they lose the costume they are wearing. Players can carry three costumes at a time, and if they run out and then take damage, they have to restart the stage. Unfortunately, losing an important costume means backtracking to a changing tent to resupply in circumstances where progress requires a specific ability. Sometimes progressing smoothly relies on good guesswork, as what costumes will be required in the future isn’t always clear, although stages in the demo are mostly built around a select handful of abilities. It is also possible to run out of copies of a costume entirely, which means retreading through old levels to reacquire them. Fortunately, boss encounters are located in arenas that provide a steady supply of necessary costumes. This means there won’t be much puzzle solving in terms of figuring out how to defeat an enemy, as the answer seems to be generally gleaned by which costumes are made available, but bosses can yield different collectibles based on the player’s fighting style. Perhaps figuring out which styles generate rewards will be a puzzle in its own right.
I was not able to play the demo with a partner, but Balan Wonderworld does include a two-player mode that will allow players to combine their abilities as they explore the different levels. This option, in addition to about seventy other costumes that weren’t included in this version of the game, means that there is still a lot of potential left to uncover throughout the rest of the game. Whether or not that potential is realized, however, remains to be seen.