Balan Wonderworld awakened a feeling I haven’t experienced since 2019, when I saw director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats in a movie theater.
The same sense of confusion and awe at witnessing Judi Dench and Idris Elba in singing cat form is evoked by Balan Wonderworld. I sat stunned after watching an in-game musical number starring my player character and a corn farmer, who had just minutes before been transformed into a giant clownish dog by an evil wizard. I beat him back into human form with a couple punches to the paw and a blast to the derrière, and we celebrated with song and dance. Balan Wonderworld had already featured plenty of ambient dancing, but this spectacle was on an entirely new level.
I saw Cats on a lark out of morbid curiosity, and still have conflicted feelings about the whole jellicle experience. But I’m glad to have known such weirdness. The same holds true for my time with Balan Wonderworld’s new playable demo, which arrives Thursday, Jan. 28 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. (The full game drops in March.)
Balan Wonderworld is a new project from game director Yuji Naka and artist Naoto Ohshima, and it harkens back to that duo’s early creative works at Sega. The 3D action-platformer’s game world is rich with the grassy greens and energizing blue skies of a 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog game. Its characters feel ripped from a Nights into Dreams sequel — particularly the eponymous Balan, a flamboyant showman who pulls a young man and woman into a colorful fantasyland.
The game’s demo stretches across three worlds and one boss battle. In each world, players can access a variety of costumes to gain new abilities. The initial level features outfits like the Tornado Wolf, which gives the player a spin jump; Jumping Jack, a kangaroo ’fit which offers a long jump; and Elastiplant, which lets the player stretch to new heights. Later levels include a sheep costume that lets players float and a gear-shaped skirt that’s used to manipulate a clockwork world. Publisher Square Enix says we can expect 80 costumes in the full game; the demo includes at least 10.
With its dozens of costumes, Balan Wonderworld feels wide but shallow. The player’s basic ability is to jump, and many of the costumes offer variations on that jump. Other getups, like a fire-breathing dragon outfit, do not feel particularly useful since enemies are easy to dispatch through other means — jumping on their heads while wearing just about any other costume, for example. The costume-based gameplay adds little joy or surprise to otherwise simplistic 3D platform-jumping.
Where Balan Wonderworld’s costume-switching gameplay may shine is in its local cooperative mode. Two players can combine their outfit’s talents to reach places in the game world that would otherwise be inaccessible to a single player, Square Enix says. It’s a feature I wasn’t able to test on my own, but feels ideal for a parent-and-child duo. (Balan Wonderworld is not particularly difficult, as modern 3D platformers go.)
There’s more to discover in the game’s demo, including well-hidden collectible statues and a hub world known as the Isle of Tims. Here, players can both evolve the colorful fuzzy creatures known as Tims — there are vibes of Chao Gardens of some Sonic games here — and construct a fantastical structure.
Players will also occasionally take control of Balan himself if they find golden top hats, and these sections are just as strange and thin as the rest of the game. Balan Bouts, as they’re called, consist of timing-based minigames as Balan soars through the air. Balan Bouts reward the player with gems called Drops, which are also collected elsewhere in the game, but the real reason for the minigames’ existence seems to be a hit of nostalgia for Nights into Dreams’ flying levels.
With Balan Wonderworld’s launch just two months away, I’m doubtful that my reservations about its gameplay veneer will change much. But the game’s quirky, Cats-flashback-inspiring musical moments may just have a strong enough gravitational pull to lure me in for another look, just to see how weird Naka and Ohshima get.