Upcoming 3D platformer Balan Wonderworld has an impressive resume. It’s helmed by Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohsmia, two of the original creators of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s their first game under their new Balan Company studio, which is an official subsidiary of veteran publisher Square Enix.
The cinematic intro movie is whimsical and fantastical, and we confidently placed the game on our list of most anticipated games of the year. After playing the free demo, however, I come away with nothing short of shocking disappointment with its outdated gameplay and boring level design.
The story stars young heroes, Leo and Emma. They’re magically drawn into the world of Wonderworld, which consists of several themed areas, each with multiple levels, such as a farm, or a forest. Each area has an overarching story, like the farmer whose livelihood is destroyed by a tornado, though I didn’t get a sense how that’s incorporated in the few levels available in the demo.
With single player you can choose either character, and in local co-op you play as both. Leo and Emma are limited to running and jumping, but throughout each level we acquire costumes that grant a single ability. A wolf costume grants a spinning tornado jump, while a dragon-lizard can shoot fireballs. We can store up to three costumes and freely switch between them, but getting hit or taking damage removes the costume.
Unfortunately the costumes are weirdly rare, aren’t terribly impressive, and exclusive to one player at a time when playing co-op – meaning the first player to grab the icon gets the costume.
Most of the costumes in the first area simply replace the jump button with a slightly different kind of jump. The wolf spin can destroy blocks, while the rabbit can hover in place for a short while to reach further platforms. A gear costume functioned like a gate key, requiring the costume to open gear-based doors – and losing it (or any costume) can require an annoying amount of backtracking.
None of these costumes are compelling or interesting, and combat is still mostly limited to jumping on enemies, Mario-style. This was particularly problematic during the demo’s only boss fight. The boss could only be damaged by the wolf costume’s spin jump, but by the time we reached it, we had only one costume between us.
Thankfully there was a costume pickup right outside the boss fight, but it’s not particularly fun to constantly retreat back and grab it. And worse, only a single player could grab it at a time, making the other, costume-less player effectively useless during the fight.
The other problem with local co-op is the third-person camera. Better co-op action games, like the Skylanders series, use a more overheard camera, making it easier to accommodate multiple player characters. In contrast, Balan Wonderworld uses a much lower, more intimate camera angle centered on the first player, as in third-person shooters and action-RPGs. But in a 3D platformer that supports co-op, trying to remain on screen is incredibly frustrating for the second player.
These core problems could be easier to swallow if the levels were more interesting. Perhaps it’s early level blues, but nothing we saw excited us. Levels feel cramped, flat, and lifeless, without any visual flair or interesting features beyond platforms, switches, and pits. It feels like a step backward for the evolving platformer genre.
The final game includes 12 worlds and 80 costumes. It’s possible later levels are much more interesting, and maybe costumes can be combined in interesting ways. Based on what we’ve played in the demo, however, we don’t have much confidence that Wonderworld will be a worthy co-op adventure.
Balan Wonderworld will launch on PC (Steam), PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox on March 26. It’s rated E10+.