Balan Wonderworld is saving its best bits for the full game

Demo of the Rarebit Fiend

Balan Wonderworld made a huge splash when its debut trailer dropped in the pre-show for an Xbox Games Showcase last July. It was bright, colorful, and full of as much whimsy as its creator, Yuji Naka. I was immediately smitten with it as it looked like a dream. After a week of repeatedly playing through its demo, I’m happy to report it plays like a dream as well.

The first thing that you should know about Balan Wonderworld is that it’s simple. Not easy, though this demo shouldn’t give you any trouble, but simple. It’s a one-button action-adventure game. Press any button on the gamepad and your character will jump or use whatever skill is associated with the costumes you’ll collect on your journey. These costumes represent the central gimmick of Balan Wonderworld, and there is a good mix in the demo to showcase the different abilities you’ll have to master if you want to 100% the final game.

Just to be clear, some costumes don’t allow you to jump, so if you’re approaching a platforming section, make sure you’re wearing one that does. You can carry and cycle through up to three costumes at once, and excess duds are sent to a closet that can be accessed at certain points in each level.

Speaking of the levels, they are a decent showcase of what Yuji Naka is going for here. While compact when compared to stages found in something like Super Mario Odyssey, they still encourage exploration with trophies scattered around each stage for players to find. Some can’t be reached with the costumes you unlock in the level, requiring players to double back when they have the right suit for the job at hand. In the very first level, you’ll no double spot some gems hanging from a spiderweb, letting you know you’ll need to make a return trip when you’ve acquired that suit.

Balan Wonderworld

You will lose your current costume if you take damage, but that shouldn’t be a problem in this demo. Enemies are sparse and easy to eliminate, while mid-bosses and the one included boss battle can be beaten in a flash. Costumes do carry over from one level to the next, and if you lose a costume you need, finding it again isn’t too much trouble.

The lack of difficulty makes for a leisurely experience. Going through it, I kept thinking back to Naka describing this as an “action game.” That’s a description that just doesn’t fit it, even with the most generous use of that definition. As I said above, it’s more an action-adventure game than anything else with light platforming, puzzle-solving, and mini-games.

While past Naka titles did an excellent job of weaving mini-games into the adventure at large — think the bonus levels when collecting a Chaos Emerald in Sonic the Hedgehog — the mini-games in Balan Wonderworld don’t complement the rest of the experience. They feel shoehorned in, aren’t that engaging, and don’t provide a unique enough reward for their completion. Balan’s Bout, a brief quick-time event you access every time you find one of Balan’s hats, is far too dull to repeat as often as it does. 

What’s not dull is the look of this game. Though it can toe the line of generic, some of the set pieces in the Balan Wonderworld demo are absolutely breathtaking. Even the basic concept of the first world, a farm mixed with a medieval castle, has a mesmerizing quality about it. What really amplifies the art direction here is how the levels seem to fall into place as you venture through them. As you go through the stages, you can look to the background and see the next parts you’ll venture to take their position. It’s a wonderful effect, though it’s not evident or present in every stage. Either way, this illusion of a “moving world” exaggerates the dream-like nature of Balan Wonderworld and adds a bit of visual magic to stages that might not be as inventive or creative as they could be. Looking back at the reveal trailer for this game, it’s clear Square Enix is saving the most interesting levels for the final release.

Balan Wonderworld

There is a lot more to the demo, including the small, fluffy creations known as Tims that assist you on your journey, but I don’t think it’s long enough to fully explore their function in your adventure. Gems you collect can be used to feed the Tims, which enhances their abilities, but again, this is something you’ll probably be able to better explore in the final game.

While it’s not exactly what I was picturing when Yuji Naka announced he was making an action game, I still think this is one title to watch out for in 2021. There is a lot of potential here, some beautiful art direction, and an early contender for the best soundtrack of the year.

Try the demo out for yourself when it launches on January 28, and if you like it, Balan Wonderworld will release on March 26 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.