You can feel the spirit of SEGA's platformers burning, but Balan has its own flame.
Several SEGA veterans who created platformers back in the day, have reunited under Square Enix's umbrella. Therefore, Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima have found the resources to set in motion a new project, one of a scale they hadn't handled since many years ago. The game is Balan Wonderworld, a multiplatform project that has just released in demo format for players on all platforms to check out.
"NiGHTS!", screams the screen as soon as you start. Mostly, due to that particularly graceful figure of Master Balan, a creature so weird you'll see yourself observing it, trying to decipher it. The colours' saturation, turned up to eleven. The characters, slightly big-headed and with shapely bodies. It's all the team's staples, something expected in a game that wants to harken back to the 90's but without being too retro.
The CGI intro fills you up with enthusiasm. The production values Square Enix grants this new studio, together with the developer's ability to create something unique, seems like a match made in heaven. Each game world is the result of the fears of a character whose story is told in a short movie format. There'll be 12 at least, and many of them have been presented or teased already. The script reduces dialogue to a minimum, and conversations are held in a fictional language, so we'll see whether it loses steam in terms of storytelling.
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As soon as the game starts, all these references to the past are gone, as Balan Wonderworld's gameplay is all its own, quite different compared to the NiGHTS and Sonics. No matter if you choose to be Leo Craig or Emma Cole, this platformer is all about changing clothes again and again to make the best use of the unique abilities each costume provides. In the full game there'll be more than 80, with 10 of them already available in the demo.
From the hub area you access World 1, which is the nightmare of a farmer whose harvest has been ruined by a storm. At first, the hub area is just a tiny floating meadow, a few patches of flowers here and there. Not much, so you better go through the first gate to reach the farm and the wasted cornfield.
With just three or four signposts around, the level serves as a tutorial to learn the little you need to know about the game's rules. This linearity is helpful, as towards the end there's a pretty obvious alternate route you take to seek what matters: the trophies. The goal of each level is not to reach the end, but to fetch as many hidden statues of the master as possible, as you need them to fuel the train to the next world.
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Balan Wonderworld starts quite slow and dull. The first world is the perfect example of a child-oriented platformer, rather than one for all audiences. The characters' moves are simple, the "secrets" are much obvious ("Blatant Wonderworld," anyone?), the solution to the puzzles is a meter away and the few enemies around feel almost harmless. The zone boss is as dull, and you'll be done with it in a tick. So, whoever quits at this point, might form a significantly bad impression about the game, so we recommend you go explore further and play the other two levels available on the demo, from worlds 4 and 6.
This far into the game you've already turned yourself into a wolf that can jump and perform whirlwind attacks, a cute pig capable of ground-pounding, a stretching but useless sunflower, and a fireball-spitting dragon. There's just one action button (other than the trigger to change clothes), and as such, just one ability per costume; two if it allows for charging. So you go jumping around to reach previously-inaccessible places and trying to make no mistake, as you lose a piece of clothes whenever you're hit or fall. Not much of a hassle either, as there are plenty of spots to get them, and the only requirement is to have enough keys, which are generously scattered around the map.
Considering the simplicity of levels 1-1 and 1-2, I found it intriguing that there are places you cannot reach with the abilities at hand. The trick is that you'll have to come back later to get those trophies once you've got the needed costume, as they carry over from the completed level to the central hub, and from there to the new level.
Balan Company's level designers, who we assume are quite experienced, haven't spent all their time making corridors with hidden corners. Both World 4 and World 6's levels are much wider and more complex. The former is a constant balancing act that seemed manageable thanks to the stable controls and the slow pace of the game. There the star costumes were sheep and aerial acrobat, to hover and then home-attack just like Sonic. The latter is a mechanised castle in which you have to move and push platforms around, nothing too complicated, as you go through labyrinthically-arranged rooms connected by teleporting magical mirrors. All of a sudden, not all is that obvious, as proven by a stairway turned ramp.
Having played on both PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch, it's clear that this is a game meant to be playable on the hybrid system no matter what, and as such it doesn't demand much of itself technically. Colours, character designs, and music tracks are there to stand out. I'm in love with the main theme, and I hope the rest keep the quality. Likewise, I also wish the full Balan Wonderworld plays more like World 6 than like World 1, because if the levels aren't good enough, there's little use for those 80 abilities. On March 26 we'll found out once we play from start to finish.