Charming Balan Wonderworld demo feels like a watered-down Mario Odyssey riff

One of the most stylish games of 2021 should be more complex.

In mechanics and in style, Super Mario Odyssey meets Sonic the Hedgehog in Square Enix’s Balan Wonderworld.

Its demo — out January 28 — has plenty of style in a beautiful world that young thespians will delight in, but it offers little substance.

Inverse went hands-on with Balan Wonderworld’s demo early on PlayStation 5, and while it can sometimes be too simple for its own good, Balan Wonderworld might still wind up being the most charming game of 2021.

Two of the creative masterminds behind Sonic the Hedgehog reunited to create this quirky 3D platformer. Balan Wonderworld follows two anxious children — Emma and Leo — that players can customize after they end up in Wonderworld. This magical, theater-inspired realm is inhabited by an eccentric and enigmatic maestro named Balan.

Players must run, jump, and transform their way through several open-ended levels to collect Balan Statues. With each world, players fix the problems of several troubled individuals, like a farmer who lost his crops to a giant storm. The game’s demo gives players access to the entire first world, two levels from later worlds, and “The Isle of Tims” hub.

While Sonic the Hedgehog focuses on speed, Balan Wonderworld slows things down for an arguably more accessible experience. It emphasizes variety: Players can equip 10 of the game’s 80+ costumes in the demo, and they all have a unique ability that can be used across the demo’s five levels.

Super Mario Odyssey has a similar gimmick: Players can “capture” enemies with Mario’s hat and temporarily take control of them and use their abilities. Combining that mechanic with an art style reminiscent of classic Sega games in Balan Wonderworld is a mix I didn’t know that I wanted.

Simple to a fault

Balan Wonderworld is a simple game, likely because it’s clearly aiming at a young audience. It definitely manages to capture that sense of childlike wonder and cuteness that young kids will enjoy. The downside is that the controls and character movesets are overly simple, There’s only one action-button used to jump or use your costume’s ability.

The simplicity is somewhat understandable as the controls have to accommodate over 80 different costumes. At points, however, the game can feel too unexacting for its own good. Super Mario Odyssey also has many different transformations for its main character, but each has a diverse moveset and physics that makes it stand out.

For example, the Tornado Wolf gives the player a Crash Bandicoot-like spin attack to make combat easier but can’t jump; Meanwhile, the Soaring Sheep costume lets players float in the air to jump further or ride gusts of wind.

Part of the fun in Balan Wonderworld is in discovering each new costume and learning what it can do. Each stage becomes immensely replayable when you can return with costumes you don’t acquire until later.

While Balan Wonderworld is level-based, its levels can still be quite large.

Square Enix

Still, none of the stages in the demo offer much of a challenge at all, and there’s almost no punishment for dying outside of losing a costume that you can easily find elsewhere in the stage. The stages featured in the demo are all large and filled with interesting secrets. The costumes do add depth to the otherwise straightforward platformer, even if the overall experience feels a bit thin.

I only got a small taste of what the full game will have to offer, but Balan Wonderworld either needs to step up the difficulty or add more diverse costumes in the late-game to keep me engaged. Still, this demo is able to get by on Naka and Ohshima’s distinct charm and is a solid 3D platformer.

Reunited and it feels so good

Yuji Naka was one of the masterminds behind Sonic the Hedgehog franchise that put Sega on the map. Naoto Ohshima is his partner in crime, the artist that brought Naka’s creations (like Sonic) to life. The pair worked on Sonic games and Nights: Into Dreams together, but had not collaborated in years as Ohshima went to work on games like Blinx the Time Sweeper and Naka founded his own development studio called Prope.

Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima reunited at Square Enix in 2018, and Balan Wonderworld is the result. Ohshima’s art style, with large eyes and weird body proportions, is as unique and delightful as ever and works well with the worlds Naka creatures.

This demo shows it off across several different stages with different themes, like a farm or an old-fashioned town and clock tower. These different themes all lend themselves to costumes with different uses, though stages will have secrets that only costumes from other stages can unlock.

Naoto Ohshima's distinct style is immediately apparent in all of the character designs.

Square Enix

Naka and Ohshima’s roots are immediately apparent, as each world in the game is made up of two “acts” and a final boss stage, just like classic Sonic games. There are many references to classic games throughout Balan Wonderworld as well. One costume in the demo even references both Aero the Acro-Bat and pays homage to Sonic the Hedgehog’s homing attack with its ability.

As a fan of Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima’s work, I am conflicted about this demo. Fans of the pair should check it out because of its charming style unadulterated and in a new world. But the demo just won’t challenge or entertain older players as much as their previous games. The final product needs to be more complex and challenging, because the levels featured in this demo certainly weren’t, even if they are very stylish.

Regardless, Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima’s games all have a certain childlike wonder to them, and Balan Wonderworld's demo delivers that in spades.

Balan Wonderworld’s demo will be released for all major platforms on January 28.

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