There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don’t know how.
After many hours, Balan Wonderworld remains a mystery to me. It clearly has modern influences—most obviously Super Mario Odyssey in its ability swapping mechanics—and yet it either wildly misunderstands them or simply takes glee in ignoring key elements. It’s backed by the monolithic Square Enix and yet the Switch version in particular feels like a poorly funded indie title that is overstretching a lone developer. At times you’ll catch a glimpse of what seems remarkably close to a vision for the game, yet equally common is the nagging feeling you’ve fallen victim to a scam. The more I played the more I began to think the latter was the case.
Balan Wonderworld is a 3D platformer that has a plot of some sort. The opening cutscene reveals a child who is sad. They meet the titular Balan who is a strange, often-floating, top-hat-wearing, person. Together they set off on a quest that is occasionally theater themed and might be a musical. Balan gives you access to what I assume are the subconsciouses of people who have either been possessed by evil, murdered by a dolphin, or are just generally bummed. Across two levels and a boss fight you’ll save this person. As the game went on my wife and I began to suspect that the people you were rescuing were in fact dead, and Balan was some sort of guardian of Limbo. Your actions were then obviously intended to help these people move on. The girl who was murdered by her possessed dolphin is the most obvious evidence of this being the plot. When her dolphin murders her, it knocks off her scuba diving gear, thus the death. When you complete her levels you see her swimming under the ocean with the dolphin again but now she no longer needs a breathing apparatus, because she’s already dead. I dare anyone to tell me this isn’t the plot of Balan Wonderworld.
The primary hook (or harpoon, or whatever is the most threatening sharp device you don’t want to be hit by) of Balan Wonderworld is the costume system. Across each stage you’ll encounter costumes sealed in boxes that require a key to open. Each costume has an ability; and only one ability. Outside of pausing and switching costumes, every button on the controller does the same thing, whatever action is associated with your current costume. For some of them it may involve jumping; for others it will be something that super isn’t jumping. Occasionally you’ll find yourself in a position where you need to jump to move forward or back but have managed to be in possession of no costumes that can jump. Whoops, I guess you’d better go die. If you’re lucky you’ll be within range of a checkpoint where if you stand very still for a long time you’ll be given the option to switch to any of your other extra costumes. You’re never told you can do this however, and are most likely to find it as you take a moment standing on a checkpoint to weep softly as you question your life choices.
With a pedigree rich in Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog lineage, Balan Wonderworld does at least carry with it some of that 90’s Sega-style charm. Levels are varied thanks to the different costumes native to each and can visually be quite endearing. The music—outside of the fever dream musical numbers when you rescue a character—is quite good, and probably a highlight of the entire experience. Most of the level design itself is perfectly passable. The presentation might normally allow me to gloss over some otherwise rough edges, but unfortunately the Switch manages to run precisely none of it. Every time you switch costumes the frame rate stutters, and every time enemies spawn it freezes up entirely for a second or two. Just moving through the level can cause debilitating performance drops that have caused me to completely lose control of my character on multiple occasions.
Each level contains eight Balan statues. You’ll be able to get to a few on your first run through, but most require revisiting the stage with costumes from other stages. These aren’t open levels in the vein of 3D Mario either, but rather a linear point A to point B with statues hidden along the way. When you hit the point in the stage to get a statue, you need to already be fully equipped. At this point you’d better hope you’ve stumbled into the costume swap on checkpoints, otherwise some of these are borderline impossible to reach. But here’s the thing; even if you know exactly which costume you need and you have that costume unlocked, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to use it. In order to switch to a costume you need to have extras of it in your stockpile. For that to happen, the costume needs to get knocked off your list of up to three costumes that can be in your inventory at once by finding a new costume, sending it into your stockpile. If you don’t already have the costumes you need stockpiled, then you literally have to grind for costumes. This requires you to go to a stage that contains the costume you want, get a key, unlock the costume box with the key, go back to the key, wait for the key to respawn, then take the key back to the box, wait for the box to respawn, and continue until you feel you have enough.
Across each level are various colored gems. After completing a level you bring these back to the Chao Garden esque hub world. Here you can use the colored gems to build up the Tower of Tims. What’s a Tim? I’m so glad you asked, and I wish I knew! Tims eat the gems, then go to the place where gems are turned in and deposit them for you. Oh you thought you could deposit the gems yourself? No, that would be ridiculous! You need to feed the Tims your gems from specific locations in the hub world that are all as far from the deposit point as possible. Each color of gem has specific points it can be fed to the Tims from, and if you thought you could just drop them and go you’d be wrong. The Tims take a long time to eat all the gems and if there are too many gems and not enough Tims then the gems will despawn, meaning you won’t be able to unlock another section of the Tower of Tims, and that would be a disaster! So you’ll need to wait at each drop off point, carefully monitoring the consumption of gems, picking back up any that are about to despawn, then putting them back out when the Tims are ready, before finally moving on to the next color.
Balan Wonderworld will leave you with a sense of wonder. A nagging sort of wonder. The kind of wonder that makes you wonder. Wonder how a game could so masterfully miss literally every opportunity to treat its players with a modicum of respect. Wonder how a very well known publisher could stomach having it in their library. Wonder what in the world happened with the Switch version. Wonder where your $60 went.