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Thursday, February 4, 2021

BALAN WONDERWORLD is how you don't make a 3D Platformer (or any other game)

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - ...And if the full game isn't like that, it's how you don't produce a demo.

Back in mid-September, there was a Nintendo Direct Mini: Partner Showcase. It featured Monster Hunter Rise, but there was also a 3D platformer called BALAN WONDERWORLD published by Square Enix. Both Monster Hunter Rise and BALAN WONDERWORLD got January 2021 demos. Both games are releasing on March 26, 2021. I've played both of the demos. For Monster Hunter Rise, I admit I'm not inherently a fan of its genre. Still, I can respect that there are lots of people who are fans of that gameplay, and it's clear that Monster Hunter Rise is well-designed for what it's trying to do.

BALAN WONDERWORLD is different. BALAN WONDERWORLD, based on the demo, doesn't deserve my respect. It's awful. While I'm also not a fan of 3D platformers, I know what good 3D platformers look like. BALAN WONDERWORLD doesn't qualify. I'll explain why.

BALAN WONDERWORLD cutscene logo rainbows magic
This screenshot comes from the cutscene that starts the demo.
That cutscene is probably where the budget went.

While Square Enix published the game and surely funded its cutscene(s), it's actually notoriously bad (known for the mediocre Hey! Pikmin game and destroying the reputation of the Yoshi's Island series) game developer Arzest that is credited with the game's development. They did the grunt work for their client. I didn't know this until AFTER I played the demo, so my anti-Arzest bias had no impact with my feelings mid-gameplay.

BALAN WONDERWORLD Leo opening cutscene earbuds emo sad park
The character designs in this game are hideous.
Here's the protagonist in the opening cutscene. It gets much worse.

It's unclear what the point of your actions in the game are, since, despite it being a SQUARE ENIX title, there's no narrative. Nothing makes sense. Nothing even tries to make sense. There's no dialogue. The NPCs don't make useful gestures. (They prefer to endlessly dance and then phase out of existence when you approach them. Why do they do that?)

This is a problem because the gameplay and level design don't make sense, either. There's no established objective. You find yourself in a hub world, and eventually figure out you're supposed to enter this door to go to a farm. What do you do in the farm? Not sure, but there's BALAN statues to collect for some reason, and you can go into different costumes to... collect things that look like currency. (And feed some weird baby monsters in the hub world because you're nice?) I ended up finishing the level by accident because I didn't know I got to the end-point, since I didn't know what the objective was. I even got into quicktime event minigames with no purpose that compounded my overall confusion.

The costumes give you different platforming abilities, like block-breaking or extended jumping. The game's marketing says there's 80 in all, but for the small selection of what's available in the demo, there's little that the costumes add to the gameplay. What's the point of the creepy flower costume where you can extend your stem to collect items when you can go into the kangaroo costume and just jump directly to the items? The geometry of the level design doesn't indicate one way or the other what you're supposed to do or how to do it. While this may sound like it gives freedom to the player, it undermines what you'd think the whole purpose is supposed to be. There's no scaffolding. Games that adhere to basic game design standards, when introducing a new power-up, will immediately present a novel use case for that power-up—what can this power-up do that others can't? Not in this game. Even Arzest knows that basic principle, since I remember it being in Yoshi's Island DS. That's important, because BALAN WONDERWORLD wants you to hold up to three costumes at a time, and they act as hit points, too. How do you know which costumes to prioritise if they're ill-defined in purpose?

More importantly, the game runs like crap on the Nintendo Switch—which is the developer's fault, not the hardware's. It targets 30 frames per second (which is already a bad starting position), but dips below that very often and for little reason, which is very noticeable and very jarring. Costume switching is a slow chore. It's very hard to tell how far your jumps will go (not as far as you expect) or how far your projectiles will land if you're in the dragon costume (but it's unclear what game design reason justifies wearing that). That's critical for a 3D platformer, and a challenge the genre struggles with, but BALAN WONDERWORLD fails at it in ways I didn't know were possible. This game does not feel good to move around in.

BALAN WONDERWORLD Tornado Wolf furry costume bondage tied up caught in spider web
The most exciting part of the demo was the brief optional moment of furry bondage.
(I still don't know why there's a spider web on the wall.)

I eventually got to a boss fight in the demo, which was trying to tell some kind of story but none of it makes sense. I just wanted it to be over. Unfortunately, the demo kept going, and I guess it wanted me to go back into the levels and pick up the missing collectibles. There are apparently many collectibles you can't access when you first go through a level because you need to bring a costume from a much later world and go back to it, but unlike well-designed games that have the concept of using later-game power-ups in earlier-game levels, not being able to reach or do something in BALAN WONDERWORLD never feels like something you should give up on and go back to—instead, it feels like you should just give up, and chalk it up to the game controlling horrendously and not going through a quality assurance process. I've read from other folks that there are other levels in the demo you can unlock by grinding, but I don't want to go near them—or BALAN WONDERWORLD in general—ever again.

BALAN WONDERWORLD suicide jumping off Island of Tims
“How about Prozac? You know the number one...oh that's the big sponsor, innit? That whole class of drugs.
Oh, whoa, gotta cut that off, don't you?
Don't want to talk about the U.S. number one cause of death is suicide now, because they give people suicide mass-murder pills.
Your answers give more money to the psychiatrists and psychologists to put more crazy people on drugs to make them kill people, Piers!”
First time's anybody's ever heard this, by the way.”

BALAN WONDERWORLD is everything bad that Ludwig doesn't like about 3D platformers... with absolutely zero redeeming qualities. Even the music was irritating. Try it for yourself, since it's a good lesson in bad game design, and it's funny that Square Enix ruined any sales potential the game might've had by releasing this demo. ...Don't play it if you're expecting to be in a better mood, however. Ludwig was pissed off just writing this article, which is why he put it off until Thursday instead of writing it on Tuesday.

BALAN WONDERWORLD has released, and it's terrible. But there's a dedicated cult trying to convince you otherwise.
Yuji Naka is trying to redeem his image after it's been associated with how bad BALAN WONDERWORLD is—he says he actually got removed from the project six months before release, and if not for that, the game would've been good.
While Yuji Naka was directing BALAN WONDERWORLD, he allegedly was engaged in a Plan B for success: insider trading.
A 3D platformer can succeed with only one control button... but the gameplay needs to be designed around that, which BALAN WONDERWORLD was not.


  1. Your point about a Square Enix game not having a good narrative is moot. Just Cause exists!

    1. Eh, well, at least there was an...attempt at something resembling a story in that.

  2. I just don't like the design of the hat guy, seems creepy in a bad way. As soon as i read tis was made by some of the forces behind hey Pikmen I knew it wasn't gonna end well.


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