Balan Wonderworld[b] is a 2021 platform game co-developed by Arzest and Square Enix subsidiary Balan Company, and published by Square Enix. Taking on the role of children Leo Craig or Emma Cole, guided by a magical being called Balan, the player explores twelve worlds themed after the hearts of troubled individuals. Gameplay follows the chosen protagonist as they explore sandbox levels, collecting items to progress to further areas and using a variety of powers unlocked using themed costumes.
|Engine||Unreal Engine 4|
|Release||26 March 2021|
The game is the debut project of Balan Company, a subsidiary of Square Enix led by Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams creator Yuji Naka. Development began in 2018 as Naka's first collaboration with artist Naoto Ohshima since Sonic Adventure (1998). The aesthetic was based on musical theater, and Naka studied the hero's journey when creating the story draft. The scenario was written by novelist Soushi Kawasaki. The music, composed by Ryo Yamazaki and Hironori Anazawa, emulates musical scores and includes vocals from West End performers such as Laura Pitt-Pulford. The cutscenes were created by Visual Works.
Balan Wonderworld was released for Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on 26 March 2021. To supplement the title and expand its narrative elements, a novelization was written by Kawasaki and released digitally worldwide through Square Enix's publishing label. The game received criticism for its presentation, level design, gameplay, and controls, although its music and character designs were praised.
Balan Wonderworld is a platform game where players take on the role of either Leo Craig or Emma Cole, two children drawn into the magical realm of Wonderworld by a being called Balan. The game plays out across twelve multi-level areas called Chapters. At the beginning of the game only the first Chapter is available, but collecting items called Balan Statues in each area will unlock new Chapters. Within each Chapter, Leo or Emma must navigate through a sandbox environment, searching areas for collectables and solving puzzles to progress to the end of the level. Collectables include Balan Statues, and crystalline objects called Drops.
During exploration, enemies called Negati will appear and attack the player character. Each chapter ends with a boss battle themed after the Chapter's environment and narrative. Receiving damage, or falling off the edge of the environment, causes the equipped costume to disappear. If the character is hit without a costume, they are ejected from the Chapter. The game uses adaptive difficulty, adjusting the number and types of enemies based on player performance both on the initial playthrough and return playthroughs of stages.
While exploring, Leo or Emma find costumes from the cast of each chapter unlocked from crystals using collectable keys. Costumes grant abilities such as hovering, navigating particular hazards and paths, or fighting enemies. When not wearing a costume, Leo and Emma's only available actions are jumping and basic movement. 80 costumes are spread through the stages, some of them in secret locations. Only three costumes can be held at a time; when players acquire a fourth, the costume it replaces is sent into a costume bank which can be accessed at checkpoints. The game uses a simple control scheme, two buttons are used to change between costumes, while other actions aside from basic movement are mapped to all other buttons.
Minigames can be unlocked and played within each chapter using special costumes, such as a football-themed challenge. A recurring minigame activated by finding a top hat in levels is Balan's Bout. Taking on the role of Balan, players engage in a series of quick time events, matching Balan's poses with button presses. Performance is ranked, with the best performance rewarding a Balan Statue upon first completion, and multiplies the current Drop total. Chapters can also be played in two-player local co-op multiplayer. Taking on the roles of Leo and Emma respectively, the players can combine costume abilities to simplify puzzles and open potential new pathways through levels.
The game's hub world is the Isle of Tims, a floating island inhabited by the titular creatures which accesses Chapters. In the hub, players can feed creatures called Tims with Drops collected in levels, changing their color and consequently their abilities; for example, red Tims aid in fights, while pink Tims recover hidden items. Tim eggs can be found in Chapters, growing the number of Tims in the hub. By picking up a Tim, the player can take it onto a stage. A special construction is the Tower of Tims, which is grown using mechanisms powered by the Tims. After completing the game, a new third stage is unlocked for each chapter, featuring more difficult environments and new costumes.
Balan Wonderworld mostly takes place in the Balan Theater, a magical realm overseen by a mysterious being called Balan. The Balan Theater appears when one's heart loses its balance, and connects to Wonderworld, a realm merging reality and fantasy created from memories and hearts. The protagonists are two children called Leo Craig and Emma Cole. Both are troubled; Leo isolates himself from social contact due to an argument with a friend years before, while Emma suffers from anxiety about what others might be saying behind her back. Both are drawn into the Balan Theater, and travel through twelve worlds born from the hearts of troubled adults and children alike. Leo and Emma are opposed by Lance, a counterpart to Balan who commands the Negati, monsters born from the darkness of Wonderworld's visitors.
After completing all twelve worlds and freeing their inhabitants of their burdens, Balan opens a portal for the chosen character to fight Lance. Upon his defeat, Lance is briefly shown in his true less menacing form before the Negati drag him into their realm. Balan then bids farewell to all of Wonderworld's visitors, though Leo and Emma's farewell is touching enough that he sheds a tear and shows them his real form; a human-like being similar to Lance in appearance. Leo and Emma are returned to the real world and face their problems; Leo connects with a dancing group he had previously shunned, while Emma learns of a birthday party thrown for her that her servants were keeping secret. The ending credits show stills of Wonderworld's visitors reuniting in the real world watched over by Balan.
Balan Wonderworld is the debut project from Balan Company, a Square Enix subsidiary founded in 2018 by Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights into Dreams creator Yuji Naka to bring together internal and external production staff. Naka described Balan Company as a collective of designers and artists focusing on genres outside the norms of Square Enix. It was co-developed by Arzest, a company which had previously co-developed multiple projects for Nintendo and Mistwalker. A key staff member at Arzest was Naoto Ohshima, known for his work as a Sega artist who created the designs for Sonic the Hedgehog and Doctor Eggman. It was the first collaboration between Naka and Ohshima since Sonic Adventure in 1998. When Naka joined Square Enix in January 2018, he considered making social mobile games, but was encouraged by Shinji Hashimoto to make action games for the new market, which was seeing a resurgence in classic action and platforming titles. Naka approached Ohshima and Arzest about a collaboration, and Ohshima agreed.
Naka was given the go-ahead for the project by Square Enix due to his experience with platforming and action titles, but was told it was his "one chance" with the genre with them. The game was described as a fusion of multiple popular styles of platform game aimed at as wide an audience as possible. Describing their approach to production, Ohshima compared it to an earlier less structured style, where features and adjustments continued past the halfway point of production. Production began in July of that year. The game was produced by Square Enix's Noriyoshi Fujimoto, who had acted as a producer for the Dragon Quest franchise. Describing the production, Fujimoto noted that the team got carried away slightly by the increased hardware specifications of next-generation consoles, wanting to add more features as production advanced. It was made available on a wide range of platforms, allowing for the largest possible audience. It also notably targeted a wide audience including children when other producers for next-generation hardware were mostly aimed at an adult audience. The game was built using Unreal Engine 4.
The design proposal included the 80 costume count as a hook, and Naka was sure he would need to halve the number was production went on. In the end and to his surprise, he was able to create all 80. The large number of costumes were made relevant by each having a single action tied to it, with only one button command so the younger players the team were targeting as part of their audience would not get confused. Later in development, the team incorporated the DualSense controller's haptic feedback. Balancing the different costumes and fitting them into each stage to preserve challenge was one of the hardest aspects of development. Midway through production, the co-op mode was suggested as an entertaining addition, further complicating production. The difficulty scaling, which adjusted both combat difficulty and item placement based on player actions, was handled by a meta AI designed by Yoichiro Miyake, a Square Enix employee specialising in game AI.
A problem for Naka was creating a narrative, which he had never considered important but held an important place in Square Enix's brand identity. To help create the scenario, he read up on the hero's journey and created a narrative told without dialogue. The script was written by Soushi Kawasaki, a novelist known in Japan for his work on the Long Arm detective series. Brought in by Ohshima, he was asked to create between thirty and forty different scenarios, from which Ohshima picked the twelve, commenting that many of the rejected ones had darker tones. While considering the setting and scenario, Naka decided on a similar design approach to Nights into Dreams, though otherwise Balan Wonderworld was an original work. The world of Balan Wonderworld used a constructed language based on English; dialogue and song lyrics were first written in English, then the sounds and syllables were changed and pronunciation adjusted to make it sound odd. The voice cast was Japanese; Balan was voiced by Kenichi Suzumura, Leo by Shimba Tsuchiya, Emma by Lynn, and Lance by Takahiro Sakurai.
The world design was themed after musical theatre. This theme was chosen to better fit the game within Square Enix's catalogue. The style drew heavy inspiration from the Cirque du Soleil. For Balan's design, Ohshima began with the concepts of theatrical troupe leader and a grin showing under a large hat. The use of a theater as the main location followed the game's musical theater theme. A recurring visual and narrative element was the balance between positive and negative emotions in the mind. The costumes were created by Ohshima and other artists at Arzest. One of those artists was Yono Endo, who created stylized poster artwork used for promotion. The art director was Masamichi Harada. When creating his designs, Ohshima decided to deliberately evoke his earlier work with Naka, with their design intended to look pleasing both on the cast and when worn by the protagonists. Each chapter's main character and story were designed first, followed by the character's cast, which represents their positive emotions.
The cinematics were created by Square Enix's CGI subsidiary Visual Works, directed by Kazuyuki Ikumori. Ohshima revealed the original plan did not include CGI scenes, but Visual Works wanted to be part of the project, and Ohshima created rough storyboards from which the studio designed the cinematics. When creating the cinematics, they used a combined approach drawing from both the "cool" style of Final Fantasy with the more cartoonish aesthetics of Dragon Quest. This allowed for both emotional depth in expressions and an aesthetic that would appeal to younger audiences. Due to its musical elements, special attention was paid to synchronizing the movements and lighting with the musical score. Due to the ability to choose the ethnicity of Leo and Emma, which were reflected in all cutscenes, Square Enix partnered with CRI Middleware to provide graphical software. CRI Middleware customized one of their software tools to adjust each character's hair and skin tones based on choice within both real-time and CGI scenes without taking up space with tailored cutscenes for each choice.
The game's music was primarily composed by Ryo Yamazaki, whose previous work includes the Front Mission and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series. Naka came to Yamazaki with the key theme of a "mysterious and fantastical musical." Unsure of Naka's meaning, Yamazaki went through a trial-and-error period to finalize the musical style. Early demos were heavily influenced by the music of Cirque du Soleil, in addition to musical-inspired soundtracks including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Greatest Showman. Following the early positive reception by staff, he was allowed creative freedom with the score. His goal with the score was to make it easy to understand and catchy, while also including the game's theme of understanding and balancing emotions. His recurring design perspective was of the audience of a musical show enjoying the spectacle on stage. The mysterious elements were inspired by reading stories by the Brothers Grimm, and each stage theme was directly inspired by the concept art and playing early builds.
The tracks for musical numbers concluding levels were created first, going through the most trial and error due to their context, and the need to synch the motion capture performances with them. The stage themes proved challenging to create, using themes and motifs drawn from production artwork for them. Yamazaki's favorite track was for the ninth chapter, "The Lady Too Scared to Love." Due to its ice motif and sad narrative theme, the original concept was for dark music. After seeing the level, which reminded him of winter sports, the music was rewritten from scratch to be upbeat. In keeping with the game's visuals and themes, the music included vocal contributions from West End singers. On the recommendation of composer Youki Yamamoto, singer Laura Pitt-Pulford was brought on board along with many associated singers. Yamazaki described Pitt-Pulford as "the perfect match" due to her style and previous experience recording vocals for the anime adaptation of Dr. Stone. Lead vocals were performed by Pitt-Pulford and George Blagden. The vocals used the game's made-up language to maintain the mysterious atmosphere. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yamazaki had to work remotely during the entire recording process.
A soundtrack album was released on 31 March 2021. Covering 93 tracks across three CDs of music, the album was released physically and digitally in Japan, and digitally worldwide. While uncredited in-game, the album credits Hironori Anazawa multiple cutscene-specific tracks. A digital mini-album, featuring the opening tracks and additional collaboration tracks with online musician Marasy, was released for free on 15 March.
Balan Wonderworld was revealed in July 2020. It was released worldwide on 26 March 2021 for Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. The PlayStation and Switch versions saw physical and digital releases, while the Xbox and PC versions were digital exclusives. Bug testing was a high priority and troubling, as when a bug was found it had to be individually corrected for each platform version. To accompany the game, a novel was written by Kawasaki. Titled Balan Wonderworld: Maestro of Mystery, Theater of Wonder, the book was released digitally on 26 March through Square Enix's publishing imprints. The novelization adds context to some events and characters. Lance was the former master of Wonderworld before being overwhelmed by negative human emotion, creating Balan as a replacement. Visitors to Wonderworld are drawn from various time periods and locations around the world, and normally lose their memories upon leaving. The novel ends with Balan allowing the visitors to retain their memories, vowing not to become like Lance.
A demo, including the entire first Chapter and the first level of Chapters 4 and 6, was released on 27 January. While progress did not carry over into the main game, save data from the demo unlocked a special costume themed after each platform. The demo was taken down on April 14 for consoles, and the following day on Steam. The demo costume will be made available through another means for all players. Reception of the demo was generally mixed; while many praised the art style and music, several faulted the control and camera. While the game was too close to release for major adjustments, Square Enix created a day-one patch to address camera and character movement problems, and alter the difficulty to make later bosses more challenging. The patch also fixed a bug involving flashes of light in the final boss which raised concerns about epileptic seizures, causing Square Enix to warn players to install the patch before playing. According to IGN reviewer Tom Marks, Square Enix did not provide review copies of the title, meaning reviews could not be written until the game was on sale.
|Nintendo World Report||3/10|
|Video Games Chronicle|||
Balan Wonderworld received "generally unfavorable reviews" for most platforms, according to review aggregator Metacritic; the PlayStation 5 version received "mixed or average reviews". On 28 March, attention was drawn to the suspicious number of positive user review scores on Metacritic in a manner similar to review bombing, due to the number of perfect 10/10 scores given through similar usernames.
Chris Scullion of Video Games Chronicle found some costumes "useless." He found the game lacking in comparison to Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, and likened it to platformers on PlayStation 2.
Teddy Maladri of IGN France felt the music worked perfectly with each situation in the game, noting that it was used to express a variety of emotions. He noted that the player was only informed of important mechanics too late, and that some of the mechanics were not sufficiently explained. He praised the challenge of obtaining the Balan statues. Though he criticized the amount of costumes and found some that felt like duplicates, additionally finding the loss of costumes after taking damage frustrating.
Balan Wonderworld released to poor sales; it sold less than 2,100 copies in its opening week in Japan, and failed to make multiple sales charts. Nintendo Life attributed the low sales to the negative reviews.
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