We’ve all fallen for it. A high-profile studio announces a new game, and for one reason or another, we lose our minds over how awesome we think it’s going to be. And then the game comes out, and it’s not what we imagined it would be at all. Maybe it’s fine, maybe it’s terrible, but it’s certainly disappointing. As someone who’s played a lot of games in the past 33 years and followed even more, I’ve experienced this bummer time and again. Few games, however, have destroyed my hype the way the Balan Wonderworld demo has.
Back in July, when Square Enix announced a new game by Sonic the Hedgehog creators Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, my mind exploded. The classic character designs that evoke Nights into Dreams! The amazing music that ties into the gameplay! The theme of using performance to work out negative emotions! The trailer could not have been any more exhilarating, and I’m not the only person who scoured YouTube for weeks looking for the full version of the theme song. I was a bit reserved about the gameplay, which looked quite simple, but everything else was thrilling. The reality turned out to be more complicated.
The Balan Wonderworld Switch demo instantly hit me with an incredibly low frame rate, dark and grainy visuals even in the opening cinematic, and jaggy polygons all over the place. You get dropped off on the Isle of Tims, a hub area slightly reminiscent of Sonic Adventure‘s Chao Garden. There’s nothing in the way of instruction — just a barren-looking area for your little bunny pals to frolic in and a door with a big colorful “1” emblazoned on a sign above it. You can choose whether to do part 1 or 2 first, but either way, you’ll have to clear both to face the boss.
Controls are extremely simple. ZL, ZR, A, B, X, and Y all either jump or use your costume’s special ability, while + pauses the game. The left stick moves your character, and the right moves the camera. Costumes give your character one ability each, and if you run out of costumes that are able to jump, then you’ll have to backtrack to find one to continue advancing. This simplicity extends to menus, in that one button confirms your selections. There’s no back button.
Movement is too slow for the big areas and too wild for tight platforming. The camera bugs out quite often and some of the costumes are strictly better versions of other costumes, rather than feeling like they each have some unique utility. Combat suffers from inaccurate platforming, and enemies will respawn out of nowhere, hitting you if you’re not constantly on your guard in designated bad guy areas.
Meanwhile, the Balan Wonderworld demo stage design is bizarre. The ground raises up or lowers down as you approach it, and you can’t see very far into the distance. The best way I can describe it is being like the special stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, sometimes walking along the top of the outside surface and others along the bottom of the inside. There was one puzzle that made good use of this mechanic, but in general the demo was incredibly disorienting and I had a hard time building a mental map of the stages.
The boss you face for clearing stage 1-1 and 1-2 is easy, and if you’ve found enough golden Balan statues, 4-1 and 6-1 open up. These are much larger areas, but not large enough that I’d feel a game with only 24 of these stages would be worth full retail price. Although, there are inaccessible spots in all of the stages — some that need costumes from other parts of the demo, some that aren’t included, and some that require two players with different costumes helping each other. It’s possible that this will be a co-op classic, but I’m not seeing that yet in the Balan Wonderworld demo.
Finally, the biggest disappointment is the “golden hat.” Finding this item will allow you to “play” as the titular Balan. However, it’s insultingly vapid. Balan does a few choreographed kung fu moves, and you press the action button at certain intervals to get extra drops (this game’s version of rings and food for the Tims). I wouldn’t even call it a quick-time event. It’s the same sequence of inputs for each stage! The music track doesn’t even line up at the end!
Curtains for Balan Wonderworld?
Ultimately, the demo got me from ready to drop almost $150 on a special edition to wondering whether I’d want the game at all. The PlayStation 5 Balan Wonderworld demo was technically better than the Nintendo Switch one, but only in the sense that it looked nicer and played a little smoother. The same core complaints — frustrating gameplay, the lack of quality-of-life features, the insulting golden hat — are still present.
Equally depressing is that there’s a lot to love about Balan Wonderworld outside the gameplay. The music is incredible, as are the character designs. When you hit a checkpoint, the stage’s costumes congratulate you with a little fanfare. When you defeat a world’s boss, there’s a big song-and-dance number where your character performs with the person whose heart you saved from despair. There’s a genuine attempt to invoke joy, which seems to be the theme of the game, but it’s squandered.
The Sonic Cycle revisited
Right now, Balan Wonderworld feels like an offshoot of the Sonic Cycle, where a new game is announced, fans forget about being disappointed in the past and hype themselves up, and then when it comes out they’re more disappointed than they would have been otherwise. Granted, the hype cycle is a big part of being a fan — and sometimes one of the best. It’s a ton of fun getting into an upcoming game and poring through every detail that emerges.
I had a great time with Balan Wonderworld, up to the point where I actually played its demo. I genuinely hope that the finished product is better than this demo and that there’s time to address the minor nitpicks and major problems before launch.