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Hands on: Balan Wonderworld review

A whimsical, weird adventure

What is a hands on review?
Balan Wonderworld
(Image: © Square Enix)

Early Verdict

Balan Wonderworld is a throwback to the classic ‘collectathon’ genre of the ‘90s, and there's certainly fun to be had. However, even though its vibrant graphics and fantastical settings certainly look the part, Balan Wonderworld doesn’t capture the same type of magic as the games it's clearly aspiring to be.

For

  • Classic collectathon gameplay
  • Crisp and colorful visuals
  • Loads of outfits to discover

Against

  • Feels overly familiar
  • Repetitive sound effects
  • Rough around the edges
Review information

Time played: 3 hours
Platform: PS5

There’s a lot to like about Balan Wonderworld, especially if you’re a fan of laid back collectathon games. Your main objective, essentially, is to explore a variety of quirky levels in search of shiny objects. In this case, you’ll be hunting down golden Balan statues – but you’ll only be able to bag them all if you wear the right outfit for the job.

The game lets you pick from two large-handed teens, Leo Craig or Emma Cole, who embark on a mystical adventure to the imaginary land of Wonderworld. Led by the enigmatic maestro named Balan, you'll enter stages that represent a person's emotions, which is just as weird as it sounds. You can expect lots of dancing creatures throughout. 

After playing through a couple of the game’s early chapters and acts, it’s clear that we need to temper our expectations. If you were hoping to see the same sort of sophisticated level design and ingenuity that help make games like Super Mario Odyssey or even Sackboy: A Big Adventure so engaging, Balan Wonderworld isn't for you.

What it does do, though, is rely on a tried and tested formula that delivers a fair amount of enjoyment, even if it's to the game's detriment. 

Key information

  • What is it? A platforming adventure game 
  • Release Date? March 26, 2021
  • What can I play it on? PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Nintendo Switch
  • Price? Standard edition is roughly $59.99 / £49.99 / AU$69

Showtime

Balan Wonderworld chapter 1

(Image credit: Square Enix)
  • Lots of outfits to wear
  • Overcome obstacles using a costume's abilities
  • Can feel like quantity over quality

There are over 80 different costumes to discover in Balan Wonderworld, and the core gameplay revolves around finding the suit you’ll need to overcome an obstacle, enemy or reach a new area.

The outfits you’ll don are nothing short of adorable: you can dress up as a pig, which lets you perform a ground pound to flatten pegs; a kangaroo that can flutter jump to reach ledges that seem just out of reach; or a weird, elastic flowerpot thing that lets you extend your body so you can grab items in high places. 

While the costumes certainly look the part (your character often resembles a Pokémon cosplay, which isn’t a bad thing), the abilities you gain aren’t exactly extraordinary by any means. One outfit sees you become a sheep that can float in the air, while another just lets you blast fire balls.

Balan statues

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Even though the demo only contained a handful of costumes to collect, it quickly became obvious that many abilities overlap, making some outfits feel rather redundant. The Pumpkin Puncher outfit lets you perform a punch attack that can break barriers, while the Dainty Dragon costume means you can smash through obstacles by shooting out fireballs. Ultimately, both achieve the same goal.

Switching between costumes is also a cumbersome affair. Because each costume is limited in what it can do – break or move obstacles, help you jump further – you’ll need to switch between multiple costumes during a level to complete the tasks that stand in your way. Switching takes a second longer than it should, and if you select the wrong outfit by mistake, it can be a pain to watch the animation play out again and again as you hurriedly try to select the costume you need.

Hats off

Balan

(Image credit: Square Enix)
  • Dull quick time events
  • Decent DualSense adaptive trigger support
  • Local multiplayer support is welcome

Collecting Balan statues will open up new levels, but you’ll also find golden silk hats hidden around the game’s stages. Pick one up, and you’ll trigger a Balan’s Bout bonus game which lets you earn extra drops (the game’s equivalent of coins) and a Balan statue. To do so, you’ll need to complete a visual quick time event where you push the correct corresponding buttons depending on what’s happening on screen. These QTE segments became extremely tedious, fast, as you might expect. 

One element that was particularly pleasing, however, was how Balan Wonderworld utilizes the DualSense controller’s adaptive triggers on PS5. The resistance of the triggers will differ depending on the costume you’re wearing. For example, if you’re dressed as the Tornado Wolf, there’s a satisfying amount of trigger resistance present when you perform a spin; the same can be said when flinging your fists when dressed as the Pumpkin Puncher. You can use the face buttons if you prefer, though.

Another plus is that the game can be played with another player, making Balan Wonderworld a great family-friendly title. There's only support for local multiplayer sadly, so you won't be able to play with a friend online.

Hungry mouths to feed

Isle of Tims

(Image credit: Square Enix)
  • Tims are cute chicks that can help you on your quest
  • Feed them drops and watch them grow

Though collecting Balan statues is your main goal, you'll also pick up different colored drops in each level. These can be fed to Tims, which are basically cute little chicks that can aid you on your adventure. For example, red Tims can help you attack enemies, while pink Tims sniff out items you may have missed. 

Before embarking into each level, you start out on the Isle of Tims where you can feed your fluffy friends all of the gems you've amassed. This adds an extra dimension to the game that we didn't expect, and while its scope was fairly limited in the demo, we thoroughly enjoyed watching the Tims eagerly scoff down all the gems we dropped.

Early verdict

If you’re in the mood for a charming action adventure game that’s easy on the eye and not too taxing to play, then Balan Wonderworld might be just the ticket. If you’re after something a bit more substantial, however, there are far better options to choose from than the frequently banal Balan Wonderworld.

Adam Vjestica

Adam is a Senior Gaming Writer at TechRadar. A law graduate with an exceptional track record in content creation and online engagement, Adam has penned scintillating copy for various technology sites, and also established his very own award-nominated video games website. He’s previously worked at Nintendo of Europe as a Content Marketing Editor and once played Halo 5: Guardians for over 51 hours for charity. (He’s still recovering to this day.) 

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.