Yuji Naka’s CV is typical of an era as much as his work is associated with a video game style. Many Sonic projects, a Nights that marked some minds, so much time spent at Sega before moving on more discreet projects on mobile and console with his studio Probe. By going to find Square Enix as editor for his new project, Balan Wonderland, he is securing a visibility that has been lacking for more than a decade. Does this mean that the champagne will flow freely as players marvel at the universe created with Balan? Nop.
The Balan of happy people
Since we have to go further than a simple word – and this even if the conclusion will not be more nuanced for all that – here is what the title offers us. Balan is a clown dressed with style, if not classy, who hangs out with a young child who is slightly depressed. Using the magical powers that the acrobat confers on him, this young character that we embody will try to bring joy to life where there is no longer any. Twelve people a little lost in their lives for as many worlds and universes to discover and free from the nasty depression created by Lance, a kind of purple humanoid Knuckles.
- Excess of good taste
Controller in hand, the title is a platform adventure game. Each universe is made up of two levels and ends with a boss battle. To find his way through these 3D levels, our young improvised shrink must get hold of magical costumes that he can exchange as he pleases. First rule, however, it is not possible to wear more than three disguises at a time. In the event of damage or fall, the active one disappears. At each checkpoint, however, it is still possible to return to a magic tent to go dig into a collection that any transformist would envy. The other rule comes in here: to have a costume in stock, you have to take it out of stock. Do you see the constraint coming? Yes, you will be spending your time collecting costumes to save them as soon as the first checkpoint comes. There is even very often one next to each new costume discovered. Last point which does not add anything to the game: you have to collect keys to be able to collect the costumes then. You can only store two at most and they reappear in the same place after a cooldown.
At the masked Balan ohé ohé
- The levels may seem vast at first glance
Costumes are key to Balan since each transformation grants specific abilities. Jump higher, hover, smash walls, shoot cannonballs. In total, there are about fifty costumes. This excess makes the collection laborious. In addition, there are many of them that offer similar abilities in order to avoid making each one completely indispensable and thus block the player’s progress insofar as we can do the levels out of order. Balan is a game aimed at a young audience, obviously. What the disguises have in common, however, is the absolute ugliness of the character design. Between bad ideas and blatant conception of amateurism, it is difficult to get carried away for each of them. Who wants to be a tower defense that only shoots when it’s not moving and can’t jump? Or a rocket that only takes off vertically at two an hour without being able to take another direction afterwards? Some of them seem to only be there to collect an item at a particular location on a level while others are a real wild card that can thwart any trap without breaking a sweat or even thinking. It was the basic idea, however, to let the player find the most suitable costume for the situation. The balancing quickly appears to be completely dubious.
- Worse than the DA: the names of the costumes
If only that was the problem – when it’s still the heart of the game that is messed up, let’s agree on that – it would be very simple. But no, the sinking is dramatic on more than one level. Level design, for example, rarely meets the expectations of a game of this style. The platform passages are too obvious, the fights as uninteresting as possible with a ranged attack costume and this even on the bosses, while the items to be collected are very often spotted miles away from the signaling element of scenery. that a particular costume is required to achieve it. However, it is quickly difficult to remember in which level you missed a collectible for a specific reason, while at the same time you pile up the costumes in your wardrobe. What seems obvious is that in wanting to do too much, nothing emerges that is mastered in Balan. Completion is laborious and it quickly becomes apparent that stepping back into a level at a specific location with the right costume, without losing it along the way, is torture with this bland level design coupled with perfectly devoid of feel controls. No sequence is fun.
Who plays the baladin falls into the ravine
And collectibles, however, are needed to progress at certain times. It is indeed necessary to collect the golden statuettes of Balan in quantity up to certain levels which unlock the following levels. You also have to find the hats that allow you to see Balan cleaning up the bad waves on the cosmic level while you strive, lever in hand, to achieve a perfect on QTE with imprecise timing in order to obtain a statuette as a reward. If we mess, we have to redo the level to try again. Hello anguish. So many ways to torture ourselves in a world that is sold as wonderful. Worse, once all the levels are completed, a third act unlocks for each area in which there is no costume to collect. It is indeed necessary to cross them with those in its possession.
- Eyes melt even in HDR and 4K
Outside of the levels, there is a mechanic of Tim’s breeding, hairballs that hatch from eggs to be found here and there. These little beings eat the colored diamonds that we collect on the way and accompany us to collect keys and gems for us. The more we save, the more a tower grows in the main hub where we choose its levels. The purpose of all this is very mysterious. Surely a nod to Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, another game from Yuji Naka.
- Alice in the land of shit
Unmanageable, badly thought out, badly designed, Balan also has the luxury of looking like an HD version of a game released on 128-bit consoles. NPCs disappear as we approach while collectibles are not even visible from a distance. Without going back on the bad taste of the DA, we can at least say that 3D modeling does not do them absolutely honor, everything is very roughly modeled and the textures stuck on these models are unworthy of our consoles. The animations are also very basic and the physics of the characters remains archaic. Let’s not talk about lighting effects or anything else, that would be too much to ask. We had not seen such an anachronistic game since Shenmue III, that is to say. And if at least it was fluid and free of bugs, but no, there too it is missed, even with the Day-One patch supposed to patch everything up. Because the development team has publicly acknowledged that the game was not released in the best conditions. Moreover, out of politeness, we will refrain from commenting on the cinematics in musical comedy which close the various chapters, that would be the highlight of the show.
Tested on Xbox Series X.