Balan Wonderworld preview: Sucker Punch…for Kids!

Square Enix
Square Enix /

I have two kids and they go through a lot of books. When talking about kids’ books to one of my parent friends years ago, they told me a weird game they play. “When you get a kid’s book where a kid goes from a normal world to a fantasy setting, you can almost always apply a story to it where the child dies and the fantasy land is where the kid’s brain goes nuts on it’s way out.” Dark right? But it honestly works for a lot of kids’ books.

When am I going with this? Balan Wonderworld. That’s where. Because when I played this it forced me to remember this.

In Balan Wonderworld, after you pick your character from one of eight avatars, you then witness your character in a mansion. They apparently have every single maid and butler whispering about them until your character is basically swarmed with staff whispering about you without letting you hear. The child you control can’t handle it and runs out the front door.

In my head, this is where the child’s mortal form comes to an end in my mind. The game doesn’t mention this but what happens next is far too bizarre for anything else to make sense for me.

From there your character finds a musical theater where they meet Balan, a bizarre maestro clown thing that whisks you into a realm of visual hell. Here’s just a taste of that moment.

From there you enter the Wonderworld — a land between fantasy and reality (sort of like purgatory) where you have to go through several stories on your quest to do whatever it is Balan needs you to do.

Balan gives you almost no information on what you need and thus is the nightmare of Wonderworld.

The first world is pulsating, gyrating farmland decorated with massive ears of corn, surrounded by dancing clowns and anthropomorphic wolves. It reminded me of the movie Sucker Punch when all of a sudden the main character was in a schoolgirl outfit fighting steam-powered Nazi zombies. It made equal no sense.

The game uses a bizarre color scheme where everything is saturated to the point where it looks like I was taking a color blindness test for my entire gameplay session. Honestly, I worked with a man for a year who could barely see any color that wasn’t purple and I might recommend this game to him because I think even he could clearly see every color in this game.

Combine this with the fact, that the game is just needlessly bizarre. I like some weirdness in my games. But when I’m running and for no reason at all, my character is suddenly surrounded by wolves and clowns dancing slowly as if they’re underwater? It was hell. It felt like I was having a fever dream.

BALAN WONDERWORLD Demo_20210121214341
Square Enix /

Eventually, I made my way through stages of farmland that bent before me like Doctor Strange entering a mirror dimension. Along the way, I’d put on various outfits that made me feel like a furry struggling to find its true “fursona”.

Whether it was a wolf costume that made me spin, a kangaroo that allowed me to flutter jump like Yoshi, a pig that allowed me to thrust my buttocks into objects, or a weird plant clown that let me stretch my torso out… the way plant clowns do. Every costume made me feel viciously awkward.

Here is some actual gameplay where you can see me try on several costumes and examine their powers. I specifically like how they gave me the ability to breathe fire despite the fact that I had absolutely no need for it.

Over the course of the game, occasionally I would find states of Balan. It’s sort of the collect-athon aspect of the game. But you also, occasionally, find his top hat. When you do, all of a sudden you change into Balan itself and… I genuinely don’t know. This quick time event would happen where, in the end, he’d kick a smokey corn cob or fruit and then I’d return. I have no idea why it happened and left me just sitting there slack-jawed as I collected points and items that’s usage was never explained to me.

Eventually, I made my way to the end of the first world. Over the course of the first world, there would be a farmer who would just stand there and stare at me, expressionless. Sometimes he’d be my size. Sometimes he’d be giant. One part which I was so stunned I forgot to get a screenshot, he sat on a giant pumpkin, lifting one leg as a rare item rested uncomfortably between his calves for me to collect. I did not collect it. Sorry farmer, not today.

When I got to the end though, the farmer had a bit of a moment. I was suddenly treated to a strange cut scene in which the farmer’s crops died. Everything became dark and shadowy until finally, as farmers are oft to do, he became a massive clown wolf with a stomach filled with fire who could generate tornados. You know the type.

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I beat him and the farmer reverted to his human form once more as descending from up on high like some sort of farming Christ. He looked at me and, instead of saying a word, we found ourselves on a floating disc surrounded by clowns, wolves and pigs dancing to what seemed like a strange gospel jam with words I couldn’t make out. I’ll let you beat the boss for yourself to witness that bit.

Long story short, nothing in this game is what I expected or hoped for. Are there 80 different costumes each with its own unique abilities? Sure. But I got through about ten and I can honestly say none of these powers were fun. The controls felt floatly, like playing Sonic Adventure with a Sonic that was doomed to never go fast again. The sound was bizarre and confusing. The colors were bright to the point where it just hurt. Even my kids had a hard time looking at it.

I’m not sure who Balan Wonderworld is for, but I’d like to find them and welcome them to our planet.