We're not entirely sure where to begin with Balan Wonderworld. Granted early access to the demo — available to all from tomorrow — we've been playing this somewhat mysterious title, and we're not wholly convinced. The demo itself is fairly large, but from our experience, we're not sold on this new concept from Yuji Naka.
After a stylish introduction to the game's world with a fancy CG cutscene, you're plonked into a hub world that connects each of the game's levels. There's not much to see or do here but to hop into a stage. The first duo of levels is in a farm setting, with giant crops and green fields all over. What's most unusual about this setting is a very jarring visual effect. As you run forwards, the world beyond kind of warps, as if you're on a huge cylinder. The trouble is that the effect is poorly implemented; it actually messed with our eyes a bit. Once you've cleared this first world, other levels open up and they don't appear to have this same issue.
Anyway, visual quirks aside, the game has a whimsical look and feel, with everything in bright colours and running at a locked 60 frames-per-second on PlayStation 5. Having said that, it's not particularly impressive to look at, with very simple characters and texture work. The music is better, accompanying the stages with easy going tracks that will probably wind up in your head.
As for the gameplay itself, it's extremely simple. The main hook of Balan Wonderworld is that your character can wear numerous costumes, and each one provides a unique ability. Once you collect one, you'll get a brief explanation of what it does. Examples in the demo include a wolf outfit that lets you generate a tornado, a flower that can stretch up to reach collectibles, and a dragon that can breathe fireballs. We say the gameplay is extremely simple because, regardless of which outfit you're currently using, its ability is enabled with a single button. You can use any of the face buttons or either of the triggers (which have some adaptive feedback on DualSense) to perform a suit's power.
It means the game is very accessible to younger players, and there's no worrying about controls when you swap between costumes. You can bank three of them at once, and can freely switch between them whenever you like. What's nice is that each ability can be used to progress through a level, but they can also be used against baddies. Some are better than others for fending off foes, but just jumping on heads will get the job done.
If you're hit by an enemy, you'll lose the outfit you're currently wearing, which can be an annoyance depending on how far back that costume's pick-up is. Generally speaking, they seem to be doled out smartly, but be prepared to backtrack a little if you need a particular ability.
After playing through several levels in the demo, it seems as though you'll want to return to previous stages with more outfits unlocked. You can pick and choose which costumes to take into a stage, allowing you to mix things up and potentially access new areas or hidden secrets. Your main objective, as far as we can tell, is to collect golden Balan statues, and you'll need to use every outfit to find them all.
There are also mini games to discover, but they fall pretty flat, not adding much to the experience. After playing through a stage, you'll have gathered up some coloured gems. Back in the hub area, these gems can be fed to the chick like critters called Tims, but it's not really explained why you should do this.
That's not the only unexplained mystery; there's a counter in the middle of the hub, and we've yet to find out what it's for. After fighting a boss, we freed the farmer trapped inside, and then we had a ride on a sky train. This demo contains a fair amount, but the unexplained elements left us somewhat baffled.
It's clear that the aim with this game is to create something with a dream-like quality that's suitable for players of all skill levels. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but we can't help but feel underwhelmed by what we've played. Maybe the full game will fare better with the whole picture in place, as right now, it feels like a bizarre mish-mash of ideas that doesn't quite come together.
The Balan Wonderworld demo will be available from Thursday 28th January on PS5 and PS4. Will you be checking this out? Play dress-up in the comments section below.