This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Balan Wonderworld.
Look at you all asking me to play Balan Wonderworld and getting your phone cameras ready, like you've just put a smash cake in front of a tiny baby. That title's a gift, isn't it? "Banal Wonderworld"; "Whirly Blunderbland"; "Anal Wankypiss". But, you know, bloody-minded contrarian that I am, I feel inclined to be charitable towards something everyone already says is a great big bag of salt and vinegar shit-crisps, and I can honestly say, badly-designed and incomprehensible though it is, I don't feel much hate or anger towards Balan Thunderpants; just a mixture of confusion and embarrassment, like what I felt when my dad announced he'd gotten a job as a Playboy Bunny.
I suspect the negativity towards the game has a lot to do with it being directed by Yuji Naka, creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, and everyone was expecting more, to which I might ask, “Have you fucking played any Sonic the Hedgehog games in the last twenty years?” Expecting more at this point is like going bobbing for apples in a veterinary surgeon's sink trap. But while Balan Chunderlungs bears a lot of the Sonic the Hedgehog art style, in that everyone has giant heads and stringy limbs and animate like theme park mascots going through the final stages of opioid withdrawal, the game is more a successor to Nights into Dreams, Yuji Naka's IP from the Sega Saturn days; I said to myself, "I've never seen Nights into Dreams; I wonder what the fuck it's about?" So I sat through a longplay of the game on YouTube, and when it was finished, I said, "I have now seen Nights into Dreams; I wonder what the fuck it's about?" And that rather sets the tone for this review.
I suppose the best approach at this point would be to try to describe what happens in Barren Thunderthighs, like I'm some futuristic explorer reporting back from a mysterious alien ruin in the brief period before I get impregnated by something hideous. You play as either Big-Eyed Girl With Personal Issues or Big-Eyed Boy With Personal Issues, who stumbles into some kind of mysterious funhouse run by the titular Balan, who looks like what you'd get if Willy Wonka turned into a Pokémon. We are then dumped into a hub world where we get followed around a meadow by several pastel-colored Tribbles; from there, we embark upon a series of abstract platforming levels apparently based upon the psyche of a random person in the real world, who is shown in a cutscene experiencing some extremely banal difficulty in life, like "chess player doesn't win at chess", or "bug-collector's school friends think bug-collecting is a bit weird". Then we fight an elaborate symbolic boss, then we watch a cutscene with the person overcoming their difficulty, then they and the protagonist meet up and launch into a choreographed dance number.
This all happens with no dialogue, possibly as an attempt at purely visual storytelling or to cheap out on the translation budget. But listen here, Yuji Naka: a three-panel comic strip about Snoopy wanting his dinner can get by without dialogue; you need to sit down and answer a few fucking questions. What the fuck's going on?! Who's the dude who looks like if Robert Smith from The Cure turned into a Pokémon? Is he supposed to be the Satan-like villain who's causing everyone's problems in an attempt to sow discord in the world of men? 'Cos the problems are so mundane, I kind of feel bad for the guy; he's clearly gotten way overdressed for the occasion, and every time he shows up in gameplay, he gets his darkened broody bumcheeks handed to him in two minutes flat.
The gameplay gimmick is that each world has a handful of different costumes to find with different abilities, or rather, ability. Perhaps as some kind of bet or self-imposed challenge, all gameplay is based around only using one button; maybe they didn't want to exclude players whose hands are trapped in cookie jars, or were hoping to port the game to a garage door remote. So, some costumes have a jump, and some have an attack, and you have to switch back and forth to enjoy the benefits of both; some have extremely specific uses, like the "Conservative Politician" costume that you use to enter locked doors shaped like underage girls' vaginas, and generally, I'll vaguely remember seeing one of those doors on World Poo, Level Fart, but the levels are designed with so little flow and intuition that it's hard to keep a mental map; and then there are costumes that have no use at all, like the one that turns into an immobile cube at random intervals, and more often than not, immediately slides off a ledge into the abyss. This is one of the many gameplay design decisions that are more bewildering than anything else; it's like it was thought up by a six-year-old who was threatening that if anyone dared compromise his original vision, he would refuse to eat his dinner.
There's a lot of pointless scarcity; to pick up a costume, you need a single-use key, but there's almost always one in the same room which respawns after you pick it up, so what is the fucking point of locking the costume at all? Also, you don't just have a costume once you've found it; fall off a ledge or get hit once, and you lose your current costume, and if it's a costume from a different world that you brought along to use in a highly specific situation to get one of the hidden gold trophies you need to progress in the game, the way it worked in Sonic Unleashed, and it was annoying as asbestos-buggery back then too, I've lost the thread of this run-on sentence, let's just end on something that sounds vaguely funny, waffle bogeys. On top of that, it's also easy to accidentally lose costumes because you can only carry three, and picking one up kicks out whichever one you had in the third spot. That's right, the inventory system from Treasure Island Dizzy; I’m glad we all remember it.
But as I said, most of this terrible design just confuses me. I haven't even mentioned the weird machine in the hub world that appears to do nothing except make a number-ticker go up, and you can pour resources into it to make the number-ticker go up more elaborately, like some kind of uncomfortable metaphor for life as a social media influencer. See, this isn't standard video game industry terribleness; there's clearly a vision behind it, just not a vision that operates on any light spectrum from our universe. That's why it's mostly more confusing than rage-inducing. Except one thing: at some point, someone pointed out to the six-year-old that we only ever see the player character and the germaphobic porn studio fluffer or whoever else currently needs their bullshit problem fixed, and the game's title character doesn't seem to be involved much, and the six-year-old panicked and threw his juice box 'cos everyone needs to see how cool his character is.
So, every level features several unrelated asides where we have to watch Balan fly around, space-punching rocks and the Robert Smith dude, while we press quick-time events. These sequences are all basically the same and go on way longer than they need to, in that they don't need to exist at all, so that's, like, infinite percent too long, mathematically speaking. And if you don't hit all the quick-time events perfectly, you don't get the gold trophy what you need to progress, so as far as the game's concerned, three "Perfect"s and a "Very Good" is no different to spending the whole sequence rubbing the controller on your buttocks. So on this one specific point, Balan Wonderworld can eat shit; it was weirdly interesting up to now watching it struggle to stand up like a baby deer on the ice, but then it stumbled into my drinks cabinet and knocked over the amaretto.
- Relevant weasel: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Apparently the story gets explained in a tie-in book, which means Balan Wonderworld is exactly like 2001: A Space Odyssey
- I love amaretto and Coke, it's like Dr Pepper for grownups