A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this game.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Balan Wonderland is a running and jumping adventure available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and X/S, and Windows PCs. Players assume the role of either Leo or Emma; they're a couple of kids having trouble with their confidence and friendships in the real world. Upon visiting a mysterious theater, they're whisked off to a fantasy realm where they learn how to deal with the darkness within themselves, which manifests as fantastical creatures. They also get the opportunity to help other people -- whose imaginations are creating these colorful worlds -- confront their problems. Players occasionally fight enemies using a range of abilities, from electrical shocks and ground pounds to tornado spins and laser beams. There's no blood or gore, and enemies simply disappear when defeated. Narrative themes include friendship and perseverance, and cooperative play for two local players encourages communication and teamwork. Puzzles reward players for using simple problem-solving skills, though some may stump or frustrate younger kids.
What's it about?
BALAN WONDERWORLD begins with a story sequence that shows one of its two lead kid characters -- either Emma Cole or Leo Craig, depending on which you choose -- experiencing social issues in the real world. Upon visiting a mysterious magical theater, they're whisked off to the Wonderworld, a land of imagination presided over by a strange being named Balan, who subtly and gently guides the kids in confronting their problems and fears as they explore a series of whimsical levels that involve plenty of classic platform-style running and jumping activities. Each level is filled with monsters and contextual traversal puzzles, both of which can be dealt with using a wide range of costumes -- such as a dragon, a plant, and a jellyfish -- that bestow special abilities. One costume allows the game's protagonists to grow taller, another lets them jump and hover further, and another empowers them to swim through magical, cube-like water passages. The heroes also collect golden statues used to unlock additional levels -- including special mini-games in which players take control of Balan as he fights his nemesis -- as well as gems called "drops" that can be used to feed and grow little creatures called Tims in the hub that connects all of the worlds. Players can also enlist the help of a friend to take on levels as a team.
Is it any good?
This is kind of a big mess of a game. Balan Wonderworld has all the basics of a decent little Mario-style 3D run-and-jump adventure, including colorful worlds, simple controls, and lots of stuff to find and collect. Other than an occasionally uncooperative camera, it's a fairly smooth and glitch-free experience. Unfortunately, that's about all it has going for it. The visual presentation feels dated, like a game designed a decade or more ago using bland, soulless objects and characters. There seems to be neither rhyme nor reason to its art choices and overall atmosphere. It's just a mishmash of random elements and architecture that feel as though they've been pilfered from a grab bag of other games and franchises, from Crash Bandicoot to Sonic the Hedgehog.
The action, meanwhile, feels unfocused, unoriginal, and haphazard. There's little narrative theme or reason for the varied costumes and abilities we earn other than that someone apparently thought it'd be fun to have a Kirby-like ability-changing mechanic thrown in. While most abilities are fairly straightforward when it comes to how they can be used to traverse or bypass an obstacle, their use as a means of attacking enemies is often clunky. (Thankfully, most enemies aren't too bright.) Even more problematic, the whole experience suffers from poor localization, meaning that not all scenes have been subtitled or made otherwise digestible for Western audiences. There are times when it's difficult to understand how the action relates to the story, and vice versa. Balan Wonderworld feels half-baked and directionless. It's not broken, and most players should be able to work their way through it with relative ease, but the chances of anyone being truly satisfied are low.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about screen time. It only takes 10–15 minutes to complete most levels in Balan Wonderworld. Have you tried regulating your game time by limiting yourself to a set number of levels each time you sit down to play?
Did you find Balan Wonderworld to be easier or more enjoyable when playing with a friend? How did cooperative play change the experience for you?
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
- Price: $59.99
- Pricing structure: Paid
- Available online? Available online
- Developer: Square Enix
- Release date: March 26, 2021
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Adventures
- ESRB rating: E10+ for Fantasy Violence
- Last updated: November 21, 2021
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.