Want to spend an hour or so wandering colourful cartoon dreamscapes crafted by the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog? Do you enjoy the sensation of being pleasantly bewildered? If you answered yes to either of those questions you’re going to want to play the demo for Balan Wonderworld. It’s something else.
That something else is a dreamlike platformer in which a pair of your heroes, Leo Craig and Emma Cole, are sent by the mysterious maestro Balan on a journey through imaginary worlds created from other people’s dreams. In the demo, releasing tomorrow for PlayStations, Xboxes, Switches, and Steam, we explore the dreams of a farmer who’s had crop trouble, a boy who dreams of flying, and a girl who met a kitten.
The demo opens with your chosen protagonist in a place called the Isle of Tims, a verdant field with portals to the available levels. This is where we interact with the Tims, small fluffy creatures that follow Leo and Emma on their adventures. By feeding these creatures crystal drops collected in the game’s various stages, we can change their colours, which affects how helpful the Tims are while exploring. Red Tims attack. Pink Tims will hunt for hidden items. They are definitely not Chao from Sonic the Hedgehog, but they are sorta.
The Sonic similarities make perfect sense, given Balan Wonderworld’s pedigree. The new game is directed by Yuji Naka, director of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, with art direction by Naoto Ohshima, the designer of Sonic and director of timeless classics Nights Into Dreams and Blinx: The Time Sweeper. Echoes of each of those games can be found in Balan Wonderworld.
The demo’s gameplay stages are vast, twisted wonderlands full of dancing creatures in fancy costumes, golden statues to collect, challenges to overcome, and puzzles to solve. The colourful landscapes take cues from the dreamers who dream them. The farmer’s levels, for example, are dotted with giant vegetables and haystacks. “The Boy Who Would Be One with the Wind” level in the demo features the actual boy, giant-sized, reclining in the air, assumedly dreaming of flying. The designs are wacky and imaginative, as one would expect from art director Naoto Ohshima of Sonic and Nights Into Dreams fame.
The core mechanic of Balan Wonderworld is costume changing. Leo and Emma unlock costumes as they adventure. Each has a unique ability. The Soaring Sheep costume allows the heroes to transform into puffballs, which can ride the wind created by rotating fans. The Elastiplant costume lets the pair extend their upper body in order to access crystals and switches placed slightly higher than other crystals or switches.
Other costumes mimic moves you might find in a Mario or Sonic game. The Aero Acrobat outfit gives Leo and Emma the ability to lock on to airborne enemies and objects, dashing towards them to deliver an attack. That’s Sonic’s homing attack. The Pounding Pig costume is Mario’s ground pound in adorable pig form.
Instead of just giving the characters all of these abilities and let them go to town on some dreamscapes, Balan Wonderworld has them juggling up to three costumes at a time. This gives the player something to think about as they scour levels for Crystal Drops and hidden secrets. Checkpoints in levels can be used to swap out players’ costume lineups, so don’t fret if you come across a path that’s inaccessible to your current wardrobe.
I can’t honestly say I have a firm grasp of what exactly is going on in Balan’s Wonderworld from playing the demo. Much of my play time was spent pointing at the screen and asking my spouse what the hell was going on. Why are they dancing? Why is this fan here? Why is that giant boy floating there? Our characters seem to be a couple of well-meaning children wandering about solving people’s problems, which is good. We also might be hallucinating, which can be fun. I’m looking forward to getting to the bottom of this trippy mystery when the full game comes out on March 26.