Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka is back! Not that he’s ever really been away, of course – after leaving Sega back in 2006, he founded Prope and produced entertaining curios such as Let’s Tap while also contributing to the always fascinating Street Plaza games – but with Balan Wonderworld the Naka of old is back, as is a brand of action that’s become increasingly rare. This is 3D platforming as you know and quite possibly love it from the turn of the century.
Not so much of a surprise, really, given that Balan Wonderworld marks the first collaboration between Naka and Naoto Ohshima, the artist behind Sonic the Hedgehog, since 1998’s Sonic Adventure. There’s an undeniable sense of Sonic Team in its 90s and early-00s pomp to Balan Wonderworld, and after a playthrough of the soon-to-be-released demo I’ve come to realise that’s no bad thing at all – it’s an enjoyably colourful and energetic antidote to the winter lockdown blues.
But there’s no getting away that Balan Wonderworld feels like an artifact from a different time – if you were feeling particularly unkind, you might go as far as to call it a bit of a relic too. It’s Nights Into Dreams that this venture at Naka’s new project at Square Enix leans into the most – the character of Balan themself looks like they may well have soared in from Nights Into Dreams’ heady fantasy, and indeed you’re even given the opportunity to play as Balan should you stumble across their trophy, though disappointingly it’s a simple QTE routine. In Balan Wonderworld, it initially seems the action is more akin to Nights Into Dreams’ more grounded moments, as you clumsily bound around with lead characters Leo or Emma Cole.
First impressions aren’t great, then, and even when experiencing Balan Wonderworld on a PlayStation 5 it can feel lesser than many of the Sonic Adventure tributes cobbled together in Dreams that I’ve played. But! That initial disappointment is soon countered by some of that old Sonic Team magic: composer Ryo Yamazaki does a great job emulating the uplifting elevator music of Naka and Ohshima’s earlier work, and as you nose through the scruffy levels on offer in the demo you slowly pick up new outfits and abilities. There’s a pig suit that lets you stomp on enemies, a wolf suit that grants you a whirlwind attack, a football kit that unlocks a brief but entertaining free-kick mini-game and all sorts of gems and trinkets to hoover up dotted around each level.
The hub is what effectively amounts to a Chao garden – except this time they’re Tims you’re raising and caring for.
Later levels give you access to sheep suits that puff up and send you floating along jetstreams, or a bat that drifts through the air – each of the 80 suits on offer with their own abilities, unlocking secrets (and coming with their own little adaptive trigger sensation if you’re playing on PlayStation 5). It’s a stark contrast to the sharp focus of classic Sonic Team adventures, but it’s a welcome twist, and by the time I’d beaten the demo’s boss and was treated to a full-on song and dance number Balan Wonderworld’s rough edges were washed away by the upbeat energy of it all. Yuji Naka is back, alongside the sort of games that made his name – and that of Sonic Team – so cherished, and despite some early misgivings I’m excited to see where it leads.
Balan Wonderworld’s demo goes live tomorrow across Switch, PlayStation, Xbox and PC, ahead of the game’s release in March