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Balan Wonderworld review: A prolonged exercise in frustration

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Balan Wonderworld review: A prolonged exercise in frustration

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After three levels in Balan Wonderworld, I was lost. I did not understand how to unlock the fourth stage, so I spent a half-hour wandering around the hub area trying to figure it out. I would’ve spent much longer if it weren’t for the chat in my livestream. It turns out that I needed to go back and get some more collectibles to unlock the next stage. And that’s when I knew how little respect Balan Wonderworld had for my time as the player.

Balan Wonderworld is the 3D platformer from publisher Square Enix and developers Arzest and Balan Company. Yuji Naka, one of the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog, is Balan’s director, and he worked with artist Naoto Ohshima, who collaborated with Naka on Sonic Adventure. It’s available on consoles and PC for $60.

The game has players controlling a character who gains powers by wearing different suits. It might sound like a strong premise (or like Super Mario Odyssey), but it does not come together. This is a bad video game. At its best, it is boring and uninspired. At its worst, it is shameless in its efforts to pad its length and to cut corners.

Balan Wonderworld is one of the worst $60 games I’ve ever played from a major publisher. Let’s get into why.

Baffling, slippery controls

Balan Wonderworld doesn’t feel good to play. Jumping is floaty and running is slow but also slippery. Jumping is also all the main character can do. Every button on the gamepad does the same thing, with the exception of the left and right bumpers to switch between costumes. Otherwise, A, B, X, Y, LT, and RT are all jump — or they are all attack if your suit has that capability (but then that probably means you cannot jump anymore).

This foundation is rotten, and the rest of the game falls apart on top of it. The action can never get too complex, because you often can not jump and attack at the same time. Swapping out costumes is not possible in the air, and even when you’re on the ground, the process takes a few seconds.

This simplicity might sound wonderful for young players, but that is not the case. The game occasionally puts you in a situation where you need to jump and the only suit you have cannot jump. That is thoughtless to the point of cruelty, and I would expect any player of any age to feel frustrated in that situation.

Absurd progression that is disrespectful of the player’s time

Balan Wonderworld’s developers gated progression behind difficult-yet-inane collectibles to justify its $60 price. To go unlock levels 4, 5, and 6, you need 25 Balan statues. And you will need 50, 80, and 110 statues before you can fully beat the game. And it’s not like these easy-to-find collectibles that you get while playing through a level. They are well hidden and often require suits from other stages to unlock.

These hard gates are how the game goes from what should be 5 hours to beat to something closer to 12 hours to finish.

What’s even more infuriating is that the game does not tell you that you need these statues to progress. Instead, a meter on the pause screen displays what you need (say, 15 of 25 things) for a train. It does not say what those things are, and that’s how I ended up lost for a half-hour.

Balan Wonderworld is truly disrespectful of the player’s time. The only stated objective the game gives you in the user interface is a command to build a “tower o’ Tims” by feeding collectible gems to the fuzzy Tim creatures. But this is a meaningless distraction.

But perhaps the most offensive aspect of Balan Wonderworld are the bonus Balan’s Bout challenges. These are the sections that have Balan flying around like a Nights game. But you don’t control the Balan’s flight. Instead, you only need to watch these cutscenes so that you can press a button the moment that two identical pictures line up correctly.

Balan’s Bouts start off boring and distracting, and somehow they get worse as the game progresses. These special stages get longer and longer in the later levels. You will spend multiple minutes just staring and waiting for your chance to press a button. And as a kicker, you only get the Balan Statue (which you need to progress) if you get Excellent timing throughout the Bout. This also gets more difficult later in the game.

Oh, and if you don’t get Excellent on one of the prompts in a Balan’s Bout, you cannot simply retry. You need to leave the level and start it over again from the beginning to get another attempt.

Now, that’s a $60 value!

Ugly and boring

I don’t like the way the game looks and sounds.

It’s colorful and crisp enough on a stream, but everything else is disappointing or even incomplete. Your character’s running animation is loose and disconnected from her actual movements. NPCs often dance around stages as you play, but they disappear if you go in for a closer look. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and it makes it feel like I’m playing a prototype.

It tries to pass off giant floating assets as artistic design. The levels are actually so nondescript that it makes navigating and placing yourself in the environment feel like a chore. In other games you can look at a set of puzzles and understand what you need to do, but this is rare in Balan.

The one bright spot is the fun dance numbers and cinematics, but that doesn’t save Balan Wonderworld. Instead, these just serve as a reminder that the story is nonsense. Oh, and the soundtrack has multiple songs that feel like carbon copies of tunes from other works (such as Return of the Jedi, Super Mario Odyssey, and Ghostbusters). 

Balan Wonderworld is not worth $60

Balan Wonderworld is a $60 game, but I wouldn’t recommend it for even $10. It oscillates between boring and infuriating. The most fun I had with it was when I got costumes that made it feel almost on par with a mediocre Sega Dreamcast platformer in terms of capabilities.

The kindest thing I can say about the game is that it does make for an entertaining livestream. I broadcasted my play on Twitch, and my audience seemed to really enjoy watching me suffer. So I guess this is a great one for all those fans of masochism out there.

Let’s call it The Room of video games.

Balan Wonderworld is available now for $60 on Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation.

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Speech recognition system trains on radio archive to learn Niger Congo languages

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For many of the 700 million illiterate people around the world, speech recognition technology could provide a bridge to valuable information. Yet in many countries, these people tend to speak only languages for which the datasets necessary to train a speech recognition model are scarce. This data deficit persists for several reasons, chief among them the fact that creating products for languages spoken by smaller populations can be less profitable.

Nonprofit efforts are underway to close the gap, including 1000 Words in 1000 Languages, Mozilla’s Common Voice, and the Masakhane project, which seeks to translate African languages using neural machine translation. But this week, researchers at Guinea-based tech accelerator GNCode and Stanford detailed a new initiative that uniquely advocates using radio archives in developing speech systems for “low-resource” languages, particularly Maninka, Pular, and Susu in the Niger Congo family.

“People who speak Niger Congo languages have among the lowest literacy rates in the world, and illiteracy rates are especially pronounced for women,” the coauthors note. “Maninka, Pular, and Susu are spoken by a combined 10 million people, primarily in seven African countries, including six where the majority of the adult population is illiterate.”

The idea behind the new initiative is to make use of unsupervised speech representation learning, demonstrating that representations learned from radio programs can be leveraged for speech recognition. Where labeled datasets don’t exist, unsupervised learning can help to fill in domain knowledge by determining the correlations between data points and then training based on the newly applied data labels.

New datasets

The researchers created two datasets, West African Speech Recognition Corpus and the West African Radio Corpus, intended for applications targeting West African languages. The West African Speech Recognition Corpus contains over 10,000 hours of recorded speech in French, Maninka, Susu, and Pular from roughly 49 speakers, including Guinean first names and voice commands like “update that,” “delete that,” “yes,” and “no.” As for the West African Radio Corpus, it consists of 17,000 audio clips sampled from archives collected from six Guinean radio stations. The broadcasts in the West African Radio Corpus span news and shows in languages including French, Guerze, Koniaka, Kissi, Kono, Maninka, Mano, Pular, Susu, and Toma.

To create a speech recognition system, the researchers tapped Facebook’s wav2vec, an open source framework for unsupervised speech processing. Wav2vec uses an encoder module that takes raw audio and outputs speech representations, which are fed into a Transformer that ensures the representations capture whole-audio-sequence information. Created by Google researchers in 2017, the Transformer network architecture was initially intended as a way to improve machine translation. To this end, it uses attention functions instead of a recurrent neural network to predict what comes next in a sequence.

Above: The accuracies of WAwav2vec.

Despite the fact that the radio dataset includes phone calls as well as background and foreground music, static, and interference, the researchers managed to train a wav2vec model with the West African Radio Corpus, which they call WAwav2vec. In one experiment with speech across French, Maninka, Pular, and Susu, the coauthors say that they achieved multilingual speech recognition accuracy (88.01%) on par with Facebook’s baseline wav2vec model (88.79%) — despite the fact that the baseline model was trained on 960 hours of speech versus WAwav2vec’s 142 hours.

Virtual assistant

As a proof of concept, the researchers used WAwav2vec to create a prototype of a speech assistant. The assistant — which is available in open source along with the datasets — can recognize basic contact management commands (e.g., “search,” “add,” “update,” and “delete”) in addition to names and digits. As the coauthors note, smartphone access has exploded in the Global South, with an estimated 24.5 million smartphone owners in South Africa alone, according to Statista, making this sort of assistant likely to be useful.

“To the best of our knowledge, the multilingual speech recognition models we trained are the first-ever to recognize speech in Maninka, Pular, and Susu. We also showed how this model can power a voice interface for contact management,” the coauthors wrote. “Future work could expand its vocabulary to application domains such as microfinance, agriculture, or education. We also hope to expand its capabilities to more languages from the Niger-Congo family and beyond, so that literacy or ability to speak a foreign language are not prerequisites for accessing the benefits of technology. The abundance of radio data should make it straightforward to extend the encoder to other languages.”

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Gamescom announces online-only festival in August, reversing hybrid event plan

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The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day on Tuesday, August 20.

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Reversing a plan announced in March, Gamescom will no longer try to do a hybrid gaming expo this summer. Instead, it will focus on an online-only event at the end of August.

The fan-and-business trade show is the world’s biggest game-industry event — with 370,000 people attending the physical event in 2019 — but it had to switch to online-only in 2020 due to the pandemic. The event organizers floated the idea of a hybrid physical event where fans could come see games in person along with digital announcements. The hope was that the coronavirus would subside thanks to vaccinations and that people would want to recapture the excitement of an in-person event.

But today, the Association of the German Games Industry and Koelnmesse decided against that plan, based on responses from potential exhibitors and fans. They plan to hold the main part of the show from August 25 to August 29.

Gamescom Congress will once again take place Thursday, August 26, and Devcom will start off the events August 23. The main days of Gamescom will take place on August 26 and August 27. IGN will produce a show dubbed Awesome Indies. Opening Night Live, which Geoff Keighley produces, will still take place, but it will now be online-only as well. Gamescom was planning to start selling tickets in May.

Above: The crowd at Gamescom 2019 on opening day. The show was online-only in 2020. It will be online-only again in 2021.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“This decision was made after extensive discussions with partners and exhibitors,” the organizers said in a press release. “Thus, the organizers take into account the current situation, in which too many companies are unable to participate in physical events this year due to the still difficult development. In this way, they also meet the partners’ strong need for planning security. This means that Gamescom 2021 will be held exclusively digitally and free of charge for all Gamescom fans.”

Last year, Gamescom had more than 100 million video views over all formats and channels, more than 50 million unique viewers from 180 countries, and 370 partners from 44 countries. Oliver Frese, chief operating officer of Koelnmesse, said in a statement that Gamescom was coming too early for many companies in the industry, as it required so much advanced planning amid an uncertain environment. Companies need that planning reliability, he said.

Felix Falk, managing director of the German Games Industry Association, said in a statement that next year the groups will be able to implement more of the concepts they had in mind for a hybrid version of Gamescom. There will be business-to-business matchmaking events such as “indies meet investors and publishers” pitch events.

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Riot Games will launch Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021

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Riot Games will launch Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021

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Riot Games will launch the League of Legends: Wild Rift esports tournament in late 2021.

The company hopes to apply the lessons of a decade of League of Legends esports to the mobile game. Riot Games wants to build a similar community for Wild Rift. It made the announcement this morning on the eve of the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational tournament.

League of Legends: Wild Rift is a 5-on-5 multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) experience of League of Legends, developed for console and mobile by Riot Games. Wild Rift brings League to new platforms, featuring competitive gameplay, a twin-stick control system, and a roster of over 60 champions to take to the Rift, with two more coming every month this year.

John Needham, the global head of esports at Riot Games, said in a statement that Riot believes mobile gaming will transform the future of esports. The company didn’t specify whether the Wild Rift esports tournament would be an in-person or digital event.

Needham also noted that regional teams will qualify for this tournament in the fourth quarter of the year.

A worldwide competition

Above: The stage for the Riot Games esports event.

Image Credit: Riot Games

Regional Wild Rift Esports competitions have already started around the world. Southeast Asia recently concluded the first official esports competition, the SEA Icon Series: Preseason. The five week-long event took place in multiple locations: Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore and featured 54 professional teams.

Leo Faria is global head of Wild Rift esports. He said in a statement that a number of esports organizations have announced their Wild Rift teams. In Southeast Asia, organizations like The Alliance, RRQ, and LoL Esports veterans Flash Wolves all announced Wild Rift rosters. More big names are coming, he said.

Faria said that a regional competition schedule, third-party tournament guidelines, and more information about the global event will be revealed later this year.

Other big events

wild 3

Above: The Masters Trophy

Image Credit: Riot Games

Other events include the Valorant Stage 3 Masters event, which will increase in size with 16 teams in attendance. It will take place from September 9 to September 19. The winner of Masters: Berlin will automatically qualify into Valorant Champions where a single team will be crowned the best Valorant team of 2021. HyperX will sponsor that event as a keyboard and mouse partner. Other Riot partners include Spotify and Verizon. More than 2,000 teams have participated in qualifying events.

Cisco will be providing the network supporting MSI in Iceland and Riot Games’ production centers in Berlin and Los Angeles. For the first time, pro teams at MSI will be able to practice from the comfort of their hotel rooms on the same high-performance servers at ultra low ping.

Riot is also launching a new podcast that will be available exclusively on Spotify that will cover trending LoL Esports news from around the world. The episodes will be hosted by Riot Games personalities and will drop weekly throughout the year.

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GamesBeat’s creed when covering the game industry is “where passion meets business.” What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you — not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it.

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