Balancelot is one of those games that makes you suspect the jokey name came first, and the mechanics, narrative or style were built around the pun. This is a risky move, even for relatively low maintenance games. But it can really pay off if the gameplay is solid and the joke can hold up for however long it takes you to finish the game.
In Balancelot, you play as an aspiring knight on a quest to prove his skills and worth. Armed with a shield and lance, but with only a single wheel to ride, you must traverse a dangerous medieval world on your trusty unicycle.
The world is inspired not, as such, by the legendary tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Instead, it draws on the style and inhabitants on those peculiar doodles found in the corners of old tapestries, the ones of huge frogs, angry rabbits and people so bizarre they were destined to become memes. The background is awash with soft sepia tones and the enemies you encounter feel like something out of an ancient fever dream, from giant snails to multi-legged forked-tongued demons. The 2D style inspired by the flat-faced characters in medieval art lends itself well to the side-scroller format.
The gameplay is simple to understand but brutally difficult in practice. You move forwards and backwards using one joy-con and use the analogue stick of the other to maintain your balance. It takes a while to get used to shifting your character’s weight from your precarious place atop the single wheel. If you hit the ground at all, you die and have to restart from the last checkpoint. You’ll likely die multiple times in the first couple of levels as you learn how to balance properly as you climb hills and leap over holes and crates.
The sheer difficulty of the basic mechanics is not to Balancelot’s detriment. In fact, with a premise this simple, it’s integral to making the game engaging. Once you do get the hang of the unusual controls, especially if that’s the kind of challenge that appeals to you, there’s a fair amount of variety in the game to keep you occupied.
Occasionally, enemies will block your path which you can stab with your lance so they don’t knock you off your unicycle. This is where the game falls short and starts to feel clunky. If your lance doesn’t hit the enemy in exactly the right place, it just won’t register at all. You’ll be stuck wobbling on your single wheel until the monster moves back into the right position, which it may not do until after you’ve collapsed and had to restart the level. This is frustrating in a way that clearly isn’t intentional and disrupts the flow of the game.
Balancelot is built around a fun premise, but it can easily fall flat if you take the weird controls as annoying rather than interesting. Even if you do have a propensity for the unicycle, the clunky attempt at combat could still knock you off course.