In Unbox, you play as a sentient cardboard box invented in a bid to save a global delivery corporation from going bankrupt under the weight of staff wages. Setting aside the issue of how a company can be having trouble paying its employees despite having the kind of R&D cash needed to create revolutionary artificial intelligence is certainly tough if you’re a miserable cynic like me, but it’s only the first of many problems that this self-confessed “love letter to the 3D platformers of the 90s” presents. Unbox has stars in its eyes, that’s for sure, but if it really were a love letter, it’d be scrawled on a discarded cigarette packet with a blunt wax crayon. Whomever the writer intended to woo, be it the beautiful Mario 64, the voluptuous Banjo-Kazooie, or any of their lovely doe-eyed friends, they would hardly feel like the luckiest gal in the world. If anything, they’d feel pity.
Pop quiz: name a 3D shape that rolls well. If you said “a cube”, well, I’m sorry to say that you might be an idiot. Don’t despair just yet, though – that’s exactly the kind of thinking that could land you a job at Prospect Games. A similar train of thought is presumably what led to one of Unbox’s most pervasive problems: in a game which requires the player to do a lot of rolling and bouncing, a cube is a terrible choice of shape for the player’s character. Controlling the thing is a constant annoyance, and as a result, grabbing the bazillions of postage-themed collectables scattered over the game world like the confetti at Postman Pat’s wedding is awkward and finicky when it should be simple. It’s true that the fun of collectable-based gameplay is in the seeking rather than the finding, but frequently missing the giant postage stamps and rolls of golden duct tape (yes, really) because your box lands on one of its corners and bounces awkwardly sideways rapidly stifles any motivation you may have mustered in your quest to become the world’s foremost hoarder of postage & packaging paraphernalia.
The choice of avatar spoils more than just the mechanics in Unbox, however. Thinking back once again to the 90s platformers it’s so keen to emulate, character design stands out more or less across the board. In addition to the established favourites of the 2D era, the PlayStation, N64 and Saturn played host to a slew of bright-eyed, loveable scamps (anyone else remember Croc?) whose hijinks were as wacky and humorous as they were memorable precisely because of their fantastic character design. The best that Unbox can muster in its homage to these beloved childhood favourites of mine is, if I guess correctly, nothing more than a stock asset of the Unreal Engine. A supporting cast of brightly-coloured fellow boxes with names and (at the risk of being overly generous) personalities pops up all over the world to inject the game with some semblance of plot and character, but mostly they just spew an endless stream of desperately unfunny postage-based jokes and (*sigh*) reference humour. So, you know how the game hub in Metal Gear Solid V is an offshore facility called “Mother Base”? Well, there’s a game hub in Unbox too: it’s an offshore facility called “Other Base”. In the first level, a character who challenges you to a time-attack race remarks upon your success that you’re very fast indeed, “just like a hedgehog”. If either of those raised a chuckle, you might just get a kick out of the interminably naff humour that Unbox half-heartedly throws at you. Otherwise, just be thankful that there’s no voice acting in this game (although that might at least have reduced the risk of exposure to the game’s soundtrack, much more than an hour of which provides approximately the lethal dose of steel drum music).
The greatest disservice Unbox does to its idols lies in its total lack of structure. Where the great platformers of old offered increasing levels of challenge across coherent levels, Unbox gives a brief and completely unnecessary tutorial (move, jump, double-jump, collect shiny things – there, off you go), then drops the player into a sandbox amongst which various minigames are scattered in a haphazard fashion. None of them are particularly well thought-out or memorable. Hit two switches within a time limit to turn off a jet of flame obscuring a collectable; complete a racetrack in under a certain time; save one of the irritating side characters from enemies and escort him back to a boat; that kind of thing. Most of these challenges would be entertaining side quests in a decent platformer, but in Unbox they constitute the meat of the game. For the most part, they’re made trivially easy by the game’s titular mechanic - hitting the left trigger allows you to “UNBOX” (the game insists on spelling it out in all caps). So, what’s UNBOXING, exactly? A remarkably inventive box-themed superpower that justifies the game’s mundane premise? Nope! it’s just a double-jump. Oh, but you can do it up to six times in a row, and it costs hit points. It’s effectively a maphack for a lot of the game’s challenges, and the health cost is mitigated to the point of irrelevance both by the fact that health pickups are everywhere in the game world, and that dying carries absolutely no penalty whatsoever. Speaking of dying, the enemies facing you in Unbox consist of a rival faction of boxes called Wild Cards. See, because they’re made of...yeah, it’s not funny either. You fight off these dire fiends in traditional platform style – hit a button in mid-air to perform a stomp attack. Sadly, even this staple mechanic is poorly implemented, as the attack barely increases your character’s downward velocity beyond its normal falling speed. Bafflingly, there’s absolutely no sense of impact to the attack – your box just bounces away with nothing to indicate the force you’d expect to feel. In nearly three decades of jumping on enemies’ heads to defeat them, I can’t recall a single other game that’s managed to make what is arguably one of the most iconic aspects of platform games feel so impotent. Fortunate, then, that you hardly ever need to use it - the enemies in the game can be safely ignored most of the time. Hell, the first boss actually defeated himself when I encountered him. You’re supposed to knock him off the top of a tower by luring him to one of four trapdoors which you then activate with a switch, but the tower is littered with explosive crates which the boss’s own attacks can detonate, blowing him off the tower without any input from the player.
With its incredibly basic premise, rudimentary gameplay and near-total lack of character design, Unbox feels like nothing so much as a game design student’s final-year project. Judged as such, it’s actually quite impressive, given that it runs perfectly, looks very nice, and has some solid (if poorly implemented) physics. There’s a surprising level of attention to detail, and the game world feels nicely handcrafted when you’re not sextuple-jumping over it at top speed to grab another poorly-hidden collectable (and bypassing any intended challenges as you do so). But as a supposedly genuine attempt to recreate the magical 3D platformers of yore, it’s a shallow tribute indeed. Kids might get a kick out of it, and they’re certainly the only ones who might be amused at the game’s insufferably banal sense of humour, but if you’re an adult gamer looking to relive your teenage years, it will do little to rekindle any fond memories.