You may want to take a seat before reading this next sentence, maybe get a glass of water or take a deep breath. Unbox (the console version is called Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure) is a modern day 3D platformer that isn’t trying to model itself off Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64. While you’re cleaning up pieces of your blown mind, why not watch our latest video about it?
The School is So Old it’s in Black & White
It’s becoming exceedingly rare to find modern 3D platformers, much less ones that don’t try to emulate a Nintendo 64 platformer to some degree. The last several years for fans of the genre have been slim pickings. Yooka-Laylee is the biggest example, a 3D platformer so dedicated to being Banjo-Kazooie it skinned a bear and a bird and started wearing their bloody entrails around the house. Poi, a lesser known exhibit from the species, goes to no less extreme ends to replicate Super Mario 64, though at least it turned out.
What you don’t have many of are 3D platformers trying something new. This year has luckily granted us with three exceptions – Snake Pass, a platformer in which you slither around as a snake rather than jumping, and tomorrow A Hat in Time hits Steam, featuring unique gameplay mechanics and levels.
But it’s Unbox that sets a high bar for originality in the genre. Unfortunately for it, and developer Prospect Games, that bar is a two sided… bar. It’s a bad thing as much as it is a negative, is the point.
What sets Unbox apart from other 3D platformers is that you play as a cardboard box. You’re just a plain box too, no anthropomorphized features, no arms, and no legs. Legs and the various things they can do are pretty integral to the genre, right? Well, that’s what Prospect is trying to disprove.
You can jump in Unbox, it wouldn’t be much of a 3D platformer if you couldn’t (looking at you The Last Tinker). But rather than a full-on, grown-up kid jump, it’s more of a little hop. Instead, if you want to reach out and touch the sky, you’re going to have to unbox yourself. As well as a box, you’re also a Russian nesting doll, full of other, smaller boxes that are also you. It’s only weird if you think about it. If you want to do a high jump, you unbox, which ejects the next set of boxes out of the larger box, thus flinging you in the air.
But wait, that’s not all! If you call now, you’ll also get momentum! As well as not being able to actually jump in the traditional sense, your lack of legs also means you can’t walk. This means you have to roll yourself around everywhere, and the thing about rolling things is that they tend to pick up momentum and speed as they go along. They also struggle going up stairs, but hey, you can’t have it all.
To properly traverse the three worlds in Unbox (plus a hubworld) you need to master the momentum and the Unbox mechanics, and use them in tandem. Roll up to a bottomless pit, picking up speed as you go, then hit the unbox button at just the right time to get across. You can chain together your unboxings too, which can effectively launch you halfway across the map if you time it correctly. But you can’t spam your unboxings, as you only get six at a time. You’re going to have to time your jumps properly, just like any other good 3D platformer.
…in a Mediocre Package
The problem with Unbox, however, is that it doesn’t really know what to do with itself. The levels are expertly designed to take advantage of the unboxing mechanic. Two of the three worlds are essentially island levels, requiring you to unbox to simply get from one island to the next. You can play it safe by hopscotching your way to where you want to go, or you can take a risk and unbox yourself over top of multiple islands.
This is a fun world to explore, but unfortunately, there’s where you’ll be getting all your fun.
The actual missions don’t take advantage of the unboxing feature nearly as well as the level design does. Most of the time you’ll be going to a point and returning to the quest-giver. Other times you’ll have to go inside one of the rare indoor levels and not get to use the unboxing mechanic to its fullest extent since you’re limited to how high you can go. There are also arbitrary races – a requirement for any 3D platformer – that funnel you down pre-set courses. They try their best to incorporate the unboxing mechanic into them, but you’re usually better off just rolling around.
Worst of all are the missions that prevent you from unboxing at all. The levels were designed with unboxing in mind, making these missions frustrating as well as uninteresting. What’s the point of making a game with a unique premise like that and taking it away multiple times per world?
The story isn’t well integrated into the gameplay structure either. It starts out well enough – you play as a special self-delivering box working for the Global Postal Service that was made to save the company. What makes you special from all the other self-delivering boxes is never explained. This is never followed through with the missions however, as instead of delivering packages through dangerous territory or trying to run from a dog, you instead complete races, race up a mountain to plant a flag, strapping your friend to your head so he can collect map data, and other various random missions.
A Cardboard Soul
Unbox suffers from boring missions, and a story that starts light-hearted and funny and takes a sudden turn down Too Serious Street near the end. Neither of them take full advantage of the gameplay mechanics, or the world Prospect Games created. Unbox is a gorgeous looking game, it feels great to play, and the characters are all interesting.
In some ways, it feels like Unbox’s original gameplay actually hurts it some regard. If it were just doing the retro, Nintendo 64 platformer thing like everyone else, then the boring missions and story wouldn’t stand out so much. But because it tries something new, it has to be judged on a higher level. So, for that at least, Unbox at least deserves some respect.
None of this is to say Unbox is a bad game, quite the opposite. When you’re traveling around the game world, unboxing your way across giant ravines and going super-sonic as you fling yourself down a mountain, you’re going to have a huge grin on your face. The characters and some of the early story beats will at least make you chuckle, far more so than Yooka-Laylee could ever hope to achieve. Unbox is the prime example of a game that should have been better than what it ended up being.