I’ll be perfectly honest. I’d never even heard the name Unbox mentioned before taking up this review. My first thought was, in fact, about a new simulator-style game about unboxing games, as a sort of nod to parody titles like Goat Simulator and the likes. As it turns out, I was completely off the mark. Unbox is, in actuality, one of the best 3D platformers to ever grace the PC, and easily holds its own among the 90’s greats from which it draws its inspiration.
There are two things that became immediately apparent when I started Unbox. The first is that it puts the wealth of its eggs in the basket marked “Fun and Charm”. The upbeat, Caribbean-inspired music, the vibrant colour palette (even in a snowy ice world,) the character tropes, the sound effects, and even the premise of playing as a box in a world populated by other boxes; it’s all adorable, and can make even the crabbiest of cynical old game journalists melt before its charm. The second thing to notice—and this is a big one—is that Unbox very clearly takes its cue from a vacuum left in the wake of the 90s platforming greats by the likes of Rare Ltd.
From the art style to the collect-a-thon of side content, to the silly premise, to the slightly outside-the-box (heh) controls, it screams “N64” without ever feeling of rose-coloured spectacles. What worked was kept, what didn’t work was also kept, and what “really” didn’t work was either tossed or re-thought. This means that even some of the things we might change for the sake of modern tastes are still cemented in our collective fondness for such games, and changing them can do more harm than good. Certain changes are a given, like the power-ups to grant health/unbox regenerating quickly, which makes the platforming challenges much less frustrating than they may have been in the past, but the core formula feels like it’s remained largely intact.
As for the story and gameplay, it’s a suitably adorable and simple premise that leaves it easily accessible to children, without discouraging cynics. You play as Newbie, the newest and most high-techest self-delivering box to be created by the GPS (the Global Postal Service) in the hopes of saving the failing company from the usurping GPS (the Greaser Postal Service). Your superior intellect will be your primary tool to your advantage, as well as a clever multi-jump feature called “unboxing”, which allows you to shed a layer of box to gain a boost of speed and height, which can be used up to six times, provided you have enough of your unboxing resource. That resource also serves as additional hitpoints should those Wild Card meanies have at you. If and when they do, you have your trust ground stomp-style ability to knock them out with, which doubles as your means of activating heavy pressure-plate switches.
The primary goal (obviously) is not to save your company, but to collect collectibles. Duh. We’re sticking with the 90’s thing, remember? Collectibles come in the form of rolls of gold tape, postage stamps of the standard and hidden varieties, and adorable little caged boxes needing help. Standing between you and their discovery is, as you might expect, a myriad of platforming puzzles and challenges. What comes as a real surprise, though, is just how much animation there is to the world—how interactive it all feels. There are always bits of the scenery moving around (usually with hidden collectibles in tow), switches and levers to activate and pull which do a variety of things. It’s quite a surprise the first time you explode a house while delivering a package with fireworks as a propulsion method. Collecting enough rolls of gold tape will also award vanity items, because character customization is awesome, and costumes on a box that gets around by rolling is genius.
Which all brings us neatly to the point in which I get to talk about the movement in Unbox. Holy crap it can be challenging. Unbox is an Unreal Engine game, which means that the decision to have a box that rolls around for locomotion is paired with a physics engine that can actually make that happen. I was sort of expecting a collision model of a running person with the animations of a rolling box. But to my surprise, Newbie legit tumbles and wobbles around as his (or her) corners bump and thump their way around. Having a platformer where it’s difficult to tell exactly where the bounding boxes for your character are, while also having that character never move in “quite” a straight line is a very bold move, but oddly, it never got frustrating, either. The game’s just so damn fun that it never bothered me.
And that, I think, is Unbox’ greatest achievement. I’m increasingly bitter about games. I adore them—truly, I do—but I play so many that it’s easy to get picky about little things because this game or that did it better. Unbox took me back to a time when games were about fun, with little more than a heaping dose of challenge seasoning. Between all of that, and the inclusion of local split-screen modes (which I wasn’t able to wrangle any friends into playing), its accessibility to younger players, the heaping doses of tasteful nostalgia, and oodles of charm, Unbox wraps itself up as one brilliant and beautiful little package.