Save the world of packaging from a boxy menace.
PC Release: September 5, 2016
By Ian Coppock
The smell of revolution is in the air. Across cyberspace, gamers weary of generic first-person shooters and buggy triple-A releases are throwing down their computer mice in frustration. A return to an older form of gaming sits on the horizon, specifically, the open-world collect-athons that were so popular in the 90’s. The promise of their return has been made manifest with the announcement of Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, as well as the release of Unbox. It, like a few other games, seeks to help return gaming to a simpler time, one in which game worlds had treasure everywhere, and one in which games actually functioned on their release day.
Unbox is an open-world platforming game inspired by Rare, the company behind most of the 1990’s most popular video games. The game takes license and creative guidance from such 90’s greats as Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Super Mario 64, and Spyro the Dragon. Each of these games espouses a series of open worlds with lots of collectibles to find, as well as an epic (and usually humorous) narrative to tie it all together. The open-world collect-athon archetype rapidly died out at the turn of the century, but it looks poised to make a strong, and direly needed, comeback.
Unbox is set in a cute, cartoony world populated by sentient cardboard boxes, most of whom are in the employ of the Global Postal Service, or GPS. The game begins when the player character, a new box named Newbie, emerges from his box-printing apparatus and into the world of sapient delivery systems. Newbie is quickly given the GPS tour by Bounce, a cheerful red box with a permanent grin, and Dash, a British box who thinks he’s too cool for school. There are a few other named boxes with their own quirks and signature looks, who appear throughout the game to give out missions and challenges.
Although GPS is the largest postal service in the world, its operations are under threat by a gang of rogue boxes called the Wild Cards. These cardboard villains, most of whom are former GPS employees, believe that cardboard boxes should be free to do whatever they want and that GPS has enslaved them. The Wild Cards are led in this endeavor by the dastardly Boss Wild, who seeks to defeat GPS and destroy the world… of packaging!
With the threat of postal annihilation looming ever nearer, Newbie’s postal assignments are put on hold as he and his friends journey across the world. From the frozen slopes of Parcel Peaks to the jungles of Paradise Isles, Newbie must defeat the Wild Cards and save GPS. Otherwise, mail as we know it will be gone forever. Oh no!
The premise of Unbox takes obvious license from the narratives of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Just like in those classic games, the protagonist must face off against a comical villain with a grandiose plan to destroy or rule the world. It becomes clear that Unbox is not a narrative with much emotional brevity. It’s probably on the opposite end of the scale from, say, The Last of Us. But, Unbox isn’t here to pluck the heartstrings so much as to burst the lungs, and that’s okay. It’s refreshing to find a game that’s so confident in just having fun. Every character’s dialogue is chock-full of little jokes and puns that are actually well-written and not cringe-worthy, which is a rarity in video game humor.
Because of its simple, humorous premise, Unbox is one of the most upbeat games to come this way in a while. Every level is replete with bright colors, sun-shiny music, and funny dialogue. These don’t make the game flawless, but they do demonstrate a mastery of the same atmospheres present in 90’s Rare games. Because the focus is drawn away from story and toward unadulterated open-world glee, Unbox‘s characters stay squarely (no pun intended) in their own niches. The narrative includes a few little twists here and there, but there’s really not much more to it than defeating the big bad boss. Just like in games from back in the day.
Even more than the humor-filled writing and the bright atmosphere, the 90’s game trait that Unbox emulates most fervently is its level design. Just like Banjo-Kazooie, Unbox is comprised of several huge, open-world levels replete with missions and hidden treasures. Each world revolves around a certain theme. Paradise Isles, for example, is tropical, while Parcel Peaks is a winter wonderland. Players can wander these worlds in search of treasure, like rolls of golden tape, with rewards for finding certain amounts. Each world also contains magical stamps, Unbox‘s analogue of stars from Super Mario 64 or golden jigsaw puzzles from Banjo-Kazooie. Players must collect enough stamps to unlock the final boss battle, which will advance the story and unlock more worlds to explore.
In order to acquire these stamps, players must engage in a combination of exploration and completing missions. Some stamps can be found freely throughout the world, albeit in obscure areas. The rest are held by Newbie’s fellow boxes, who will surrender their stamps in exchange for services rendered. Missions vary depending on which box Newbie is working for. Dash, befitting his name, will hand out racing challenges. Superbox, GPS’s resident superhero, will challenge Newbie to defeat a given number of boxes, while Hop will give players missions that typically involve, well, hopping, over dangerous terrain. Worlds that appear later in the game will require higher numbers of stamps to challenge Boss Wild.
Although Unbox represents a fantastic return to form for the open-world collect-athon, one has to wonder if it isn’t a bit too derivative of its elder peers. This game is very similar to Banjo-Kazooie, especially in how it structures its collectibles. Banjo-Kazooie had magical music notes around the landscape, golden jigsaw puzzles to collect, and little creatures called Jinjos to free from the bad guys. Unbox has golden tape around the landscape, magic stamps to collect, and little boxes called Zippies to free from the bad guys. Coincidence?
Granted, this will give Unbox a lot of nostalgia value for Nintendo 64 fans, but it also makes this game feel a teeny tiny bit like a rip-off. Sure, anthropomorphic animals have been swapped out for intelligent boxes, but the structure underlying the scenery change is virtually identical to Banjo-Kazooie. The game’s music is also similar to that of Banjo-Kazooie, with lots of unconventional instruments and poppy, upbeat sounds. It’s great music, but any Banjo fan who listens will be reminded of Treasure Trove Cove and Freezeezy Peak pretty much instantly.
All of that said, though, Unbox‘s movement controls are a far cry from that of older games. Contrary to popular belief, cardboard boxes can tumble their way to incredible top speeds, and leap between platforms with gusto. Newbie is also unique in that he has the titular ability to “unbox” meaning that he can jump up to six times through the sky to clear huge distances. This ability allows players to cross worlds in very little time, though it costs health, and Newbie will have to find health packs to regenerate his jumping ability. Of course, if he gets jumped (again, no pun intended) by the Wild Cards after leaping too far and expending too much health, he’ll be vulnerable. Newbie can also attack enemy boxes by ground-pounding the floor.
The worlds Newbie explores are fairly big. No matter if they’re in the tropics or in the taiga, Unbox‘s levels are large worlds full of hidden nooks and crannies. Though expansive, the fact that Newbie can cross terrain so quickly works at cross-purposes with making the levels feel big. Their initial grandeur is muted by Newbie’s ability to spring from one end of the map to the other in very short time. However, they contain a decent variety of terrain, including lots of rugged peaks and hidden paths. Newbie can also drive vehicles to get around the worlds, but the vehicle controls are slippery. He’s better off bouncing.
Although the worlds in Unbox are colorful and fun to explore, they’re in limited supply. Indeed, Unbox is rather short, clocking in at three worlds to explore and about 6-8 hours of gameplay. Its $15 price tag is a fair wage for such an odyssey, but it doesn’t stop the game from feeling a bit short. The feeling of shortness is further amplified by the fact that two of the three worlds have nearly identical terrain, the only real difference being that one has Mesoamerican ruins in it. It’s still fun to run around in these disparate landscapes, but there’s only so many of them.
The worlds of Unbox have a color palette second only to Newbie’s customization options. With each challenge completed, players can earn colors and accessories for their cardboard box. This helps add some personality to Newbie, especially since he’s a silent character, and he can be adorned with everything from sushi chef hats to a gigantic mustache. Though the embellishments are cool, Unbox will occasionally fail to load them properly, making Newbie’s textures look extremely muddled. Only cutscenes seem to fix this problem.
Unbox seems to do quite well in the technical department. The game was built on the Unreal 4 engine and looks quite beautiful; the visuals are sharp and the colors are strong. The game comes with a decent customization menu to allow players to further tailor Unbox. The only technical hiccups encountered in the copy used for this review were the vertical sync and anti-aliasing options occasionally not working. Usually, these functions will knock themselves out during in-game cutscenes and then pop back up once players regain control of their character. Otherwise, the game is pretty much bug-free and runs at 60 framers per second or higher.
Even though Unbox is occasionally too endearing toward the Rare giants of the 1990’s, it’s a dang fun little adventure and a heartening throwback to that era. Whether the genre can make a true comeback depends on Yooka-Laylee and its release next year, but Unbox is an indicator that other studios are following suit with the design idea. Nintendo 64 fans who’ve since migrated to PC, as well as platformer lovers, will want to purchase Unbox immediately. Its lighthearted tone, decent humor, and emphasis on joyriding across big worlds makes it one of the funnest indie games of the year.
You can buy Unbox here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.