Double jumps? Pah. Triple jumps? Yesterday’s news. Unbox’s contribution to the platformer is the septuple jump, a thrilling, physics-defying feat that lets you cross the kind of chasms that would make Mario gulp. Not a problem for the Newbie, a sentient parcel that can, after a single leap, shed its outer cardboard shell – or ‘unbox’ – for up to six midflight boosts: a press of the right trigger followed by as many squeezes of the left as you need to make a safe landing. Sometimes, you’ll use it for exhilaratingly swift traversal. More often, you’ll use it to recover from a fall, or to gain that bit of extra height you need to get over an obstacle. The springy physics are almost perfect, giving you just enough control even as you hurtle through the air at high speed.
In the game’s fiction, these self-delivering packages are the final throw of the dice from the struggling Global Postal Service to save its business in the face of aggressive competition. It’s the kind of delightfully daft setup you’d expect from a 1990s platformer, and
Unbox’s makers have a clear affection for that era. Characters communicate in subtitled gibberish, puns and none-too-subtle references abound (the level hub is an offshore rig called Other Base), and each world is studded with collectibles. Your rivals are a group of cardboard greasers whose leader will only consider you worthy of fighting once you’ve amassed a given number of stamps, most of which are awarded for completing challenges set by your boxy friends.
The structure, then, is very familiar. Broadly speaking, the challenges are, too. You’ll be asked to complete three laps of a race circuit, transport a package to a distant colleague against the clock, and retrieve several items from the local area while being attacked by enemies. Some offer neat twists on the formula: one delivery mission has what seems to be an overly generous timer until it’s revealed that you have to head back to the start to return the favour, while another sees you drag a frozen ally across the map to thaw him out in a sauna. If you thought one box was hard enough to control, try manoeuvring two linked by a tether.
Occasionally, you’ll be asked to fetch fragile objects, during which you’ll be temporarily disallowed from using your unboxing ability. Presumably, the aim was to echo the FLUDD-free stages in Super Mario Sunshine, removing the player’s safety net and forcing them to master their avatar’s basic move set. In reality, though, Newbie’s movement physics are not as reliable as Mario’s, and that skittishness, combined with environment design that tends to prioritise form over function, leads to moments of grinding frustration. Prospect Games sensibly attempts to mitigate for these issues, allowing you a single recovery skip off any body of water before a fatal dunk, and often removing the timer so you can retry as many times as you like. But in these moments a game that already feels rickety, albeit endearingly so, feels cloddish and crude. Even with a handful of checkpoints on the way up, one mountainous climb resulted in our taking a long walk to calm down.
Admittedly, our stubborn refusal to accept defeat was part of the problem: you don’t need every stamp to move on from one world to the next. And besides, the missions, while pleasantly varied, are arguably a secondary concern. Rather, it’s the simple act of moving around Unbox’s sprawling environments that’s its trump card. You’re never quite in complete control, but given the ability to unbox – and with plentiful checkpoints and pickups ensuring you rarely run out – that doesn’t matter. Instead, you can careen about the place, blithely disregarding the fact you’re near the edge of a precipice. As soon as you fall, you’re one or two hops away from safety. That sense of wild, dizzying momentum carries over into a messy multiplayer mode where up to four players can leap around madly, blasting fireworks at one another. It may not be tidy, polished or even particularly well designed, but it is disarmingly good fun. The level design is similarly unrestrained. These are some of the most expansive playgrounds we’ve ever seen in a 3D platformer. They might even be too big; certainly, it’s hard to mentally map these places in their entirety, and you’ll spend plenty of time digging around areas you’ve already visited. But they are joyously colourful, and stuffed with charming visual flourishes, characters to talk to, jeeps and toboggans to drive. They don’t always function perfectly as game environments – the camera can get stuck, as can you – but there are moments of careful craft in evidence. Between the peaks of a mountain resort, there’s a cable car system in disrepair, with vehicles and scaffolding dangling precariously above a perilous drop. Crossing from one side to the other involves a brilliantly tense bout of oldfashioned platforming; yes, you can unbox, but the gaps are wide enough to require you to time them well, while some platforms dangle from wires, seesawing dramatically as you touch down.
Elsewhere, an inquisitive eye is required to tease out every one of the 200 rolls of golden tape scattered throughout each world, with some requiring daredevil leaps to secure. Don’t worry too much if you’re not the collecting kind: these objectives are optional, and your reward is merely another cosmetic accoutrement. A shark’s fin, a curly moustache and a parka is all our Newbie needs, thanks. Such outlandish getups are all part of Unbox’s irresistibly childlike approach to play, like a toddler unwrapping an expensive gift, tossing it aside and then spending hours messing about inside its receptacle. You don’t have to look hard for more refined alternatives, but sometimes there’s nothing you’d rather do than play around with boxes.
The springy physics are almost perfect, giving you just enough control even as you hurtle through the air at speed