Indie Game of the Week 140: Unbox: Newbie's Adventure

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Since collectathons are de rigueur here on Giant Bomb dot com, I figured I myself might indulge in the time-honored practice of scouring giant platforming levels for hundreds of tchotchkes via Prospect Games's 2016 Indie 3D platformer Unbox: Newbie's Adventure. A British studio clearly inspired by the likes of Rare (another hometown hero) and their N64 output, Prospect filled Unbox with the colorful, easygoing and wholesome energy of a Banjo-Kazooie (up to and including a nonsense language made up of "eh, ah" noises) and more twinkling collectibles to impulsively hunt down than could ever be considered healthy. Though the game only has four worlds, one of which is the hub, each of them are expansive and have no lack of glowy googaws to find and challenges to complete. We're very much in the Banjo-Kazooie (or, a more recent example, Super Mario Odyssey) game design school of creating enormous open playgrounds to explore at the player's leisure.

Unbox is the tale of a postage company, Global Postal Service, staffed entirely by sapient self-delivering cardboard boxes. Possessed of eclectic personalities and differing strengths, they await an all-purpose box that can help them complete their myriad tasks and fight back the pernicious presence of the "Wild Cards": a rogue band of rock 'n roll greaser boxes who have been causing the GPS to haemorrhage cash cleaning up the messes they've made, pushing GPS to the brink of bankruptcy. The player is that all-purpose box hero that GPS and its staff of talking crates have been waiting for, albeit one they don't respect enough to call anything but "Newbie".

Mechanically, the game has some odd controls involving how a cuboid might get around (it's mostly a lot of awkward pointy rolling) and it takes a little while to adjust to the game's sense of slow-build momentum and uneven forward locomotion. Jumps meanwhile, whether they're the normal kind or the mid-air kind, greatly increase the player's velocity, making them the preferred way of getting around each level quickly. The player's health system and ability to double-jump are closely linked: as a package, the player character has several outer shells that they can discard when needed. They might be used to absorb a blow, or leapt out from like a jack in the box to create some extra air. On a foundational level, this creates a workable risk vs. reward system where additional vertical movement comes at the cost of losing another point of health, and players might be faced with a dwindling supply of vitality that they either must sacrifice to make quick progress to the next checkpoint (which refills the total) or hold onto avariciously for the sake of possible enemy attacks and use their basic movement skills to get to their destination instead. Health packs, which regenerate just one of these jumps/HP, can be found all over the place, and most commonly on platforms suspended in sequences: the idea being that you use up your HP to reach these remote platforms, restock a point or two once you get there, and then have enough juice to make it to the next platform. It's an elegant system and a forgiving one, at least for the most part.

There's so much to find here, and this is just the hub world.
There's so much to find here, and this is just the hub world.

Also forgiving are the game's challenges, which might have you run around collecting objects in an enclosed part of the level, defeating a certain number of enemies in same, or completing a time trial circuit. The player can die and respawn as often as they want in these challenges: the only fail state comes from letting the timer run all the way down. Challenges are doled out by the game's numerous NPCs and the player can even track these NPC locations via an in-game navigator that displays a compass arrow and an approximate distance in kilometers to where they can be located. These challenges make up about half of a level's primary collectibles, in this case postage stamps, and you need a certain number to be allowed to fight the boss of the current world and progress to the next. The other half of the stamps are well-hidden, but a friendly NPC - Bounce - will tell you if you're close. Likewise, Bounce is a font of helpful advice when it comes to collectibles - whether those are the eighteen progress-critical Stamps, the 200 optional glowy Gold Tape treasures, or the ten captured "Zippie" NPCs that need to be freed - by showing you a randomly determined still image of what you seek. In practice this helps you narrow down the locations of the remaining few collectibles in a world (I'd usually seek him out once I'd gotten to around 180 out of 200 Gold Tapes, because at that point it's like finding a needle in a haystack) without making it too easy for you; another elegant system.

The game's degree of jank is both quickly apparent and unavoidable, given the ambition of the game and the relative size of the studio making it. Even the biggest developers of the '90s and '00s had problems putting together 3D platformers with optimal controls and user interfaces, either suffering a wayward camera or awkward jumping controls or a mix of both, and Unbox doesn't entirely escape that fate. One glitch had me respawning in an instant-death underwater location for one particular late-game challenge, for instance, which forced me to start over whenever I got to that stage of the course and died. The game also has this bizarre UI problem where you'd commonly use the X button (on PS4 at least, which is the version I played) to progress through spoken dialogue quickly. However, in cutscenes, two quick taps of the X button would skip the cinematic and move on with the game, and cutscenes are almost indistinguishable from regular interactions with NPCs due to them using the in-game engine. This resulted in the regrettably common scenario where I'd be buttoning through the dialogue as quickly as I could read it (as stated above, there's no voice acting to listen to, just noises) and suddenly segue to cutscene dialogue that I'd then immediately accidentally skip. An odd oversight, but I suppose one that's explicable enough when you have a game with this many moving parts to balance and maintain.

This guy is such a life-saver. Well, time-saver.
This guy is such a life-saver. Well, time-saver.

I would say overall though that Unbox delivers on exactly what it promises, once you realize precisely where the game's inspirations lie. For every bit of control awkwardness, especially in the few cases where it makes you drive a vehicle for the sake of a challenge which are highly unpleasant to control, there's some handy quality-of-life touch that makes the game that much more palatable to compensate. The sense of alacrity when you're bounding around the place is welcome when you need to get somewhere quickly, and the septuple-jumping mechanic makes it much easier to finesse your way to tricky-to-reach location in spite of this speed. The dialogue, incidental and otherwise, is as jokey and light as you'd expect from an acolyte of the Rare platformers, and the limited means the player has of dressing up their box (mostly to look like other major NPCs) is a cute if underdeveloped feature. If you've been keeping up with the site's Burgle My Bananas series and have second-hand nightmares about trying to navigate those giant levels full of pointless trash, I might not recommend Unbox for you. For those few of us who wish they could also spend a lazy afternoon scavenger-hunting their way through a vibrant, wholesome world of mysteries to uncover, by all means check it out.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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