Personally, I would forgive you for not knowing about Unit 4 before now. Even after reading about the game on the Xbox Store, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this indie title. The given description gives a long explanation covering various elements such as the plot, heroes, and gameplay. Boiling it down to the most important bits leaves us with an evil alien army going around and stealing sacred artifacts needed to hold their respective planets together. I also thought the line “ultimate old-school platforming mayhem” was interesting as it promises something I was sure to look out for once I booted it up. Near the bottom, I noticed a list of several other promises that I became more and more skeptical about as I read them, but more on them later.
“Give credit where it’s due” is one of my personal mantras that keeps me objective when I review games. To this end, I would like to mention that Unit 4 using four different and interchangeable heroes is interesting and has plenty of potential in my eyes. Each of these characters is visually different (build, details, and color) while also having unique powers. Our blue hero has the power to double jump and stick to walls and is the most plain looking character of the bunch. The much larger red hero can dash a short distance while damaging or pushing anything in his path (enemies or scenery). Next is the sly green hero with his grappling hook that can be used to either stick to surfaces or defeat enemies. Finally, we have the mysterious yellow hero that can turn into a ghost to do a variety of things from floating to possessing enemies.
How these powers are used in the gameplay varies greatly as much of the retro platforming can be addressed in several different ways. For example, a section may have multiple platforms to jump between and two ground enemies in the way. In this instance, the blue and yellow heroes could use their respective powers to pass by the danger, while red and green heroes may take out the danger with their powers before moving on. This kind of choice is wonderful and is the cornerstone of what makes this game appealing. Luckily, players will have several chances to use all the different powers through the retro style levels the game has to offer. Everything in Unit 4 feels like it was ripped out of a much older title while making jokes and references about several other titles.
After futilely trying to ‘enable co-op’ in the game's first two levels, I was informed I was going about it the wrong way. Shortly after this revelation, I decided to try the levels I was having trouble on earlier. With a friend playing by my side, things went far better and I found myself laughing about our many deaths together. I still didn't find myself enjoying the game so much as the nonsense that my friend and I got into. Admittedly, with the co-op functioning, Unit 4 made for a much more engaging game. With that said, I still had some issues. Sticking to walls happens all the time, but dismounting usually lead to death. I found myself dashing through one enemy only to run into another once my dash had ended. I could barely aim the grappling hook since it picks up on the tiniest change on the stick. In fact, the yellow hero is the only one that didn’t disappoint me time and time again.
Since death is brought on by a single touch, making a mistake means starting from the last checkpoint (unless in co-op). These checkpoints are a godsend since it took me nearly twenty minutes to finish each level on my own. This is without any exploration (not that I saw much to explore besides other paths) as I was far too worried I would die and have to recomplete a section even more than I already had. This is made much less frustrating with a co-op partner (or three). Having long levels is totally fine when it feels fair and is fun to play. Unfortunately, I have to report that Unit 4 pulls some dirty tricks to keep players replaying portions of levels that should be simple. The best example I have of this was when I used the red hero to break a large ice block only to find out it had spikes underneath it, which killed me instantly. Besides moments like this, the main boss I encountered was simply a test of memory as it became too fast to beat with reflex. The fight wasn’t that hard (hit the weak spot three times), but remembering where to be and when was frustrating and fairly boring.
I don’t mean to sound so negative about this game, but I believe I know what the true problem is. While Unit 4 has the old-school looks and sound down, it also brings the issues these retro games had. I’m all for a difficult game, but it is only acceptable when the game is difficult because it requires skill, not because the player is asked to perform tasks on the analog stick instead of the D-pad. The inclusion of co-op is probably its one huge saving grace. Simply because of its addition, I was able to replay several levels having far more fun than I did the first time through. If it simply weren't for the boring boss and the obnoxious way the characters just barely fall to their death, I would be able to give the game an even higher score. I can see what Unit 4 wanted to be, but I have to say that it just barely misses the mark due to these issues.
Unit 4 (Reviewed on Xbox One)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
While Unit 4 has some really neat ideas, it barely misses the mark and will probably only attract nostalgia from diehard retro fans. In its current state, all the polish in the world wouldn't address the key issues I have with this title. To put it simply, this game's co-op isn't a big enough change from the retro titles it draws inspiration from.