Unit 4 is pitched as a hugely challenging but fair platformer that revolves around a band of elite agents that are battling a mysterious villain who has stolen a sacred artefact and threatens the entire galaxy with his massive army. The plot may well be as straight forward as they come, but as any fan of the formula can attest, these retro inspired tough-as-nails games need little else than solid gameplay with interesting mechanics and functionality. Thankfully, Unit 4 manages to serve that up by the shovel-load.
Much like you would expect, Unit 4’s gameplay consists of making your way from point A to point B, wiping out anything that stands in your way as well as overcoming some pretty clever level design. The game does come with a decent tutorial that doesn’t outstay its welcome, swiftly and effectively teaching you the controls and the basics of play. This follows shortly after the introduction sequence, which shows you the ability to walk around your ship-hub, communicate with your General, and more.
Once you’re done here you will be ready to take on the campaign, which is segmented into a collection of different planets. Each of these planets house a variety of different levels that are much lengthier than your traditional platforming adventure. In fact they’re so long that I thought I was running a whole planet in one stretch with seamless level switching, only to find that even the first stage took me just shy of 20 minutes to run. Despite the harsh difficulty, there are checkpoints littered throughout each stage, meaning that no matter how many times you die, or where, a respawn point wont be too far behind you.
Throughout the entirety of play, you are able to quick-swap between any of the heroes on offer. It’s quite tough to get to grips with at first, and seeing as it’s completely necessary to use this function in order to make it through the game, it is something you need to get a handle on quickly. Each of the heroes have their own distinct skills that you need to utilise, such as grappling hooks, rush-pounding, double jumping, and so on. You will constantly come across hazards, enemies, and other restrictions that force you to put these traits to good use.
During the initial stages of the game it’s not a system that demands too much of your attention, and I was able to make it through the lengthy first stage by using only a handful of the heroes. Before long however the need to use each of the powers becomes more necessary, and it’s here that Unit 4’s challenging gameplay puts you to the test. Whilst quick-swapping between heroes is as easy as breathing, quick-swapping and then using a power, to then quick swap and use another power, is much harder than it sounds.
Executing something as basic as dashing, quick swapping, double jumping, quick swapping and then grappling hooking onto a ceiling is something that takes several attempts. It does become frustrating if your reflex and coordination doesn’t match up for the tenth time in a row, but that’s part and parcel of a good tough platformer. Had the checkpoints been more spaced out, I imagine this would have been much more infuriating, but as aforementioned, the checkpoint system is generous and that works well in Unit 4’s favour.
Each stage also has several coins that you can pick up, and for the added replay value you can choose to collect each and every coin to get the best stage-ending summary. Unit 4 supports local multiplayer for up to four players, and I have to admit that this is the first game of its kind (in a while, at least) that I thoroughly believe is better played alone. Don’t get me wrong the multiplayer aspects are fun and certainly warrant a few attempts, but that sense of reward you get for putting every ounce of your platforming skills to the test becomes less of a dominant accolade. The added inclusion of three mini-games that come in the form of scooter, submarine, and astroship races are also great fun to participate in, but the real meat of the matter here has to go to the campaign.
That isn’t to say that Unit 4 comes without fault. I found a problem with the perception you have of each stage to be an issue. Many times did I fall victim to enemies just appearing on screen without having enough time to evade an attack or counter an attack. An option to see just that little bit further ahead would have been welcoming, especially for a game that houses one-hit kills and fast paced gameplay. Another issue I have is that not each of the characters feel as tight to control as other, which can be a pain when you’re trying to land a jump, only to fall short of a platform and find yourself on the wrong side of some spikes. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was due to an ever so slight delay in the control feedback, or poor design, but it was enough to make a note about it.
When you’re not running through the huge stages, or trying to work out which skill sequence you need to use in order to bypass a section of the stage, you’ll be taking on one of the six boss battles found within. The boss battles are vicious and not only take a good deal of time to beat, but a massive amount of perseverance. I cant say that I didn’t enjoy them, because I did. There’s no denying that some are better structured than others, and are easier to suss out, but I found all of them to be unique enough and challenging enough to tie the game up.
As for the visuals, Unit 4 adopts a retro old-school pixelated style. As a fan of this form of presentation, I cant say that I was entirely impressed. There really wasn’t anything that stood out for me, and when you take the length of each stage into account, that’s somewhat of a missed opportunity to creatively toy with what players will witness. The level design and varying environments on the other hand are well crafted, with each set scenery and layout never outstaying its welcome for too long. Customisation is also an option in Unit 4, being that you can outfit your ship and heroes with a decent selection of goodies. It’s hardly a game changer, but it’s great that the developers have added in that extra layer of variety.
Unit 4 is a decent platformer that appeals to both casual players and hardcore players alike. There’s a great deal of replay value to be had thanks to all of the coins you can chase after in each of the meaty levels. The controls are tight for the most part, despite some characters feeling less comfortable to handle. The visuals could have been better, but for a pixel-filled adventure, they do the job. The level design and the varying environments helps to keep the game fresh and inviting. The tough as nails gameplay is backed up by a lenient checkpoint system that prevents you from feeling overly punished. There’s plenty of variety when it comes to the heroes and their unique skills, and they bond well with several stages throughout. Unit 4 comes with a lot of innovate functionalities that make you think fast on your feet, but to truly get that rewarding sense of play, you need to overlook the few aforementioned faults. It’s certainly a platformer that fans of the genre will enjoy and comes with hours upon hours of content.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.