Don’t judge a box by its cover. Pile Up! Box by Box really wasn’t a game that we were excited for. I didn’t much like Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure, and synapses in my brain must have crossed, as I thought they were the same game. And choosing a box as your main character – well – you can’t get any more lazy and low-poly than that. It’s not even trying.
WRONG. We were wrong. We’re sure it won’t be the last time. Pile Up! Box by Box is a delight, a cooperative platform-puzzler that is so warm and wholesome that we want to curl up in it like a cat.
There are some recommended ways to prepare for Pile Up! Box by Box. First, this is not a game to be played solo. It’s possible, but the puzzles come alive when at least two people are helping each other or getting in each other’s way – delete as appropriate. It’s also in no way difficult. If there’s someone in the team who is looking to be put through the wringer, Dark Souls-style, you should probably give them the hook.
This is a game that was made for more inexperienced players, and you’ll need at least one of them (up to four players total) to make the most of it. I played on a team with my wife and my six-year old daughter (crazed, ruining everything), and it worked an absolute treat. We laughed, we cried, we tossed each other off platforms.
Once you have a team that fits this vague outline (and we do mean it: you can knock an entire mark off Pile Up! Box by Box’s score if you don’t have that setup), then dedicate a couple of evenings and don’t take it seriously. This becomes a series of farces, and that’s absolutely okay.
You start by choosing your box, and then hopping into a small 3D hub-world from which four levels can be accessed. The controls are lovely and simple, at least initially, as you can glide about, do a small hop that’s barely enough to jump onto another player’s head, and use the B button to pick up boxes. Once picked up, the boxes sit on your head, and – yes – this does include other players. So, your first few moments will be getting it out of your system: picking your partners up and throwing them about, occasionally stacking them on your head and diving, lemming-like, into the sea.
This carnage will be presented beautifully. Pile Up! Box by Box takes a leaf out of various books – Little Big Planet, Yoshi’s Island and Tearaway come to mind – by ensuring that everything looks hand-crafted to the degree that you could pick it up and touch it. It all seems to have wandered in from a Hobbycraft, as worlds and characters are made from toilet roll tubes, curled paper and, of course, corrugated cardboard. It’s immediately familiar and nostalgic, and it’s done with aplomb. The audio design compliments it superbly too, as the satisfying sound of paper against paper is there throughout.
The pattern of play is to hop into one of the four portals in the hub, where a semi-linear platforming experience is laid out in front of you. These levels are broken up into rooms or dioramas, where you commonly need to get to an exit which is too far up, blocked by something, etc. Then you’re scanning that room for things you can use. Primarily, that’s blocks: they can be used as staircases, to drop onto pressure pads, that sort of thing. So, you’re grabbing them, stacking them onto your head, and perhaps even letting your partner use you as the block, at least temporarily. After all, you both need to get to the exit, which is often the source of the puzzle: how can you form a path that’s permanent enough for you both to use it?
There are small yellow cubes to collect that can be traded in for outfits (limited, could have been much better), and brown parcel tape which unlocks secret areas within each level. There’s the thinnest of stories, told by papercraft characters like a hedgehog that wants you to create a firework exhibition, and a kiwi that wants clothes to look faaaabulous, darling. By helping them out, you’ll open the way to the exit and onto the next level.
Mixing it up are the blocks. Each level adds at least one new variant of block to find and use, and the way they interact together is a doozy. A frog block is a personal favourite, as you can stand on it to shoot out a tongue which will grab far off collectibles, other blocks or, yep, other players. All hail the frog king who keeps licking everyone. But there are exploding blocks, hovering blocks, spring blocks, fire extinguisher blocks and more. You can make a hovering explosion block, a springing frog block and more, just by stacking them on each other.
Yet, the puzzles never get difficult. The most challenging puzzles are reserved for the brown paper tape or the side-questy secret areas. The lack of difficulty means a couple of things: you can complete puzzles in a multitude of ways, which means you get to be creative. It also means that younger players can get a word in. It’s also worth noting that Pile Up! Box by Box lets you retain blocks from room to room, which is surprisingly generous. We found ourselves wrapped up in a whole other metagame, as we tried to keep our favourite blocks (yep, the frog block) for the entirety of a level. It’s not always possible, but it’s generous of Pile Up! Box by Box to let you undermine its puzzles in that way.
There are a few niggles to keep in mind. Pile Up! Box by Box has a depth-perception problem. Thanks to the zoomed out and fixed camera, it can be hard to estimate where you are in the environment. Some jumps and platforms become a problem, as you simply can’t see if they are in the background or foreground. Equally, stacking blocks in piles can be a headache. Pile Up! Box by Box will often help out and ‘snap’ a box onto the top of another box, but sometimes you don’t want that, other times it’s inconsistent, and – generally – forming piles of more than two blocks is a pain. It gets fiddly, and when latter levels need you to do it in a time limit, it can be momentarily frustrating.
We shouldn’t forget that this is a game that demands more than one player, and never really puts a challenge in front of them. Finding a group who are happy with that will not always be possible: it’s a large obstacle to getting the most from Pile Up! Box by Box. And this is not a long game. While each level is substantial, taking about an hour to finish, there are only four of them, and that might make the £12.49 an ask. We’d argue that what’s here is rich enough, fun enough and replayable enough to make it worth it.
But it’s the goofing that makes Pile Up! Box by Box such a winner: when you’ve got a couple of friends or family around who fancy a platforming adventure, crafted out of cardboard, where you can stack each other on your heads, then this is the business. We’d go so far to say that it’s the best thing you can do with a cardboard box.
You can buy Pile Up! Box by Box from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S