Stacking is the latest game from the minds of industry veteran Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. It is the second downloadable title released by Double Fine inside of six months following their new business model of developing smaller, creative games. Stackinglegitimizes the viability of this strategy as a unique and fresh puzzle adventure game that provides plenty of enjoyment for a reduced price.
The world of Stacking is one where all of the characters are wooden Russian nesting dolls called matryoshkas. The story follows Charlie Blackmore, whose family of chimney sweeps is kidnapped and forced into labor by the evil Baron. The runt of the family, Charlie is left behind by the Baron’s henchmen along with his mother because he is deemed incapable of labor. Charlie sets off at once on an adventure to free his siblings and father in a straightforward tale of the underdog against an evil tyrant. There is little in the way of character development however the underlying issue of child labor lends the narrative some gravity despite the humorous tone.
Gameplay in Stacking is a nice blend of puzzle and adventure elements where the player must guide Charlie through each location besting various challenges to rescue the members of his family. As a matryoshka doll, Charlie is capable of stacking into larger dolls that populate the world. The stacking can be repeated multiple times into increasingly bigger dolls with the sole restriction that Charlie can only stack into a doll that is the next largest size.
Each puzzle in the game is solved by stacking into other dolls and using their special abilities which is an ingenious mechanic that puts a welcome twist on traditional adventure gaming. Stacking is at its best in puzzles that require using a combination of doll abilities but, unfortunately, these don’t occur until late in the game and are the exception, not the norm.
The highlight of Stacking is the well-designed challenges that are entertaining to solve and feature multiple ways to go about them. Unlike other puzzle adventure games that force a player to discern the exact solution the developers intended, Stacking provides several different possibilities for tackling each problem; this helps avoid the frustration of getting stuck. Players can advance after discovering a single solution which keeps the game moving. Most of the solutions are not difficult to discover but do require some clever thinking. There seems to be at least one blatantly obvious way to handle each puzzle although hints are available if needed.
In addition to solving challenges, there are numerous Hi-Jinks to complete and a collection of unique dolls and sets to find in Stacking’s four locations. Hi-Jinks are smaller side tasks that can be completed independent from the story progression such as using a purse-swinging doll to whack five mimes.
Stacking does not take much time to finish –it can be breezed through in about two hours by finding just a single solution to each challenge. As such, it feels a bit short even for a $15 downloadable game. However, much of the fun of Stacking is in discovering the various ways to hilariously solve each puzzle so working out all of the techniques is encouraged. Finding all of the solutions and going for total completion pushes the length to around five or six hours which is more reasonable for the price point.
Handling a group of nested dolls with different abilities may sound like a difficult task to manage but the elegant control scheme makes it simple to execute all actions. One button stacks a doll, another unstacks, a third uses a doll’s special ability, and the final face button talks to other dolls. There is also an objective locator that is taken straight out of Dead Space making it easy to navigate from puzzle to puzzle.
Interacting with the other characters in Stacking is not only useful for finding clues but also provides a lot of the game’s entertainment. Each character will offer several responses that change depending on what doll is currently being used. The dialogue can sometimes be lowbrow –as can the game, what with farting and vomiting dolls—but generally displays the witty writing that is to be expected of a Tim Schafer creation. In addition to the humorous dialogue and cutscenes, some of the dolls’ actions are quite funny such as the geriatric man who falls asleep as he begins to tell a story.
Stacking won’t win any awards for its graphics but uses blurring and edge filters to good effect to create a stylized presentation. Many of the areas are wide open and colorful but often feel a bit too sparse. The artwork for each doll shows a better attention to detail and does well to bring the characters to life which is no small accomplishment considering they are essentially painted wooden cylinders.
An impressive musical score does a wonderful job at highlighting the action throughout the game. This is particularly important as all of the dialogue is text. The symphonic pieces, heavy on the piano and strings, work well to convey the mood in the cutscenes that have a 1920’s silent film style.
The Blast Factor: Perhaps the greatest strength of Stacking is its near-universal appeal. From children, who will enjoy the colorful worlds and silly antics, to grizzled adventure veterans, who should appreciate the fresh take on puzzle solving, there is something for everyone to like. The story, graphics, and length have room for improvement but this is such a fun game that those criticisms seem like quibbling in the end. Stacking may not be the greatest downloadable game ever created but its combination of inventive gameplay and great sense of humor make it one that everyone should play; at only $15 it is hard to find a worthwhile reason not to.