23rd February 2011 - Stacking is another new game from Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions. True to what can be expected of the developers who gave us Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Costume Quest, the game is about Matryoshka or Russian stacking dolls. But does this budget title still hold the spark that has made Schafer and his company an industry standout or is it a hollow shell inside trying to convince us otherwise?
The story revolves around Charlie Blackmore, the tiniest stacking doll in the land, and his family. They are slowly unable to make ends meet and one by one, they are captured and forced to work under the cruel watch of a ruthless industrialist called The Baron. With the aid of a spry and helpful homeless man called Levi, Charlie sets out on an adventure to save his family and stop The Baron. Of course in a world where every sentient creature is a stacking doll, being the smallest has its benefits.
The core gameplay of Stacking is right in the title. Charlie is able to stack himself into other dolls and control them for puzzle solving applications or just for the fun of it. The benefit of hopping into someone bigger than you is they will have a special interact action that can range from a white glove slap, screaming at a crowd to make way, or spilling a bowl of soup. Add to this mix the fact that anyone can be stacked and controlled, with some notable exceptions involving the plot, and Stacking becomes one-half old school Adventure game and one-half juvenile delinquent trainer. There is the main focus of the game, rescuing Charlie’s family from the various plots of The Baron, which involves solving puzzles ranging between getting a restaurant full of rich folks to leave and getting a giant clock cranked, and there is the game’s Hi-Jinks, a bunch of small side challenges designed to make you think like a seven-year old mind controller with nothing else better to do.
Going back to the main game’s challenges, it might get dreary having to think of the solution that the developer had in mind causing the whole experience to fall apart, but it’s a good thing that Stacking doesn’t go that route. Every single puzzle in the game has at least three different ways that it can be solved, and every single one of these methods aren’t running on the logic of a crazy person. To further streamline the experience, Stacking also includes a hint system which can be pulled up optionally and, instead of allowing the player to spam the hint button to the solution, decides to put the hint dispenser on a timer, allowing the player a moment to think and reflect on the clue itself. That won’t stop some people from just pulling up the GameFAQs or a YouTube playthrough, but being able to generate that self-revelatory “ah-ha!” moment will never go out of style, something that this hint system does well.
The gameplay isn’t exactly perfect. Due to the very premise of everyone being a stacking doll, the way Charlie and the rest of the dolls move can feel stiff, and the camera occasionally exacerbates this problem. It’s not a game breaker, but it will be noticeable at first.
Stacking, as a budget title, is nothing short of gorgeous. The game doesn’t push for realism, but instead creates an entire world with its art style. Just like how the unconventional shapes and surreal design of Psychonauts helped it stand out as the cult classic it is today, Stacking looks and feels like a giant elaborate toy set-up of someone with a penchant for the Victorian era. In the same place you would see a coal furnace, nearby you would see a giant old rollerskate or giant playing cards strung together into crossing bridges with string and candy canes as rails. The cut scenes reinforce this design, with it presented in sepia tone and a grain filter. The dolls look distinct, the lighting is well done, no texture tearing to be seen or model irregularity. In a word, the world looks unique.
The sound of Stacking comes down to small bits of gibberish that come from the dolls in the main game, and atmospheric piano music. There is no voice acting to speak of, because the cut scenes play out like a silent film, but it doesn’t stop the dialogue from being clever and interesting. That said, the piano music never gets boring and will probably stick in your head after you’re done playing.
At its current price on PSN and XBLA, Stacking is quite a steal in my humble opinion. Just going through the main story without stopping to find alternate solutions or perform any Hi-Jinks, the game lasted me a fair four and a half hours of gameplay. Furthermore, according to the game’s record keeping, I was only 41% finished with the game as a whole. If that isn’t an advertisement for replay value, I don’t know what is.
Fans of Double Fine’s last projects won’t be disappointed. Tim Schafer’s sense of humor is still around, but I can note that the game focuses the humor more on what the player does in the world, as opposed to dialogue and cut scenes this time around, which is always a plus. For those not in the Tim Schafer Fan Club, there is a lot to like in Stacking. First, the game is rated appropriate for young kids but it can challenge and even amuse an older audience. Second, it’s a nice break from the interchangeable action titles that are dominating the AAA market, but not necessarily something dumbed down or casual either. Lastly, it’s original, in every aspect.
Stacking proves that Double Fine Productions are still as quirky and off the beaten path as ever. The gameplay is fun, the replay value is high, and the atmosphere is solid and a joy to behold. If the camera and movement controls were smoothed out, it would be perfect.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
+ Original Idea
+ Clever Puzzles
+ Entertaining Gameplay
+ Catchy Music
- Stiff camera controls and movement
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey