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Stacking

Game: Stacking
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: THQ
Year: 2012
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PC
Genre: Adventure
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Founded by LucasArts veteran Tim Schafer, you can usually count on Double Fine to do something a bit different. Whether it’s delving into minds in the surreal platformer Psychonauts or exploring a world based on heavy metal album covers in Brutal Legend, they don’t tend to stick to a formula. Stacking is certainly no exception.

Stacking Hungry
So we've resorted to cannibalism now?

Set in a world populated entirely by matryoshka dolls, the game begins with a family being taken away to be used as slave labour by an evil character known as The Baron. The father had previously disappeared, they fell into debt, and they’re all taken away apart from the mother and Charlie Blackmore, the smallest child. He’s left behind under the mocking assumption that he’s too small to be useful, and he sets off with the determination to save his siblings.

The game that follows is unique and hard to categorize. It’s closest to a classic adventure game, but with the traditional point and click system replaced with full third person 3D control and a doll stacking mechanic. There’s no inventory, but rather, every doll in the environment has a single unique ability. These are usually quite bizarre and can be anything including slapping people, sneezing, serving soup, shaking hands, or a rather unfortunately recurring concept of farting. The unique skill of Charlie is being able to leap inside any doll one size bigger than him to be able to use their ability, from where he can also then jump into bigger and bigger dolls. Utilising these skills is the way the puzzles are solved throughout the game.

The game in general doesn’t focus too much on being difficult to complete, instead allowing many different solutions to each of the problems throughout its fairly short length. With the number of possibilities, you’re never likely to get stuck anywhere, since you should be able to find at least one of the solutions very quickly. This is especially true of the earlier levels, where solving the puzzle rarely involves more than just picking the right character, going to the required location and using their ability. For instance, when faced with a map on the wall which has to be defaced, it’s scarcely a spoiler to say that a crayon headed guy drawing over it or a seasick child vomiting over it are both acceptable (though in one case rather unpleasant) solutions.

Stacking Rock Paper Scissors
Never mind Stacking, let's play Rock Paper Scissors instead!

Later on in the game, things do get a bit more complicated, and you start getting objectives that require you to use two abilities in conjunction with each other. This means you often have to stack inside the right group of dolls to have the right abilities at the right time. They’re rarely too complicated and usually at least one of them is easy to work out quickly. In fact, if all you did was run through the game solving each puzzle once and then moving on, the whole game would probably be over within a couple of hours. It’s the additional features that can extend the length of the game several times. Unlike many games, where once a puzzle is solved that’s it, Stacking allows you to go back and find the alternate solutions at any point while playing, either immediately or by coming back later. It shows how many solutions there are and which ones you’ve found. This adds a lot of time to the game and also provides much of the challenge, since while many of the solutions are simple, finding them all can be tricky.

On top of this, there are a fairly large number of unique dolls in each area and collecting all these is another challenge. Many of them can be used to solve puzzles but they’re not all needed, but to get to 100% completion you’ll need to find them all. When a level is completed there are also additional bonus puzzles at times that can be solved afterwards. There’s also a list of Hi-Jinks which can be achieved by using certain dolls in certain places, and the names on the list of Hi-Jinks can give clues as to what you need to do. These all add extra value to the game, but it would be nicer if the main game itself was a bit longer.

Stacking is an original and often enjoyable game. Its new mechanics work well and it’s nice to see something outside of the standard genres, but it just feels like there’s something lacking in it. It’s amusing and fun, but it just doesn’t quite do enough. It’s a bit too short, the puzzles are mostly too trivial and don’t really get challenging until far too late in the game and it just doesn’t feel like it’s lived up to its full potential. It’s worth a play if you like the idea, but don’t expect anything lasting or that will keep you coming back to replay.

Save System Review: The game saves your progress as you go along, so every time you solve a puzzle or find a unique character it’s permanently registered.
Graphics: Stylish cartoon graphics make up an interesting world populated with Russian dolls, presented in a silent movie style.
Sound: Silent movie style soundtrack and competent sound effects.
Bugs: Nothing that I encountered.
Gameplay: Interesting doll stacking mechanic where each doll has a separate skill, but doesn’t really do enough with it.
Storyline: Simple story told in silent movie style, but the plot isn’t the focus of the game.

Arbitrary Final Score: 2 stars

If you like this, you might also like: playing with dolls.

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