Stacking review
The Good: Diverse abilities keep clever stacking gimmick fresh; wacky scenarios with humour to match; unique and enchanting visual style; high replay factor.
The Bad: Awkward camera; lack of voice acting; short main storyline.

Double Fine Productions have previously tried their hand at platformers, strategy and role-playing games, but until recently there have been no adventures, despite the company being headed by Tim Schafer, the acclaimed designer behind such titles as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. That’s now changed with the release of Stacking, the studio’s genre debut (albeit with a ‘puzzle’ prefix) on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Stacking isn’t your typical inventory object-gathering experience, however. Here the characters that inhabit the world are the collectable objects – Russian stacking dolls (matryoshkas) to be precise, each with its own unique ability. This simple mechanic and a stylish artistic vision combine to fashion a superbly creative and irresistible experience that is not to be missed.

Set in the 1930s, players take the role of Charlie Blackmore, the littlest member of a family of chimney sweeps. With Charlie’s parents unable to pay their debts, the malevolent local Baron sends his crony to sweep the Blackmore children into forced labour. All except the “runt” Charlie, that is, who is left to take upon himself the duty of rescuing his siblings from the industrial tyranny they face. As Charlie, you spend your time travelling to the Baron’s three grand vehicles and rescuing children en masse, all the while searching for his brothers and sisters. On a cruise ship, you’ll have to incite a mutiny to make the captain return to port. Elsewhere, aboard a flying zeppelin, you’ll be freeing a group of ambassadors so they can argue at a child labour summit. In each main area, your overall objectives are fairly straightforward. The means of achieving them, however, are not.

Although just a tiny doll, Charlie certainly isn’t going to let his size stop him. Being the smallest matryoshka around allows him to hop into others from behind (incrementally building up in size) and take control of their individual capabilities in order to overcome problems in amusing ways. For example, you may find yourself occupying a doll capable of chucking bananas at bullies who stole a child’s toy or another whose malodorous flatulence can clear out a room. Certain unique dolls have very specialized skills, so you’ll want to keep an eye open for their subtle shimmering glow. The many others are blends of recurring dolls whose abilities are always the same, but there is an astonishing range of actions, whether it’s whistling the teapot on your head or hitting someone with your purse. Some of them even seem to be purely for fun rather than serving a specific purpose, letting you roam around and mess with others just to see how they react to you flashing your camera or performing a pantomime in front of them.

You’ll be looking at around three hours or so of gameplay if you stick to the critical path, but it’s more likely to be double that if you check everything on offer. Nearly every puzzle you encounter, such as wrecking a caviar service or rewinding a clock, has a number of different solutions and you can come back to them at any time. There’s usually an obvious answer, but alternate approaches provide substantial replay value for thorough players who like additional challenge. Should you find yourself stuck at any point, a built-in three-tiered hint system will help nudge you along. You’ll rarely need to make use of it, however, as nearby dolls will pass along little clues as well. Along with the main adventure, you can also spend your time collecting all dolls in a set or performing Hi-Jinks. These are fun little activities like glove-slapping or dishing out wedgies to a certain number of others that extend your play time. As you collect and partake in everything the game has to offer, Charlie’s friend Levi the hobo will decorate your hideout with paintings that chronicle your adventure. That’s not a huge incentive to uncover everything you can, but you’ll find yourself wanting to anyway just to experience more of this wonderful game world.

The game’s central hub is the Royal Train Station, which becomes a waypoint to the other environments once you’ve settled a troublesome coal strike. Whether setting out to sea or exploring smartly furnished rooms, each location not only looks and feels distinctively different, they are quite expansive as well, though never to the extent of feeling lost. The visual style has a very whimsical '30s-era vibe, mixing traditional period architecture with common household items, such as cigars as chimneys or olives as plants. The cutscenes take the form of a dioramic silent film, complete with picture scratching and film strips running down the side, which all further adds to the game’s aesthetic appeal. The dolls themselves are beautifully designed with many neat little details, from a pirate with a fishbone through his beard to the rolled-up sleeves of a boxer. Surprisingly, since they can only move at the midsection, these matryoshkas are wonderfully expressive, with quirks such as hip wiggling or throwing their upper halves back in laughter.

The subject matter of a young boy seeking to find and free his enslaved family may sound dark, but clever writing ensures the game is never heavy-handed, instead injecting humour into what would otherwise be a wholly disheartening situation. Dialogue is delivered through speech bubbles and is genuinely chuckle worthy, sometimes witty and other times just plain absurd. The game lacks any voice acting, which is a shame, as there are times when some of the jokes would probably play better being spoken aloud than read. Mind you, the subtitles are entirely in keeping with the game’s silent film conceit, and it’s understandable that a budget downloadable title with a huge array of characters should lack such a luxury. Even without voiceovers, the world constantly feels vibrant and active as dolls wander around you with the hum of distant conversations playing beneath the classic piano and string-based period music.

To move around, you control your current doll with the analogue stick, while an on-screen display signifies which of the four gamepad button actions are available (stacking and unstacking, talking to others and using the doll’s ability) at any given time. This setup is easy to use and requires very little explanation, making it simple for anyone to jump into, though an in-game tutorial goes over all the basics anyway. To change locations, you just walk – sorry, waddle (matryoshkas have no feet per se) – over to one of the platforms at the Royal Train Station. Should you ever forget where you need to be going, a button tap will highlight the path to your current objective. Stacking is only allowed with dolls precisely one size larger than your current state, and you need to hop into them from behind. A blue glimmer highlights when stacking is possible, and there’s no chance of failure, as the dolls will just keep their backs to the wall and snap at you should they not wish you to intrude.

If there’s one factor that brings Stacking down a bit, it’s the camera. Although it never becomes overly frustrating, you’ll find yourself having to manually manipulate the camera with the other analogue stick far too much just to get a decent look at your surroundings or read a speech bubble that’s popped off screen. The problem is that the camera is packed too tightly behind your character, failing to swing wide enough when you take a corner or change direction. Thanks to the mostly large, open environments, this isn’t as much of an issue as it could be, but it’s still a rare blemish on what is otherwise a fantastic experience.

There’s really nothing out there that offers what Stacking does. By running with a simple idea and presenting it in a charming, delightful package, the game will have you revelling in the genius of adopting new characteristics each time you stack. There are minor pitfalls with the camera and voice acting would have been welcome, but with such wacky scenarios, creative visual design, funny writing and clever puzzles, all wrapped up in an inventive stacking mechanic, such minor imperfections are easy to overlook. When you find yourself simply wandering around the environments and interacting with everything just to see what happens, you know you’re taking part in something magical. It’s far from a traditional adventure, but it’s all the more appealing for its offbeat approach, providing a breath of fresh air amidst the usual stale formulas. If you have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, Stacking is must-have downloadable content that’s not to be missed.





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Game Info

Stacking

Platform: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Genre:

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Downloadable adventure by Double Fine, set in a 1930s world inhabited by Russian Matryoshka dolls.

More Game Info »

Releases
Territory Date Publisher
Download February 8 2011 THQ
Download March 1 2012 Double Fine Productions
Worldwide Q3 2014 Nordic Games
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User Score

Average based on 17 ratings

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User Reviews

Posted by Houie on Dec 23, 2013

One of the most innovative and best adventure games of all time

~14 hours The game is innovative. It conforms to no formulas or rules previously established by adventure games, except that it has a main... Read the review »

Posted by Kix on Jun 5, 2012

Inventive, Extra Challenges

Positives: Puzzle solving like I have never seen before, Multi-solution puzzles which add most of the challenge and replay ability Negatives:... Read the review »

Posted by Lucien21 on May 27, 2012

Charming.

This is a Double Fine game I downloaded a while ago on PSN and never really played. You play as Charlie the smallest member of the... Read the review »



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Comments

DrFrankenstein DrFrankenstein
Feb 14, 2011

No PC version? Oh well, yet another good premise going down the drain…

D.C. D.C.
Feb 15, 2011

Over the weekend I played and loved this game on the 360, yet another Double Fine classic. Probably not as engaging as Costume Quest, but right up there with the production values of their other games. I can see why it could be considered an adventure, but I never felt like I was playing one. (Unlike a game like Heavy Rain, that was a whole different beast to the usual adventures I’ve experienced but still felt like one.) Any one who likes Schafer’s previous games shouldn’t hesitate to atleast try this one out, you almost certainly won’t regret it.

orient orient
Feb 15, 2011

It’s great to see such a fresh take on puzzle-solving. These shorter, downloadable games are a good move from Double Fine, at least for the moment.

@DrFrankenstein - I fail to see how Stacking’s premise is “going down the drain” just because it isn’t on your preferred platform. I would’ve liked to play it on PC too, but adventure games are finding a new lifeline on other platforms, whether it be consoles or mobile devices, and that’s surely a good thing.

noknowncure
Feb 15, 2011

Stacking is a fantastic little game and I can’t wait to see what Doublefine come up with next.

I’m still amused by the number of Adventure Gamers who seem to think that because they individually won’t be able to play a particular game, that somehow the whole endeavour is futile.

Frustration that you can’t play it I could understand, but writing the whole thing off as ‘going down the drain’ seems rather selfish and arrogant.

DrFrankenstein DrFrankenstein
Feb 15, 2011

Simply put, I happen to know quite a few adventure enthusiasts who aren’t going to invest into yet another specialized device and become vendor-locked to a certain manufacturer. So to them (myself included) games putting all their bets on the consoles market are a loss. ‘nuff said… let’s not turn the comments page into a full-blown discussion.

orient orient
Feb 16, 2011

You do realise that the PC takes up a mere 10% of the overall video game market? For bigger companies like Double Fine, that have the capacity to create AAA games, it makes no sense financially to stick to such a small market segment. With your attitude, you’re going to miss out on a lot of great games in the future. That’s all I’m thinking of.

Luckily the PC has indie development to fall back onto, which in some cases is more exciting than the commercial stuff.

Jackal Jackal
Feb 16, 2011

I doubt anyone is is suggesting such games be PC exclusives, but a port is hardly a stretch. Could still happen, though. I haven’t heard anything about Stacking, but some other successful XBLA games have made their way onto PC eventually, so you never know.

Shany
Feb 16, 2011

By the way, according to Double Fine’s FAQ, the choice of platform is not theirs, but is made by the publisher (in this case THQ).

a-maze a-maze
Apr 9, 2012

This is a lovely, charming, super funny and entertaining little game.
I LOVED playing it!! It has lots of humor, and a huge replay factor.

Even tho the main story isnt long or too complex, the weird stacking dolls abilities, scenarios and jokes.. makes it all the fun.

Much of the time you find yourself still replaying a level to reveal all secrets, alternative solutions and finding special dolls… just for the fun of it. Turns out to be very addictive!

I would really really recommend this game, and I have to agree with the review in everything!

rjk rjk
Oct 24, 2013

A nice game, but I uninstalled it after almost fully completeing first 2 locations (Train Station and Ship). It’s fresh and technically great, but I’m currently looking for something deeper than pure entertainment this offers.



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