It never fails to amaze us how some designers come up with new ideas for their games. The most inventive and courageous among them can even draw inspiration from Russian souvenirs… Stacking - not to be confused with the sport involving pimped out plastic cups - is another characteristically off the wall title from Double Fine. It’s an adventure puzzle game populated by living nesting dolls, and is set in an industrial era, when coal was the fossil fuel du jour, and kids could be sent out to work in the sweatshops without fear of CYF putting them into foster care.
The story revolves around the working class Blackmore family, which has found itself in dire financial straits. In an attempt to dig their way out of debt, the older children are sent out to work for an industrialist baron, while the youngest and smallest family member is passed over as too runty to be of any use. When wee Charlie learns his siblings have actually been forced into slavery, he sets off to rescue them from the dastardly baron’s clutches.
This is a game where size matters; Charlie is the tiniest member of his family, but is able to take control of larger dolls by sneaking up on them from behind and jumping inside. He can only stack with a doll one size larger than himself, but that doll can then stack with the next size up, and so on. Bigger isn’t always better, however; there are some places only a small doll can access. It doesn’t take long to master the ‘doll-jacking’ technique – or any of the controls, for that matter… and once you’re in you can take the new ride for a spin.
Each doll type has its own unique ability. Some are useful (often in an obscure way), and some are just for show. The animations for these abilities are entertaining, especially the ‘gross-out’ variety, which involves bodily functions. Gratuitous fart jokes are always good for a laugh - even in a Victorian setting. Sometimes you will need to combine two dolls’ abilities to achieve a result. An example of this synergy in action is using one doll to create an updraft, allowing another to float upwards to an otherwise unreachable location.
Much of the game’s appeal lies in the multiple solutions to the challenges, which actively encourages creative problem solving. The puzzles themselves won’t tax your brain too much, but if you are stumped there’s a hint system to offer assistance, plus an illuminated trail you can activate, to guide Charlie to the next objective. Other dolls can also provide clues – usually blatantly obvious ones – if you talk to them.
There are unique dolls and sets to collect, as well as added tomfoolery in the form of Hi-jinks, which see you delivering king-sized wedgies, uppercuts and all manner of pranks to other dolls, to earn awards. You can even nip back to Charlie’s secret hideout to admire a visual representation of his achievements. These ‘side quests’ are not essential to completing the game; however they do help extend the playing time.
Speaking of which, be warned that the game is here for a good time… not a long time. Casual players may not notice so much, but you certainly will if you play it through in two or three sittings, as we did. We completed it in around five hours; this includes finding and doing everything possible on each level. In all honesty, you’re not likely to play it through more than once, unless it is to go back and find all those unique dolls and complete any challenges or Hi-jinks you may have missed.
In the sound and graphics department, Stacking is reminiscent of a melodrama from yesteryear, using sepia tones for titles and narrative, accompanied by an excellent selection of classical music. Cut scenes are performed on a wooden stage, complete with painted backdrop and framed by heavy, velvet curtains. A grainy, flickering film effect seals the deal; you could swear you were watching something from the silent film era. The in-game locations are straight out of a child’s imagination and toy box, with everyday household objects mingled in with the scenery. It’s a charming and constant reminder of scale, which somehow manages to appear small and large at the same time. For example, the hub location is a bustling railway station, which at first seems enormous… until you spot the teaspoons, matchboxes, thimbles and playing cards dotted around the place.
Dolls wear period costume (think top hats, tweed jackets, fob watches and waistcoats), and while they are all the same shape, size and appearance differs greatly. You’d think that, with their painted on limbs and single point of articulation, it would be difficult for the dolls to move convincingly, let alone convey expressions, but this is not the case. Most dolls get around with a kind of hopping, lurching gait of varying speed and swagger, which gives each one plenty of personality. Effective use of (wordless) exclamations and sound FX accentuates the dialogue, which is delivered via speech bubble.
So, at a cost of 1200 Microsoft Points, is it worth the investment? If you’re after quality rather than quantity, the answer is definitely ‘Yes!’ Stacking possesses many elements of a great game: challenge, humour, well written plot, user friendly, great sound and visuals… and for the casual gamer it’s easy to pick up and play for brief periods of pleasant distraction. We reckon you’ll love it, but if further convincing is required you can download the trial from XBLA, which costs nothing but time and bandwidth.