STAFF REVIEW of Stacking (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Monday, April 11, 2011.
by Adam Dileva

Stacking Box art I remember going to my grandmas as a kid and always being fascinated with her collection of these wooden dolls that stacked into one another. Matryoshkas (or babushka) are a set of Russian nesting dolls that are usually cylindrical in shape, and split open horizontally half way and allow smaller ones to stack inside of it. The ones I used to play with usually had 6 to 8 or so in a set but they can be as small or large as the creators choose.

Appropriately named; Stacking, is the newest title brought to us from Double Fine Productions and Tim Schafer; who of course was the mastermind behind brilliant titles like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Costume Quest. If Double Fine shines at something, its most definitely bring completely unique and hilarious games.

Stacking in essence is a puzzle game that requires players to use increasingly larger dolls unique abilities to solve unique challenges. Everything is played out in the classic silent film style that has no voice acting ala the Lego titles with an overlaying orchestral score that sets the mood for each scene. Just like in the Lego titles, you wont even notice that theres no voice acting due to how well the characters are represented and emote as well as they do. Even better, the dolls have no limbs and they are still able to convey what they are trying to say to get their point across. Just like a great book, youll have voices in your head for each character you come across.

You are Charlie, the smallest and youngest in the Blackmore family. Set in the industrial age, youre father comes home telling the whole family that all their money problems have been solved with a new job he just got. Weeks pass and father never returns home and because of it the bills havent been paid. Now the whole family must pay off the debt to The Baron and is forced into slavery to repay, which is of course other than Charlie simply because hes too small to be useful. Because of Charlies lacking stature, hes got a unique ability to stack into and control other dolls while using their abilities. Now it is up to Charlie to find out where his lost family members are being held and worked so that he can save them and reunite his whole family.

You control Charlie Blackmore and its your job to solve puzzles so that you can rescue your family. If you sneak up behind a doll and its only one size bigger than the doll youre currently controlling, you are able to stack into it thus becoming a larger doll and gaining new abilities. Some abilities will allow you to unlock doors, smack people, belch, sprint and even more odd and unique specialties. These abilities will allow you to progress and solve puzzles in unique ways; you may even need to stack certain types of dolls in order to combine their skills.

You start your journey in the Royal Train Station and as you unlock new levels youll gain access to them through this hub that youll constantly be coming back to. This design allows the player to learn small areas at a time without becoming overwhelmed with a huge area all at once. Every puzzle you come across to progress will actually have multiple solutions to solve it. Some solutions are quite simple and straight forward while others are quite convoluted and very out there. So while theres no one right way to solve a puzzle, theres a solution that everyone should be able to figure out regardless of how you play. While casual players will figure out the simplest solutions, others will take dedicated players to figure out.

This is where the games challenge comes in; trying to solve each missions various puzzles in different ways. For example, say theres a guard blocking a door that you need to get into (and some dolls are block from stacking into for obvious reasons), this is where the problem solving comes into play. Do you stack into the beautiful woman and flirt with the guard to get him to move, or do you pick the large guy whose ability it is to fart, thus making the guard move in a more aggressive manner. This is just an example out of many solutions that will constantly have you thinking of new ways to solve the puzzles tasked to Charlie. If you ever get stuck you are able to unlock hints for each puzzle if you get stuck or simply cant think of any other way to solve the mission. The problem with this is that theres nothing you need to spend to unlock hints, so you can literally get the solution given to you (other than having to wait a short time between hints) whenever you wish. This does take some of the fun out of the game as its too easy to cheat and youll complete the game without any challenge unless youre certain to not use the hint system.

Other than multiple solutions, there are also Hi-jinks that can be completed for those that want to put more time into the game. These Hi-jinks can only be done with certain dolls, but will require you to do a set amount of ability actions to other dolls. For example, you might have to find the doll that does a glove slap and slap 15 other dolls to complete the Hi-jinks. While its not always the most exciting, it does add some more time into Stacking for those that love the ambiance and gameplay.

While the story and missions are set in a linear fashion, Charlie can choose how he wants to do missions. You can easy blow through the story in a few hours even without cheating, but youll add much more time if you do the puzzles with each of the different solutions. Some people will have issues with it being short, but as long as you play it as intended, by solving the puzzles in multiple ways, youll easily get your money out of Stacking.

It may be short, but what it makes up in is an absolute unique experience with an amazing art direction filled with humor that only Shafer could come up with. Clever writing, amazing story telling and unique characters will have you remembering Stacking for quite some time to come after youve saved your family. No game is even remotely like Stacking when you compare all of the elements involved in crafting such a wonderful experience, though this seems to be an ongoing trend with Double Fine games. Stacking is absolutely worth the price of admission, and just like their games beforehand, will be remembered fondly of for years to come for its unique experience.

Overall: 8.8 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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