Just a few short months after the debut of Costume Quest, Double Fine has returned to the downloadable market with Stacking, and the results are just as spectacular. The new title is packed with quirky humor, clever gameplay, and tremendous art direction, and is yet more proof that good ideas are a better game foundation than realistic graphics.
In Stacking, you play as Charlie Blackmore, the youngest child in a family of matryoshka chimney sweeps during the industrial era. Matryoshka are those Russian nesting dolls that stack one inside the other, so the entire Blackmore clan can – quite literally – be put together as one familial unit. Papa is the largest doll while Charlie is the smallest, with the rest of the family falling somewhere in between.
The story kicks off when an evil industrial Baron with a fondness for child labor kidnaps all of Charlie’s brothers and sisters and forces them to work in his non-unionized operations. Charlie is overlooked due to his size, so it’s up to the plucky protagonist to free the children with the help of an artistically inclined drifter friend named Levi the Hobo. The narrative is presented like a 1920s silent film and there are plenty of comic moments that take advantage of the premise.
The matryoshka concept feeds directly into the gameplay. As the smallest doll, Charlie is able to sneak up behind other dolls, climb inside them, and take control. Each doll has on unique special ability, and you’ll have to use those talents in order to navigate the environment. You can only climb into a doll one size larger than the one you’re currently controlling, so you’ll sometimes have to build an entire stack of dolls and you can only use the powers of the largest one in the stack.
While the concept is a bit odd – like many Double Fine ideas, it’s simultaneously endearing and disturbing if you take the time to think about it – it allows for a seemingly limitless number of interesting logic puzzles. The design owes a lot to old adventure games – you’ll have to locate the one doll that has the skill you need to progress – but the developers have managed to eliminate many of the more frustrating elements of the genre.
They’ve done that with straightforward puzzles and a few helpful features that allow you to experience the game at your own pace. The game’s various challenges require you to outsmart a series of inept adult dolls, and they’ll all reveal their weaknesses when you talk to them. The clues make sense within the context of the game world and you can reasonably be expected to work through things without too much of a headache.
Every challenge also has several solutions and you only need to find one in order to advance the story. For instance, you can break into an exclusive lounge club by seducing the guard or by stopping a giant fan and crawling in through the vents, and the multiple-choice approach makes it virtually impossible to get stuck. At least one of the answers is usually pretty obvious, so you could breeze through the game in two or three hours if you’re only looking to experience the plot.
Chances are, however, that you won’t be in any hurry to reach the credits. Stacking offers the kind of simple brainteasers that gnaw at your subconscious until they’ve been unraveled and are extremely rewarding once understood, so the game’s primary appeal lies in the search for new solutions. Your quest to unlock everything can push the total playtime well beyond the ten-hour mark, and that’s not bad for a $15 title.
Fortunately, Stacking won’t hold you hostage if you don’t have ten hours worth of patience. You can ask for a hint whenever you get stuck and – if you’re stubborn – you can revisit any area in the game at any time, so you’re able to focus on the puzzles that interest you at any given moment. The hints carry no penalty beyond the short cool down period before you can ask for a second, and one pointer is usually enough to steer you towards the proper path. Asking for too many hints kind of defeats the purpose – again, it’s more satisfying to figure things out for yourself – but it’s still a helpful feature that keeps you engaged with the game instead of an online FAQ.
That user-friendly design also makes Stacking one of the more accessible titles in recent memory. Hardly any obstacles require split-second finger dexterity, so if you can figure out the solution, you should be able to implement it.
If you do somehow become bored with the challenges, each stage offers a series of optional Hi-Jinks that encourage you to experiment with different abilities. You’ll be given a headline like ‘Animal Stack,’ and you’ll have to figure out which combination of dolls will create the desired brand of mischief. As you’d expect, that can lead to some rather silly situations. The Hi-Jinks can involve anything from dueling gloves to flatulence, and they keep the game fresh and unpredictable right up until the hilarious final encounter.
With regards to the technical aspects of production, there’s really not much to criticize. The game mechanics aren’t particularly ambitious, but they’re flawlessly executed and they’re extremely well suited to the concept. That allows the art direction to do most of the heavy lifting (the game is legitimately beautiful), and it’s hard not to fall in love with the charm that permeates every pixel.
That’s why, as much as I’d like to be more insightful, I just don’t have anything bad to say about the game. Stacking is light on bullets and explosions, but it’s packed with Double Fine’s trademark all-ages humor and it should definitely put a smile on anybody’s face. If you’re a fan of Double Fine – or even just a fan of intriguing puzzles or design – you should definitely add Stacking to your digital collection
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