If you asked any regular old gamer if they thought an adventure in a world of Russian nesting dolls was a recipe for success, they’d probably blink a couple times and stare at you, mouth slightly agape. Then again, thats why we have people who come up with that sort of idea in the first place and then have the means and wherewithal to pull it off. That’s why we have people like Lee Petty at Double Fine, making games for us. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to spend 6 hours yesterday, playing Double Fine’s newest arcade release, Stacking.
The story of Stacking follows the adventures of Charlie Blackmore, the tiniest member of a family of beleaguered Russian nesting dolls. Down on their fortunes, the family is broken apart as your father must go work for the evil Baron, and your brothers and sisters are taken into servitude in order to pay off debts owed. As a tiny little doll, you are spared that fate because you’re deemed worthless. Now, its up to you, Charlie Blackmore, to go and rescue your family from the clutches of the evil Baron and put an end to his tyranny once and for all.
Now, although I was already very excited for this game, I forced myself to keep an objective eye on Stacking, in order to bring the best review possible to you. Fortunately, the game didn’t give me much to complain about. Right off the bat, I was charmed by the silent film/stage style of the cinematics and the very appropriate music that accompanied them. There is a fantastic soundtrack, composed predominantly of strings, that helps you feel like you’re really in what seemed to me to be an early 20th century Europe. The cutscenes are all delivered like a silent film, in that the motions are shown, followed by a dialogue screen. There is even the sound of an old film projector and sidebars of a reel sputtering. A fine job was done in creating and maintaining the old timey feel of the game and its setting.
On to the gameplay! When you get right down to it, the mechanics are nothing new or innovative, you take control of different units with different abilities in order to solve problems along your way. We’ve seen that before. What makes Stacking stand out is how unique and thorough the execution is. Being that you are the tiniest nesting doll in a world of nesting dolls, you can approach other dolls and (forgive me for this) forcibly insert yourself into them. Each different person/doll has a special ability that may or may not be useful to you at any given moment. By stacking with them, you will gain access to things as mundane as “Read Newspaper”, “Cough”, and “Good Day, Sir!” ( a fun, stuffy woman reaction), to more specific and/or oddball things as “Sugar Rush”, “Pantomime”, and “Deliver Justice” (my personal favorite). There are also individual characters that have abilities that serve one purpose alone, like opening a locked door.
Dolls come in all sizes, so you may need to inhabit a few smaller ones, in order to get to the larger doll that has the ability you need to use to solve the puzzle you are on. You may even find yourself in situations where you need to stack with a few dolls that each have abilities you need to use in quick conjunction (by stacking/unstacking quickly) in order to solve certain dilemmas. As you progress through the stages of the game, you’ll find yourself in increasingly complex scenarios that will force you to really think outside the box to solve. However, as a reward to clever thinking, there are multiple solutions to each puzzle, so don’t think that you have to do things a specific way in order to progress. In fact, you will unlock achievements and trophies, as well as in-game awards, if you solve each puzzle in a stage in every way possible. This not only urges you to spend more time on puzzles the first time around, but also to replay the game if you like to power through and go with your first solution each time.
In addition to the main storyline, each of the stages has specific optional objectives. There are individual dolls that you must find and stack with, “collecting” them all. You will find sets of dolls, like a family or group of connected individuals that you will get credit for if you stack with all of them at the same time. There are also fun little challenges called “Hijinx” that will track the number of times you “Flatulate” on other dolls, use the “Take Photo” ability on dolls, give others “The Northern Kiss” and so on. By performing these actions a set number of times (usually 5-10), you’ll unlock a golden accessory for that type of doll and a little bit of extra pride. With more than 100 collectible dolls to find and all the fun side challenges, you’ll never find yourself bored during your time playing. Unless, of course, you hate awesome and/or creative things.
I had a wonderful time playing Stacking, and want to encourage everyone to give it a shot. Skeptical? Play the demo and let it convince you. The game is 1200 MS points on Xbox Live or $15 on PSN, but WAIT! If you have a subscription to Playstation PLUS, you get the game absolutely free! That’s the first good thing I’ve seen come out of that paid subscription.
Ok objective review time is over. Everything Double Fine touches turns to gold in my eyes. The team over there has, time and again, impressed me with their unique approach to games. Stacking is no exception to this trend. This is a company that has consistently delivered games that break the mold, make me smile, and relieve me from the mire of standard games that swarm my shelves. All this, without blowing someone’s digital brains out as the focus of gameplay. Excellence.