Tim Schafer just might be one of my favorite game designers of all time. He has graced us with titles that are simply amazing and his company, Double Fine, is continuing to produce new and innovative titles. Brutal Legend, Psychonauts and Costume Quest are among some of his most recent games and who can forget one of my favorites of all time, Full Throttle. Well, Double Fine is making the rounds and they have a new game for us called Stacking, a puzzle game using the traditional Russian stacking dolls as the characters. It's an interested and unique game to be sure, but how does it "stack up" against other downloadable titles?
Double Fine games have always been known for their creative stories, and Stacking is no exception. You play as Charlie Blackmore, the youngest child in the Blackmore family, and therefore the smallest Russian doll character. The story is set in the 1930s Great Depression era. The father gets a new job as The Baron's chief engineer and leaves to work. However, he disappears and the family succumbs to the debt that they've accrued. All the kids, except for Charlie, are taken from home and forced to work off the debt in the various contraptions that The Baron has invented. Charlie sets out to free his brothers and sisters. With the help of a wino who aids Charlie in his quest, you travel on a steam train, a cruise ship, a zeppelin, and a triple-decker luxury train to rescue the Blackmore family. Along the way, you uncover the The Baron's evil plot to exploit child labor.
Stacking is a straight up puzzle game, but as you can imagine, the puzzles are quite unique. Charlie can hop into the bodies of other dolls that are larger than him and will use their abilities to influence the environment around him. Movement controls are fairly easy: you use the left analog stick to move around, the right analog stick to work the camera, and A button to stack with other dolls. Each stage/level has different goals to achieve, and each goal typically has multiple solutions that can be found. The game adds a nice little touch by allowing you to access hints for each objective. There are three hints per objective and each hint gives more insight into what you should do, but you are only able to access one hint at a time and must wait for a countdown to finish before accessing another hint. Players can also hit a trigger button that will guide the player where to move next when traveling between objectives.
While each puzzle is unique, they all involve Charlie using other dolls, and their abilities, to accomplish each goal. Charlie can stack himself into multiple dolls at the same time by continually stacking with a doll that is one size bigger than the doll he currently is in. This allows for puzzles to make use of multiple dolls simultaneously. The unique abilities are quite innovative and funny: prostitute dolls seduce, pelican dolls can fly, spy dolls can put masks on other dolls, and the list goes on and on. It's easy to see how each puzzle can have multiple solutions.
What threw me off is that the game never really offers much in the way of a tutorial. Text boxes will pop-up on screen to give you info, but they happen in quick succession and it can feel quite a bit overwhelming to newcomers. However, after hurdling that initial issue, the game fell into its rhythm. While the gameplay was fun and extremely unique, the story mode felt too short. After sitting down to play, just over two hours later, the story mode had been completed.
To augment the short playtime, as mentioned above, you can find all the different puzzle solutions for each goal in the game. In addition to that, there are achievements called Hijinks that you can go after. Essentially, Hijinks are achievements that you gain by doing certain actions with certain dolls. For instance, one Hijink is to use the photographer doll and blind a certain number of dolls with the flash from your camera. Each Hijink is unique and creative, but they feel more like busy work. The same goes for the multiple puzzle solutions. It would have promoted more enjoyment if they had taken the time they spent developing these achievements to put more effort into extending the story mode a bit. If players go after all the different achievements to get 100% completion, the game could run up to 10-15 extra hours, but it's entirely optional if you want to do that.
Where these aspects are lacking though, Stacking makes up for in its unique presentation. The concept behind the story, as you can tell, is incredibly distinctive. Cut scenes are done in the style of the old silent films. The music is also very reminiscent of the time period for what you would hear being performed during a silent film. And, as you probably expected, the art style mimics the simple style of the silent film era too. The SFX design is full of sounds from Russian dolls banging together. A truly unique design!
Let's sum this up. If you want a fun and different style puzzle game with a cute story and fun presentation, then Stacking is for you. However, the campaign is quite short and replayability is minimal after solving every puzzle. This is a game that won't be for everyone, but the experience is unique enough that I can certainly recommend it. Give it a shot the next time you're in the market for a downloadable title.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Live Arcade.