Review by MTLH

"Charmingly eccentric."

Double Fine Productions, founded in 2000 by LucasArts legend Tim Schafer, never had it particularly easy. Their first game, Psychonauts, was received very well by the critics but failed to do as well commercially. Their second one, Brutal Legend, experienced several difficulties when the original publisher, Activision, pulled out but tried to hinder the release when the game was taken under another company's wing. During that period of uncertainty, Double Fine brainstormed on several ideas for smaller games that would be less costly to make in order to keep the studio afloat. The second of these to make it to market was 2011's Stacking. Originally released for the consoles, it fortunately eventually saw it's way to the PC.

Stacking just looks lovely. It contain a slightly bizarre world of living matryoshka dolls apparently living during the industrial revolution with a hint of arts and crafts. The dolls themselves have a varnished wooden sheen to them and look splendidly painted. Their animation is a bit wooden but then again, so are they. The dolls hop around, which is endearing in itself, but it are their special abilities which shine. From punching to playing a violin to throwing bananas, these figures manage to perform a lot of adorable yet recognisable actions.

Stacking's world seems inspired by the industrial revolution, as mentioned previously, with regard to both the fashion of the time and steam powered technology. The whole arts and crafts vibe also lends Stacking a diorama look with the occasional object being made of such things as pins, string and cardboard. Together with the slightly diluted colours and overall early cinema vibe, the result is refreshingly unique and appealing.

The soundtrack consists mainly of piano and violin and reflects the games theatre and ye olde cinema mood. It plays along during the game itself but is fairly unimposing while coming more to the foreground during the cut scenes. The score suits the visual style and adds to it, forming a great whole. The sound effects are very good. Most of the dolls have their own typical sound to accompany their special ability.

The hero of the game is little Charlie Blackmore. After the disappearance of his father, the Blackmore family has fallen on hard times. Charlie's larger siblings are forced to pay of the debt only to be taken prisoner by a blatantly evil capitalist named the Baron, to work for him as slaves. It's up to Charlie to save them and defeat this nefarious industrialist.

Stacking's plot is initially quite light-hearted despite the premise but eventually it does take on a more grim tone. Child labour and the push to abolish it becomes a theme and how the Baron is eventually dealt with also isn't particularly pretty. Still, that doesn't mean Stacking is an overtly serious game. There is a lot of humour, most of which comes from the different dolls and their abilities. The plot itself, and how it's told through the use of a stage, will also raise the occasional smile. The strikers, their demands and the reaction of their employers form a good example from early in the game. Let's also not forget the adorable yet creepy Mr. Ruffles, a toy bear to which there is more than meets the eye.

Stacking is a puzzle game that revolves around the matryoshkas and their special abilities. Charlie's skill is that he can stack various dolls on top of each other. The resulting doll gets bigger in the process while the outer doll's ability becomes the stack's main one. These abilities can vary wildly, from farting to floating and from billowing ash to shaking hands. Solving the puzzles requires bringing along the right doll, and thus ability, for the job. Eventually it even becomes a matter of acquiring the correct combination, where one matryoshka's ability must be used with another's. This doesn't happen often though and that is a shame. Strangely enough, I didn't mind that the abilities weren't stacked alongside the dolls, that a larger matryoshka could have used the abilities of the smaller dolls inside. The present arrangement doesn't overtly complicate matters and allows the basic premise to come into it's own.

A neat aspect of these puzzles is that each can be solved in various ways. For example, early in the game Charlie must end a strike at the train station but unfortunately the stationmasters won't come out of the lounge. The door to the lounge is guarded and there is a vent in the wall. Getting inside can involve farts, unscrewing the vent or seduction. Completing a level requires the player to experiment with the various dolls, seeing what they can do and how the environments and other matryoshkas react. That is also where most of the fun lies, just fiddling with the various abilities.

Despite it's quirky nature and various unique elements, Stacking is a surprisingly familiar game in a way. The way it combines exploration, conversing, collecting and puzzle solving is very reminiscent of a point and click adventure game. Replace picking things up and using them with a specific object with stacking dolls and their varying abilities and us them with a specific object and the similarities become clear. As such, Stacking isn't quite as novel as it at first appears to be. Having said that, the game does manage to subvert the genre a little. Being the object instead of carrying it around does make a difference as it nearly eliminates the need to fiddle with an inventory thus streamlining the whole experience.

The game is controlled through the mouse and keyboard and this works very well. Occasionally the camera can behave a bit weird but not enough for it to become annoying. Stacking can also be controlled with a gamepad, which is perhaps rather obvious seeing it's console origins. Yet somehow using a gamepad makes controlling the game a bit sluggish and it doesn't nearly feel as smooth as the keyboard and mouse combination.

Stacking isn't a particularly difficult game. The correct matryoshka for at least one possible solution for the task at hand is never far away and speaking with other characters often reveals very useful tips to the point that they give away a solution. Several puzzles can even be solved completely by accident simply by experimenting with the dolls. Completing the story is thus quite easy. Fortunately, reaching the end credits isn't really the game's point though. Finding all solutions is a challenge in itself and Stacking also features so-called Hi-Jinks, little assignments where a matryoshka must perform a certain task which is usually based on his or her ability. These for example entail hitting or hugging a certain amount of other dolls. Collecting unique matryoshkas is also a nice addition to keep you busy. Besides the five areas on offer, one of which is a hub which you will visit often enough and another serves as the game's finale, there is also an extra area called The Lost Hobo King which has been added since launch.

Despite the gameplay not being quite as novel as it at first appears to be, Stacking is splendidly eccentric. Guiding matryoshka dolls around an industrial revolution inspired world made out of pieces of string, empty tins and cardboard set on a stage is certainly something you don't see often. Despite eventually touching upon topics such as slave labour and child labour laws, Stacking is also a funny game when it wants to be.

The puzzles are inventive and make good use of the various dolls and their abilities and it's good to see that each has multiple solutions. It is a shame though that Stacking won't take all that long to finish, at least with regard to the plot. Off course, the end credits don't necessarily have to be the end as finding every solution, doll and other extras certainly adds quite a bit of longevity.

Stacking offer a lot of replayability, a thoroughly charming presentation and a different take on the point and click adventure genre. It's quirky, funny, highly enjoyable and at times even wondrous. Stacking may be eccentric but that isn't a reason not to try it.

OVERAL: a 9,0.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/20/12

Game Release: Stacking (US, 03/06/12)

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