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Stacking Review

16 February 2011

If you think you’ve got money problems, spare a thought for little Charlie Blackmore and his family of chimney sweeps. Unlike Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, the Blackmores don’t have a happy-go-lucky, dance across the rooftop attitude. In fact, they’re totally miserable, struggling to afford a few slices of bread for their dinner. To make matters worse, Charlie’s father leaves his family home to try and earn more money working away for a rich Baron. During his absence, the family’s debt spirals out of control and the Baron’s henchmen, disguised as debt collectors, kidnap Charlie’s four siblings to use them for child labour in the city.

Charlie is spared the ordeal, but he’s not about to sit on his hands and do nothing. This pint-sized, cheeky chappie may be the smallest child in the family, but he makes up for it with attitude by taking the family motto of “Ain’t no mess we can’t address” quite literally, embarking on a dangerous journey to rescue his brothers. This is no ordinary rescue mission, however. After all, Stacking is a game from Double Fine Productions, whose portfolio includes the brilliantly creative Costume Quest. Double Fine has a reputation for delivering unique games where you should expect the unexpected — Stacking certainly doesn’t disappoint in that respect.

In Stacking, players use stackable Russians dolls, known as Matryoshkas, to solve a variety of challenges. Playing as Charlie, you waddle around meeting and interacting with other dolls. You can walk up behind any doll and — providing they are larger then you — possess their hollow bodies, essentially becoming a brand new doll with a totally different look. The unique twist is that many dolls possess different abilities, which you may need to solve a puzzle. There are dozens of entertaining situations that you find yourself in as you carry out such activities as burping, farting and fluttering your eye-lashes in an attempt to solve a variety of surreal, stimulating challenges.

Each doll has a unique skill, ranging from a seduce ability ideal for distracting guards to a rancid belch, which may disgust other dolls, but comes in handy for clearing a room in a matter of moments. There are approximately 100 dolls in total, so Stacking offers loads of variety. Expect to perform plenty of experimentation to find the right doll for the job. Despite a few frustrating challenges that defy logic and require little more than a trial and error approach, the Double Fine designers put a lot of careful thought and imagination into the puzzle creation process. Some of these bizarre challenges, such as having to possess the Pied Piper by using a violin and then using her flute to lure rats to a cheese sphinx, provoke the thought, "why on Earth would you have to do that?" But strangely, in the context of the game, they mostly makes sense; plus, the feeling of not knowing what you’re going to have to do next keeps you hooked.

Stacking cleverly encourages you to experiment and gives you good reason to replay challenges. Each puzzle has a number of solutions, and after completing a challenge you’re told how many other ways you could have solved it. In one of the first puzzles you encounter, for example, you have to infiltrate the railway lounge. It can be tackled in three ways. You can jump into the body of lady who has the ability to woo and use her to distract the guard, or you can use an engineer to pry a grate off so you can sneak through into the room. Or, if you’re feeling particularly naughty, you can fart in the ventilation fan and stink out all the guests. The challenges become more complicated and elaborate as you progress. The later stages really kick your brain into overdrive, but there’s always help nearby.

The hint system is a good way to progress if you get stuck, but its inclusion is a double-edged sword. Initially, I found myself wandering around locations looking for the right doll to complete a challenge for far longer than I would have liked, using a trial and error approach to pass some of the trickier puzzles. Once I started using the immediately accessible hint system, I was able to cut out a lot of the leg-work, by far the most boring aspect of Stacking. Once you start using hints, though, constantly skipping the exploration becomes far too tempting.

Stacking's whimsical world is definitely part of the game’s charm and appeal. Set in the 1920s, a time when film star Harold Lloyd was thrilling audiences by dangling from a clock tower, the story takes the form of a silent movie with a stylized art style that captures the dark, depression era days extremely well. The sweet sounds of a piano tinkle away in the background while the mood-changing twanging of string instruments adjust their volume and pace depending on the tone reflected by the characters and the storyline. There’s really no need for the characters to speak. Instead, they tell their story through text, while cut-scenes flicker and the mechanical whirring sound of a projector adds to the authenticity of the era. Stacking's audio and visuals feel refreshingly unique.

And that’s really why Stacking is such a great game. Not only does it stand out from the crowd, but it manages to tickle and entertain through its wide range of bizarre challenges, the likes of which you've never seen before in any other game. Though things can get a little wacky at times, once you’ve solved a puzzle, you’re likely to smile a little and nod your head as if to say, “I like what they did there.” Besides, where else can you burp in someone’s face and clear a room by trumping without receiving a barrage of abuse?

-The Final Word-

With its refreshingly unique take on the puzzle genre, Stacking tickles, entertains and challenges in equal measures.
  • The imaginative challenges
  • The silent movie treatment and stylized art style
  • Having more than one way to solve a puzzle adds replay value
  • Having to spend too much time searching around for the right dolls -- or not enough, if you use the tempting hint system
8.5
Platforms reviewed : PSN
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic and Gamerankings

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