I’ll be honest, I don’t instantly gel with everything DoubleFine Studios do. Though I have no doubt in my mind that Tim Schafer’s merry band of fantastic developers are probably one of the most talented independent teams in gaming today, I sometimes have a distinct paranoia about their output, in the same way I worry that one day, Pixar are going to score a massive flop with a project that just doesn’t tick all the right boxes.
So Stacking is a very welcome surprise on several levels. First, it follows up the divine Costume Quest perfectly with another quirky and artistic game providing an innovative slant on a relatively simple idea. Second, it reeks of quality and though I’m reviewing the PS3 version, it’s absolutely identical to the Xbox 360 version, a definite bonus.
Third, well it’s a DoubleFine game so it’s riddled with cute gags and memorable characters.
Kicking off with some faux old-movie presentation that absolutely fits the game perfectly, Stacking tells the tale of a family of Matryoshka Dolls. You’ve probably seen these things before at your grandmother’s house (or if you’re lucky, you’ve got a decent genuine set yourself). Dolls that stack inside each other starting off with a tiddler and working up to a large doll that contains all the others.
The Blackmore Family are poor, barely scraping by and with several mouths to feed the head of the family heads off to seek his fortune working for a nefarious Baron.
Weeks pass with no sign of the Blackmore patriarch’s return. As the family struggles to keep the wolf from the door, the Blackmore children are taken to work at the Baron’s huge industrial complex, leaving the tiddliest member of the family, Charlie, to embark on a quest to rescue them and defeat the evil Baron once and for all.
Stacking’s cut scenes are deliciously directed, if a little long (impatient gamers like me were probably mashing the buttons like mad itching to get into the game proper) but they set the scene perfectly and embroil you in the game’s branching quests, filled with an eclectic collection of oddball characters.
Each Matryoshka Doll in the game has unique abilities that will help Charlie in his quest to find out what happened to his brothers and sisters, and also his dear old dad. Meeting up with a resourceful and friendly tramp called Levi, Charlie discovers the game ‘hub’, a vast railway station that serves as the kicking-off point for each of the game’s main quest areas.
Levi chronicles each of Charlie’s adventures with a neat set of rooms filled with murals, puzzle pieces and doll collections depicting Charlie’s triumphs, and each of the dolls that Charlie has possessed. Being small has its advantages, as the game’s central core gameplay revolves around Charlie’s ability to leap inside and ‘take over’ any characters he meets. Neatly, the player must take into account that larger dolls will first require Charlie to stack with the next immediate size up before he can start to tackle the bigger characters in the game.
For some reason everything reminded me of a cross between the classic C64 Robot takeover game Paradroid, suffused with a goodly dose of hoary old Shiny Entertainment game Messiah. Puzzles in Stacking aren’t massively complicated, and there’s a handy timed hint system to bail you out of trouble if a quest’s solution doesn’t present itself straight away.
The more I played, the more I fell in love with the game’s look and feel. Calling on a mixture of the Matryoshka style, mixed with a dose of Victorian and early 20th Century British industrialism, peppered with plenty of steampunk-type technology, Stacking does the DoubleFine tradition of peerless art direction proud.
Sound is used to good effect too. There’s no dialogue, and each cut scene plays out like an early silent movie – subtitled between scenes. This adds to the game’s charm, as does the dramatic piano music accompaniment throughout.
The more you play, the more you become locked in an addictive quest to stack with every single doll to see what their special abilities are. Some fart, some can send other dolls to sleep, and some are flirtatious wiggling temptresses. Completists will soon find that there’s plenty to do in Stacking even when Charlie’s main quest is complete.
The beauty of the game is that it appeals to quite a broad audience without feeling too dumbed down. My wife, a non gamer, thought it was visually stunning and my daughter thought it all looked excellent fun.
It’s almost a pity that DoubleFine don’t have a habit of producing sequels to their best games, as the setting and gameworld of Stacking definitely deserves another visit. As it stands though, it’s a game that is quite easy to devour all in one delicious gulp but also a game that offers plenty of replay value in completing every single element of each puzzle, or just seeing how much of your trophy room you can fill up and complete.
Beautiful, charming and thoroughly original, Stacking is well worth picking up and even if you’re not completely sold on DoubleFine’s previous work, you’ll find it refreshing and perfectly paced.