Tim Schafer has been releasing excellent adventure titles since way back in the 1990s, and this trend continued with the creation of his development team Double Fine Productions. Stacking is the latest game from Double Fine Productions and was created initially as a prototype during the development of the game Brütal Legend. It eventually saw am Xbox 360 and PS3 release early in 2011 and was brought to PC in March 2012. Like other games from the same developer, Stacking is a unique and memorable experience, combining elements of adventure with puzzles set in a world completely different from anything seen in another game.
In Stacking, the player controls a wide range of Russian dolls, notably the main protagonist Charlie, who is trying to save his family of chimney sweeps from the evil Baron. The story is presented through cut scenes in the style of a silent movie, which are usually amusing, but at times are an unnecessary interruption to the flow of the game. The focus of the story is the theme of child labor, but Stacking manages to avoid a dark tone for this rather dark subject. Instead, from start to end, the story is light-hearted and fairly amusing, if a little inconsequential.
The real fun in Stacking can be found in the puzzle/adventure gameplay, which uses the main “stacking” mechanic to allow you to explore the levels and complete challenges. The puzzles in Stacking are generally quite humorous, and all feature more than one possible solution. For example, one puzzle challenges you to organize the queue in the train station. While this may sound mundane, the multiple solutions make even small tasks enjoyable. The puzzle can be solved by using the “stacking” mechanic to order the dolls in the queue, finding a doll with the ability to punch other dolls, or by finding one that will shout at other dolls so they organize themselves.
Each level and puzzle feels individually crafted, and the graphics in Stacking are one of its strengths. Every location in the game is distinct, and the environment does a great job of pointing you towards solutions to the puzzles in subtle ways. In addition to this, a great sense of scale is present when “stacking” into a larger doll. As the tiny main protagonist, Charlie, you feel small in a world of larger dolls. When moving around as the biggest dolls, you tower above the environment. This effect is a clever design choice, and makes the “stacking” mechanic stand out as a design perspective. The soundtrack also helps to create a cheery, old-fashioned environment, which blends seamlessly with the silent film cut scenes in the game, and is mostly well done, if a little repetitive.
In spite of the great sense of atmosphere and the lovingly crafted world and concept, Stacking is not without some problems. Firstly, the puzzles are generally too easy. This is clearly more of a casual game, but harder puzzles later on would have improved the experience somewhat. The final puzzle in the game boils down to understanding “rock, paper, scissors”, which is not exactly a difficult climax to the game. A hint system is also present, which (after staggered delays) gives you the option to simply read the solution. It would be more understandable if this hint system only told you one of the multiple solutions to a puzzle, but it can be abused in order to complete every objective with ease.
Another possible problem with the game is its length. After four hours of playing Stacking, the entire main storyline and also the additional level (which is included in the PC version) can be finished. In this time, I had completed 44% of the objectives in the game, which include “stacking” into every unique doll and solving all of the puzzles in numerous ways. For players who like to get 100% in every game, the multiple objectives will extend the experience, but for most players, after the credits roll, the uniqueness of the game will be consigned to memory, rather than becoming something to play over and over again. The motivation to complete more objectives is also hampered by the hints system, making getting 100% more of a chore than a challenge. However, in spite of the short length, by the time the game is over, you will have probably spent the right amount of time in the world of Stacking. Rather than letting the game mechanic and style wear thin by making the game longer, Double Fine succeeded in making the game short, but sweet.
Since this is a port to the PC, it is worth mentioning that Stacking is a decent effort at porting. The game works well with keyboard and mouse and includes support for the Xbox Controller for Windows, which is the easier of the two options to use. The graphics options can be changed, but not extensively. Obviously, the experience will be different for every PC user, but I didn’t encounter any problems on my system, and the frame-rates were always stable.
Overall, Stacking is a small, but beautifully formed game. It is certainly worth visiting the charming world of Russian dolls where the game takes place. Stacking is a casual game, evidenced by its easy difficulty, but will appeal to any player who wants to take a break from more serious and difficult games. It is a memorable and unique adventure, but one that I will be unlikely to return to. For players who like good value for money in terms of hours of play in a game, Stacking is probably not the best choice. However, if you can appreciate a change of pace and a charming, but short, experience, Stacking is definitely worth experiencing.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Steam version of Stacking, developed and published by Double Fine Productions.