Review | Stacking

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What do you get if you mix chimney sweeps, evil industrial tycoons, PG-rated toilet humour, and matryoshka dolls?

A charming and surprisingly entertaining adventure game.

When I first saw screenshots of Stacking, I was intrigued by its art style, but I was also unsure of whether it would actually be a complete ame rather than an experiment. But once I saw that it was created by Double Fine, who have a penchant for making games that are both weird and enjoyable, Stacking jumped onto my to-do list.

Stacking‘s opening scenes lay out its setting and style quickly. The world of Stacking blends the familiar tropes of Victorian England and of early silent films. Cutscenes take place in theatre sets, accompanied by dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and film projector effects. Most importantly, every character is a matryoshka doll. This isn’t just a visual style, but the foundation of Stacking’s design.

Because protagonist Charlie Blackmore is “the tiniest Russian doll in the world” getting anywhere fast relies upon taking control of a chain of dolls, each one size bigger than the next, to get to the doll you need. (This raises some questions about how their consciousness works, how their anatomy works, and the weirdness of bodysnatching without consent…). Stacking into other dolls is essential because many of them have special abilities that you’ll need to access new areas and explore each level. Taking control of a railway maintenance doll lets you use his wrench to open an alternate route into a challenge, while taking control of a bird allows you to fly into map areas that human dolls can’t access.

The vignette effects in the corner fit with the early-20th-century style well.

Rather than relying upon convoluted logic or long sequences of causes and effects, each puzzle in Stacking has up to 5 smaller solutions to discover. In the first level, these can be as simple as bringing the right doll to the right place and using their ability. Later challenges bring in a greater degree of lateral thinking, such as stacking into the largest doll you can find to use their weight to move an object around, or using one doll to lure a second doll into a new location so that you can use the second doll’s ability. The last level also introduces ability combinations. One puzzle solution required stacking into both a doll who could produce water and one who could produce a blast of cold air. After going to the correct area and using the water ability as the water doll, I then needed to quickly un-stack into the smaller doll and use the cold air ability to combine the water and cold air into ice.

This approach was used because Stacking was designed as an introduction to the adventure-puzzle style for younger or novice gamers, similarly to how previous Double Fine release Costume Quest was designed as an introduction to the RPG genre. Stacking contains much more black comedy and a more mature plot than Costume Quest: Charlie’s task is to rescue his siblings from the industrialist Baron, who has forced them into slave labour to pay off their father’s debt.

Although this sounds dark, Stacking is still a 7+ game, which is shown well through its writing and its often slapstick, sometimes juvenile humour. Multiple challenges can be solved with flatulence, while one puzzle can be solved by sneezing in someone’s soup.

The combination of plot and humour actually works really well; its overall effect is that the events are understood as over-the-top cartoonish villainy that will definitely be overcome by the heroes. Stacking is a comedic and light-hearted game, in the same way that Road Runner being squashed by a falling anvil is funny rather than horrible. Its boss battle section is great as well – the cutscene leading up to the final fight is anachronistic in such an unexpected way that I laughed aloud at a game for the first time in a while.

Each of the four levels in Stacking is fairly large and full of rooms to explore, dolls to collect, and Hi-Jinks (ability-based interactions) to discover. While there isn’t a map system, I don’t think the levels would be overwhelming for younger players, because multiple types of optional tools and guides are built-in. The RB button brings up a glowing trail that points the way to the next challenge, while at least one type of doll in each level has a “scanning” ability that highlights collectible and unique dolls.

Stacking also has a robust hint system that allows players to adjust how much help they need. In the Challenge Log, players can request up to 3 hints for every possible puzzle solution. The first hint is very vague, the second usually hints at which doll players need to use, and the final hint spells out what players need to do. However, the hints are timed so that players have to wait progressively longer before reading the second and the final hints. This encourages players to try a solution based on the initial hint and then come back again if they’re still stuck. Finally, the puzzles instantly reset once they have been solved – as no waiting or reloading is required, its easy to methodically work on finding solutions to a puzzle.

An image of the Xbox game Stacking, This image shows the "hideout" section, which keeps a record of your progress.
As you reunite collections of dolls, your hideout fills with records of your accomplishments.

Stacking is built so that players can progress through the story by finding just one solution to each puzzle, or they can spend more time exploring every corner of the levels and collecting every unique doll. There are no consequences for moving on to a new level and coming back later. Similarly, there no extras for completing the game 100% except for the visual reward of having your “hideout” fill with records of your accomplishments and of the dolls you have reunited.

As a result, Stacking can be a very short game for players who are just aiming to complete the story. Players aiming for 100% completion can expect to need about 8.5 hours, according to HowLongToBeat.

Overall

When I first started playing Stacking I assumed I’d end up placing it in my experimental tier. However, while the visual style and the stacking mechanic are certainly novel, the core gameplay of using the resources and actions around you to solve problems is the foundation of an adventure game. Stacking is a great combination of familiar, tested substance and quirky, creative style.

The main negative point of past reviews was that Stacking can be finished very quickly. It’s original release price was $15, and reviews at the time (2011) were often sceptical about the gameplay-hours:price ratio. I don’t tend to use that ratio, as I prefer shorter games; for me, Stacking was as long as I wanted it to be, and that flexibility worked in its favour. As an introduction to the adventure-puzzle genre, I believe that Stacking works really well. Its approach of including multiple types of optional guidance and assistance lets players adjust its challenge level to suit their needs while still remaining in control of the gameplay.

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