Stacking – Review
Oh great! Not another game about a world full of Russian nesting dolls set in the Great Depression! Wait a second… That’s not right. In the age of the first person shooter, it’s easy to see why this game shouldn’t exist. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of digital distribution and the daring men and women of Double Fine, such a thing is possible in a time when most publishers are afraid to even acknowledge the outside of the box, let alone think there.
Stacking was made while Brutal Legend was stuck in legal limbo thanks to Activision’s highly trained lawyer strike force. I can imagine the general mindset at Double Fine at that time was something like this: “They want unmarketable?! Oh, we’ll show them unmarketable!” This is good news if you, like me, enjoy the stranger things that the video game industry has to offer, but was it worth the risk?
As was previously stated, Stacking is set during the Great Depression, when one of the most hotly debated issues of the day was that of child labor. The world is populated by Russian Matryoshka dolls. You play as Charlie Blackmore, youngest of the Blackmore stack (stack is doll-ese for family). He is also the smallest doll in the world. When his father mysteriously disappears, the rest of his siblings are sent to work for the evil baron. Charlie, being the runt that he is, is left behind, and when he gets word that his siblings are being mistreated, he sets off to rescue them.
It turns out that being the smallest doll in the world has its advantages. Charlie is able to nest with dolls that are one size larger than himself. Once nested, he can control that doll and perform one of the actions that characterizes it or nest with a doll one size larger. Finding the right doll for the job is the name of the game in Stacking. Charlie is presented with various problems and has to use his stacking ability to solve them. Each problem has 3 set solutions involving different dolls, and once you’ve found a solution, you can go back and replay the challenge to see all the possibilities. Unfortunately, the fact that most of the dolls you need for the challenge congregate next to where the puzzle starts takes a bit of the sport out of it. Add to that a hint system that goes way past helpful and just straight up tells you what to do, and the game can be very easy. If you’re the type of person that can hardly resist the temptation to go look up a guide as soon as challenge rears its ugly head, you will definitely be unable to stop yourself from taking advantage of this extremely convenient and game-breaking hint system.
Besides the main story challenges, there are a number of secondary objectives called Hi-Jinks, which are a bit more abstract. You’re given a short clue and meant to figure out what doll you need to take control of and what you need to do with it. Once completed, the doll involved in the Hi-Jinks (or is it just Hi-Jink?) is given a gold upgrade. For example, one of the first Hi-Jinks to complete is called “Slap Happy” and involves a doll with the ability “White Glove Slap”. Once you slap enough people, it becomes the “Gold Glove Slap” and you can run around smacking the crap out of other dolls with your new bling.
The gameplay doesn’t rely on precision controls, so it’s not a huge issue, but the controls are a little tight. When you first start controlling Charlie it can be a bit jarring. It hardly bears mentioning, since it affects the gameplay so little, but if you’re the type to get frustrated by that sort of thing, it’s worth keeping in mind.
If you have any history playing Double Fine games, you’re no doubt going into Stacking expecting some of their trademark humor. While it is not without its humorous moments, the game falls flat early and often. If you have a problem with toilet humor, you might want to brace yourself before playing, because Stacking comes fast and furious with the poop jokes. Literally every level in the game has a puzzle that can be solved with flatulence. This includes the final boss stage. It starkly contrasts the classy air (no pun intended) that the game’s art style sets up for itself. Beyond that, the game’s writing simply lacks the flair that Double Fine is famous for. It has its moments, bout for the most part the humor is very disappointing.
Speaking of the art style, this is where Stacking really shines. The cut scenes are delivered in the style of a silent movie, and the locations you roam around in all look like someone from the Depression or Victorian era dumped out their pockets and then rearranged the contents to form a landscape. The second level takes place on a cruise liner with smokestacks made out of cigars. It’s all very clever, and gives the game the feeling of a sooty, depressing Toy Story or An American Tail.
All in all, I’m just glad that Stacking exists in 2011. Even with its faults, it’s an original game that isn’t afraid to completely ignore what’s going on in the industry and be the game it wants to.