Stacking is a game about Russian stacking dolls. Matryoshka dolls. You know, the dolls that fit within shells of shells of other dolls.
It has no guns, no cars and almost no explosions. Its characters have no arms, no feet. This is a game that stars the son of a chimney sweep. It's a humble effort, a charmer.
The game comes from Double Fine Productions, a team that's built a reputation for making video game comedies. This time they've made a relatively bleak one. Yes, the bad guys kidnap the father and siblings of our hero, little Charlie Blackmore, and the villains do force children to shovel coal. But all that the game has to say about child labor, it says in jokes. (You know, like that the problem with child labor is that the employees have to go to the bathroom all the time).
The brief adventure is framed like a silent movie and set during the 1930s, in a train station and a few other polluted areas in Russia or thereabouts. Lovely as its setting is, the what-you-do part of Stacking is its hook. You stack, nestling your small son of a chimney sweep into another doll of a citizen one size larger, maybe a girl with a paddle toy. And maybe you use her to sneak behind some old lady who is one size bigger and hop into her shell, then cap that lady into a doll for a watchman. You're usually assuming some power of dolls you nest inside — the ability to open locked doors, perhaps, or the power to fart. You stack up to bigger sizes, you stack down to little Charlie, solving puzzles, rescuing your family.
This isn't just one of the few games you can play on your Xbox or PlayStation 3 that looks nothing like the other games on your Xbox or PlayStation 3, it plays like none of the others. And it's made by a studio with a strong rep for quality.
Stacking: The main gameplay mechanic is a delight. You control the game as if it's a third-person action game with a tinge — barely a touch — of stealth: sneak up behind a bigger doll and stack into them. Keep stacking and keep assuming new powers. The characters in Stacking are well-defined types. Hop into the judge and you can bang a gavel. Leap into guy in the diving suit to walk through poison fumes. Hop into an industrialist and you can pour oil from your tophat. Stack the right four or five characters and you can essentially waddle around with five onion layers of personas, each associated with a special ability. It's fun to see what each stacked character does and to plan out the best possible stack for a level.
Style: Watch the video in this review and you'll see how I solved a puzzle in the game's second level, a phase of the adventure set on a ship full of adventurers and partygoers. You'll notice how rich the scene is with interesting characters, all of them well-drawn dolls who are lovely to look at and distinct enough to serve your gameplay needs (you can spot the illusionist from far away if you need to find and stack with them to disappear, for example).
Solving Puzzles: Stacking is an adventure game, in the sense that it is a conflict-light game that repeatedly poses situational puzzles as the player hop their doll through its levels. In the quest to rescue your family, you're going to be stopped on ships, in a train station and elsewhere and given challenges that must be completed. Each has multiple solutions, all of which require some thought and observation. For example, if you need to clear the guests from a locked-room party, you could either stack into one doll, flirt your way inside and cause a scene… or you could repair the ventilation system and fart fumes into the party room. (There's at least one other solution.). Some puzzles are mandatory, none are that hard, the best require you to use multiple well-stacked dolls.
Trivial Diversions: Some of Stacking's side-challenges, such as tracking down a family set of dolls and stacking them together, are fun. But many of the extra optional tasks are needlessly bundled into what I guess are supposed to be value-extending Achievement-like quests. You will be rewarded if you use a certain doll to frighten a set number of other dolls or if you stack one type of doll a bunch of times with another. These options are needless clutter.
Untapped Potential: It felt like Stacking's developers held back. Maybe they've got a trickier sequel or expansion pack planned, but otherwise I can't guess a good reason for them to keep so much of Stacking's stacking so basic. The game peaks when it starts challenging players to rapidly combine the powers of stacked dolls or to expediently unleash the abilities of a full family stack. Those moments are certainly Advanced Stacking and I wouldn't have been able to do them in hour one. It's puzzling why there aren't more examples of this later in this game. Perhaps we all need to learn basic stacking first, which this game presents well.
My problems with Stacking are minor. This game has a winning combination of aesthetic and gameplay, of setting and interactivity. I got a fun Saturday afternoon out of it, thanks to enjoyable characters and a confirmation that doll-stacking isn't just fun for Russians but for me... at least in video game form. Well, at least when it's tied into a comedy about poor chimney sweeps, evil barons and kids forced to shovel coal.
Stacking was developed by Double Fine Productions and published by THQ for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, released on February 8 and 9, respectively. Download only. Retails for $15. A code to download the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game on a Saturday afternoon in about four hours, solving most of the game's puzzles in one or two ways out of the available three or four. Didn't laugh out loud, but was thoroughly amused, especially by the stack of diplomat dolls.