Double Fine Productions have previously tried their hand at platformers, strategy and role-playing games, but until recently there have been no adventures, despite the company being headed by Tim Schafer, the acclaimed designer behind such titles as Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. That’s now changed with the release of Stacking, the studio’s genre debut (albeit with a ‘puzzle’ prefix) on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Stacking isn’t your typical inventory object-gathering experience, however. Here the characters that inhabit the world are the collectable objects – Russian stacking dolls (matryoshkas) to be precise, each with its own unique ability. This simple mechanic and a stylish artistic vision combine to fashion a superbly creative and irresistible experience that is not to be missed.
Set in the 1930s, players take the role of Charlie Blackmore, the littlest member of a family of chimney sweeps. With Charlie’s parents unable to pay their debts, the malevolent local Baron sends his crony to sweep the Blackmore children into forced labour. All except the “runt” Charlie, that is, who is left to take upon himself the duty of rescuing his siblings from the industrial tyranny they face. As Charlie, you spend your time travelling to the Baron’s three grand vehicles and rescuing children en masse, all the while searching for his brothers and sisters. On a cruise ship, you’ll have to incite a mutiny to make the captain return to port. Elsewhere, aboard a flying zeppelin, you’ll be freeing a group of ambassadors so they can argue at a child labour summit. In each main area, your overall objectives are fairly straightforward. The means of achieving them, however, are not.
Although just a tiny doll, Charlie certainly isn’t going to let his size stop him. Being the smallest matryoshka around allows him to hop into others from behind (incrementally building up in size) and take control of their individual capabilities in order to overcome problems in amusing ways. For example, you may find yourself occupying a doll capable of chucking bananas at bullies who stole a child’s toy or another whose malodorous flatulence can clear out a room. Certain unique dolls have very specialized skills, so you’ll want to keep an eye open for their subtle shimmering glow. The many others are blends of recurring dolls whose abilities are always the same, but there is an astonishing range of actions, whether it’s whistling the teapot on your head or hitting someone with your purse. Some of them even seem to be purely for fun rather than serving a specific purpose, letting you roam around and mess with others just to see how they react to you flashing your camera or performing a pantomime in front of them.
You’ll be looking at around three hours or so of gameplay if you stick to the critical path, but it’s more likely to be double that if you check everything on offer. Nearly every puzzle you encounter, such as wrecking a caviar service or rewinding a clock, has a number of different solutions and you can come back to them at any time. There’s usually an obvious answer, but alternate approaches provide substantial replay value for thorough players who like additional challenge. Should you find yourself stuck at any point, a built-in three-tiered hint system will help nudge you along. You’ll rarely need to make use of it, however, as nearby dolls will pass along little clues as well. Along with the main adventure, you can also spend your time collecting all dolls in a set or performing Hi-Jinks. These are fun little activities like glove-slapping or dishing out wedgies to a certain number of others that extend your play time. As you collect and partake in everything the game has to offer, Charlie’s friend Levi the hobo will decorate your hideout with paintings that chronicle your adventure. That’s not a huge incentive to uncover everything you can, but you’ll find yourself wanting to anyway just to experience more of this wonderful game world.
The game’s central hub is the Royal Train Station, which becomes a waypoint to the other environments once you’ve settled a troublesome coal strike. Whether setting out to sea or exploring smartly furnished rooms, each location not only looks and feels distinctively different, they are quite expansive as well, though never to the extent of feeling lost. The visual style has a very whimsical '30s-era vibe, mixing traditional period architecture with common household items, such as cigars as chimneys or olives as plants. The cutscenes take the form of a dioramic silent film, complete with picture scratching and film strips running down the side, which all further adds to the game’s aesthetic appeal. The dolls themselves are beautifully designed with many neat little details, from a pirate with a fishbone through his beard to the rolled-up sleeves of a boxer. Surprisingly, since they can only move at the midsection, these matryoshkas are wonderfully expressive, with quirks such as hip wiggling or throwing their upper halves back in laughter.
The subject matter of a young boy seeking to find and free his enslaved family may sound dark, but clever writing ensures the game is never heavy-handed, instead injecting humour into what would otherwise be a wholly disheartening situation. Dialogue is delivered through speech bubbles and is genuinely chuckle worthy, sometimes witty and other times just plain absurd. The game lacks any voice acting, which is a shame, as there are times when some of the jokes would probably play better being spoken aloud than read. Mind you, the subtitles are entirely in keeping with the game’s silent film conceit, and it’s understandable that a budget downloadable title with a huge array of characters should lack such a luxury. Even without voiceovers, the world constantly feels vibrant and active as dolls wander around you with the hum of distant conversations playing beneath the classic piano and string-based period music.
To move around, you control your current doll with the analogue stick, while an on-screen display signifies which of the four gamepad button actions are available (stacking and unstacking, talking to others and using the doll’s ability) at any given time. This setup is easy to use and requires very little explanation, making it simple for anyone to jump into, though an in-game tutorial goes over all the basics anyway. To change locations, you just walk – sorry, waddle (matryoshkas have no feet per se) – over to one of the platforms at the Royal Train Station. Should you ever forget where you need to be going, a button tap will highlight the path to your current objective. Stacking is only allowed with dolls precisely one size larger than your current state, and you need to hop into them from behind. A blue glimmer highlights when stacking is possible, and there’s no chance of failure, as the dolls will just keep their backs to the wall and snap at you should they not wish you to intrude.
If there’s one factor that brings Stacking down a bit, it’s the camera. Although it never becomes overly frustrating, you’ll find yourself having to manually manipulate the camera with the other analogue stick far too much just to get a decent look at your surroundings or read a speech bubble that’s popped off screen. The problem is that the camera is packed too tightly behind your character, failing to swing wide enough when you take a corner or change direction. Thanks to the mostly large, open environments, this isn’t as much of an issue as it could be, but it’s still a rare blemish on what is otherwise a fantastic experience.
There’s really nothing out there that offers what Stacking does. By running with a simple idea and presenting it in a charming, delightful package, the game will have you revelling in the genius of adopting new characteristics each time you stack. There are minor pitfalls with the camera and voice acting would have been welcome, but with such wacky scenarios, creative visual design, funny writing and clever puzzles, all wrapped up in an inventive stacking mechanic, such minor imperfections are easy to overlook. When you find yourself simply wandering around the environments and interacting with everything just to see what happens, you know you’re taking part in something magical. It’s far from a traditional adventure, but it’s all the more appealing for its offbeat approach, providing a breath of fresh air amidst the usual stale formulas. If you have an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, Stacking is must-have downloadable content that’s not to be missed.