Who in their right mind would have ever thought you could turn the concept of Russian stacking dolls into a game? Apparently the lunatics over at Double Fine and I thank them for it. This devilishly creative game’s main conceit is that all of the characters are Russian stacking dolls of various sizes. Using the main character’s ability to stack into other dolls and assume their appearance and abilities you must solve the all of challenges before you. A unique concept and an unique setting help set this game apart in the market but is it worth your time? Read on and find out.
Oddly enough the premise of the story is not very Russian at all but rather distinctly set in a Victorian era British style. The main story thread is that you are Charlie Blackmore, the smallest child of a family of chimney sweeps, and after your family falls into debt due to your father’s mysterious disappearance, all of your brothers and sisters are taken away by the state to be “apprenticed”. When you find out that means little more than child labor you go out on an epic journey to rescue your siblings.
More than just the standard “I have to save my family” story thread so many game have used, the story of Stacking uses this well worn plot to skillfully discuss a variety of very sophisticated and complex issues of the Victorian era. Things such as child labor, unionization, industrialization, the living standards of the poor, the opulence of the rich, and number of other themes appear and while they may never be directly discussed they are explored within the game. While a lot of those themes may fly over the head of some younger gamers anyone with even a slight interest in history will get a kick out of it.
That not to say with all that sophistication this game turns its nose up at the unrefined proletariat and says “no no, not for you”, rather there is something for every sensibility in this game. For every clever jab at the stuck up Victorian era society there is a character thats special ability is farting. While those may seem to clash, it turns, low-brow and high-brow are like chocolate and peanut butter, good on their own but great together. There is even game mechanic to entice you into doing more low-brow things, called hi-jinxs. Throughout every level there are a set number of crazy things you can do and the game encourages you to do them by keeping track of it. Discovering and abusing these hi-jinxs becomes a fun little meta-game within the main game and honestly for as much time as I spent proceeding along the story path and delving into themes such as the rights of the workforce I probably spent more time farting on people and slapping people with a dueling glove.
The presentation is fantastic with a very real feeling to the way everything looks. There is something oddly authentic looking about all of the dolls and the world they inhabit, the world in particular stands out due to its unique design style. The environments are all made of a mix of both appropriately sized props and set pieces as well more real world, to our scale, objects used in various resourceful ways to complete the environment. A good example of this is a hand cart at the very start of the game which is made almost entirely of Popsicle sticks; the wheels look right and so do the axles but the fact that the body is made of a giant Popsicle sticks gives it a lot of character. This theme carries through the entire game and really sets it apart in an outstanding way.
The sound design of this game feels incredibly appropriate though it does start to wear a little near the end. All of the music is a mix of classical and silent movie era pieces, all of which are masterfully matched with the action on screen. The feeling of watching an old silent move that this creates helps to really solidify the experience. The sound effects are also surprisingly effective at drawing you in. The accentuation that they put on on all of the special abilities really gives them some weight and makes everything you do feel like it has just bit more impact. A favorite of mine is the sound a special ability called “The Northern Kiss” makes, it’s essentially just a head butt though the wonderfully simply “Thok” of wood on wood when you hit another doll with it is incredibly satisfying. All of that said the sound design does start grow a little tiresome after you’ve been hearing for the majority of the game’s 5-6 hour run. While it’s plenty varied it does still all boil down to just classical music and sound effects you’ve heard countless times by that point, you’ll still enjoy it but the novelty will have lost its luster.
The gameplay in this title amounts to what is essentially an old school adventure game with some very unique concepts. However they’ve made some very important changes to the formula that really help liven up the old warhorse that is adventure games. I’ve already mentioned the hi-jinx systems that encourages you to use special abilities in unique and creative ways (beyond the one and only scripted way most items and abilities were used in older adventure games) but there are also multiple ways to use them in the story challenges as well. Every challenge has a range of solutions and you’re free to go in and experiment with all of them. Even after completing a challenge you can go through and try doing it again in a different way. As this is paired with a fine hint system that does a great job at giving you just enough information, going back and exploring all of a puzzle’s solutions ends becoming another great game within the game.
There are a couple minor problems with title though and this wouldn’t be a review if I didn’t discuss them. The major problem for me is that beyond the story there is little motivation to do anything beyond what’s necessary to move forward. All the hi-jinx and extra challenge solutions unlock is some minor visual changes to characters and to a main base area you have but rarely feel the need to visit. As such by the time I was done with the story I felt no need to go back and finish the stuff I had missed. You’ll definitely see what you need to on your first run through the game and with nothing of consequence to really unlock you’ll probably then want to put it down. The only other issue is the overuse of cut scenes, while they look great and I enjoyed watching them there is simply too many they often break up the action in way that really disrupts the game’s flow.
All in all Stacking is a great example of what happens when a studio gets to do something crazy and really follow an artistic vision all way through to its end. While there are some slower parts near the end (particularly if you stop and find every solution to every puzzle) this is such a unique experience it shouldn’t missed. For an outstanding and creative game that only Doublefine could pull off Stacking gets my recommendation. If you’re looking for something truly different in a market place saturated with the same old FPS games and Dual joystick shooters then Stacking is definitely for you.
Stacking is a unique and creative game that really stands out. It's creative and boasts fantastic presentation, making for a wholly enjoyable experience.