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Stacking

Score: 80%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Double Fine Studios
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/ Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:

When it comes to Double Fine, you always know you're going to get something out-of-the-ordinary. As much as I enjoy Double Fine's games, I always leave wondering just how much fun I had while playing. It could be a sign of great design, but it could also indicate that Double Fine are masters at empty coercion.

I left Stacking with the same feeling, though this time it was a bit different. Unlike with Costume Quest, where I wondered where my time went, I had more appreciation for what I'd accomplished. It wasn't a big feeling, but knowing I'd solved some tricky logic puzzles was a good feeling.

If anything, Stacked deserves points for presentation. The entire premise is built around Russian matryoshka dolls, otherwise known as nesting dolls. Stacking isn't visually complex, but it's great to see how much personality the artists were able pull from a bunch of egg-shaped dolls. Each has its own movement style, like the sexy doll's hip-shaking sway.

The game is presented as a silent-era film, only performed on a stage. Once more, the game's personality really shines. The small pantomimes from dolls carry more personality than some voiced characters and the music adds just the right amount of punch to communicate what the dolls can't.


Gameplay:

Stacking looks cute and tame, but paints a depressing story involving child labor. Of course, it's depression tinged with Double Fine's sense of humor, but it's a heavier narrative than you would initially expect from screenshots.

After their father disappears, the Blackmore children go to work for the Baron to help make ends meet. What sounds like a great opportunity is in fact, a trap, and the children are captured. With the family forced into servitude, Charlie Blackmore sets out to rescue his siblings.

As the smallest doll in the Blackmore stack, Charlie has the ability to take control of other dolls by stacking into them. This ability forms the core of gameplay. You'll bounce around levels stacking into other dolls and using their special abilities to solve puzzles. The catch is you can only stack into dolls one size larger, which sets up a few interesting scenarios in which you need to find bigger dolls just to access particular dolls.

While in levels, you can spend time hunting down collectable dolls (indicated by a slight sheen) or complete Challenges. Though you'll have to fully solve some puzzles to unlock certain dolls, it's hard to not find all of them. Challenges are, at least to me, more interesting. After finding dolls, you'll need to use their abilities on other dolls.

Which abilities (and in some instances, who to use them on) are rarely obvious. As with some puzzles, you'll stumble into most Challenges, though you'll have to read into the description to solve a few. Some require finding certain dolls or setting up situations ("Film 10 Female Dolls," for example).


Difficulty:

Every puzzle has at least three solutions, ranging in difficulty from obvious to "Bizarro World Logic." All solutions hinge on the core mechanic of stacking into the right doll and using its ability. Sometimes it is as simple as finding the flatulent doll, farting in the air vent and smoking out the room. Other times, you may need to find the violinist, play along with the Pied Piper, and then lead the rats into the gallery so they can eat the cheese-y sphinx.

Complex, multi-dolled solutions are where Stacked's gameplay shines and are incredibly rewarding if you manage to crack the solution. Stacking offers an in-game hint system if you get stuck, though it is easy to abuse. There's a short cooldown between uses, but you can hint your way through the entire game. I'll admit to using hints once or twice, but doing so caused the enjoyment level to tank. A limit or some other mild penalty would have helped.

Unlike puzzles, hints aren't available for Challenges, which offer more of a mental test. They're not overly complex, but I spent time trying to decipher a few.


Game Mechanics:

Levels are straightforward in design. At the very least, you'll manage to stumble into a basic solution through observation and simple logic. Most of the time, the dolls you need are close to the puzzle. Other times, you may need to search the area, but there's very little backtracking.

More complicated solutions require twisted logic. How twisted they are depends on your way of thinking. For instance, when presented with a painting, my first instinct was to track down the vomiting doll.

Complex solutions encourage experimenting with different dolls. This is one of Stacking's stronger design features. Even set solutions have multiple paths you'll only discover through play. Case in point, farts and oil are equally flammable. However, "tag-team" solutions aren't introduced until the last level, and even then they are rarely used.

Managing the ebb and flow of puzzles is one of Stacking's few faults. There's an odd mix of easy and hard puzzles scattered throughout each level. I was disappointed with the final area; it's way too obvious and comes as a letdown compared to the previous level's puzzles. I'll spare you the spoilers, but I was able to solve the final "boss" puzzle with little experimentation. On the other hand, I spent the better part of the night parsing through different solutions for the "mini-bosses."

Once you've solved all puzzles and found everything, Stacking has little replay value. It's about 6 - 8 hours long; while that's not bad for the price, I can't see myself ever wanting to come back to the game. This, however, is a common problem for the puzzle adventure and shouldn't keep you away if you're interested.

Stacking has its shortcomings, but it is one of the year's more original titles and worth a look. It won't last more than a weekend, but it's enjoyable if you like testing the limits of your own sense of logic.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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