Leave it to a developer like Double Fine to create a game that puts you in a world of Russian matryoshka dolls and lets you harness the simple power of stacking as the basis for the many puzzles and tasks you will solve. Published by THQ, Stacking is a wonderfully unique game that is great on the eyes but perhaps could have used a few more layers of ingenuity and variety to really make the world you will be playing in come alive. The game is a casual adventure game filled with puzzles to solve and it is also part collection game that rewards you for spending time discovering alternative solutions to its puzzles. Don't get me wrong. For 1200 Microsoft Points or $14.99 on PSN, the game is a relaxing mini-adventure with charming visuals, charismatic characters, and fun gameplay that are worth its price.
Right off the bat, the game starts out with a retro 1920s silent film cutscene complete with subtitles and music that plays on cue to the suspense that is shown on screen. The difference here being that it is in color and that the actors are not humans, but in fact, matryoshka dolls. Struggling to make ends meat in a world that echoes the depression of the 1920s, the Blackmore family faces a huge debt that looms over their heads. After the father of the family leaves for a new job, he disappears and then the evil Baron takes each of the family's children to work for him to pay off what they owe. He takes everyone except Charlie Blackmore, the smallest member of the family, whose size lets him escape the jowls of forced labor. Thankfully, his size is what helps him set off on a journey to rescue his family and bring them all back together again.
Being the smallest child in the world, Charlie has the ability to stack into any doll he approaches from behind. His small size lets him enter small holes and doorways, but as soon as you stack into a doll, you also gain a unique action you can only do with that doll. For example, if you stack into a firefighter doll, you will be able to spray water. Stacking into a curvaceous widow lets you seduce male dolls and have them follow you along. You can stack into as many dolls as you can as long as the doll you are stacking into is one size bigger than Charlie. You can also unstack from dolls as long as there is enough space for you to do so. Late in the game, you will be introduced to pair abilities that you can do with two different dolls by using one doll's ability, unstacking, and then using the other doll right away. Not only are these abilities fun to discover, but you will also use them to solve puzzles the game throws at you along the way.
Traveling through four main worlds, Charlie's goal is to rescue his brothers and sisters from the Baron's workforce. Each world he visits has one main goal and several side-quests you can undertake that each have different requirements. In one world, your main mission is to stop the voyage of a huge luxury liner by having a number of dolls complain to the captain which will cause him to stop the ship and thus allow the child workers to escape their forced labor. In order to do so, you will have to find ways to disrupt each doll either by stopping caviar service, delaying an exhibition show, or ruining map drawings. Each of these tasks has several solutions, and by that I mean, you can use several different dolls and their abilities to solve each task. To ruin the map drawings for example, you can find a doll to toss his cookies over them, stack into a doll to wash the drawings away, or deface them with crayons. Despite having multiple solutions, you only need to find one solution to continue on with the story's progress.
But if you want to get a one hundred percent completion grade in the game, you will want to find all the solutions possible, of course. You could spend some time trying different dolls to figure out how to solve a certain task, but the game offers a very lenient hint system that gives you up to three hints per solution. The third hint actually tells you exactly what to do. You also do not get penalized for using hints, so it appears Double Fine was targeting a younger crowd when they designed this game. Even for older gamers, though, who want a more casual experience, the hint system lets you finish off with each task quickly so that you can move on with the story.
Stacking is also part collection game that has you finding several unique dolls in each world. Finding each unique doll and solving every solution for every task in the game grants you achievements and trophies. Each world also has several dolls that belong to a set. Not only do these dolls have unique abilities that may help you when solving tasks, but once you stack all dolls from one set together, you unlock a short little cutscene that is simply there for enjoyment, if not anything else. The game also has a special collections area that shows your progress, but the game's menu screen shows you this too so it's easy to keep track of what you are missing. If you lose track of what you need to do next, there is also an "intuition" button that shows you a path to the next task you need to solve.
As I said earlier, my favorite aspect of the game is its setting. The opening cutscene will make you feel like you've been teleported back to the years during the Great Depression and you will encounter the politics of child labor and industrialization along the way. The worlds you will travel to, the buildings you'll pass by, and dolls you will interact with are designed to fit this time period. The detail on each doll is amazing, complete with lacquer finishing on the outside and visible wood grains on the inside. Each one behaves like a doll would, so the smaller ones are easier to maneuver than the bigger, bulkier ones. The music you will hear in the background and during the cut scenes also makes you feel like you're right in the Jazz Age so it's great that even the score complements the setting. Because there is no voice acting, the classical music you will hear is very soothing and makes the game feel very relaxed and very lounge-y. Some may think the game is too quite, but this just adds to the casual tranquility of the game.
Despite being a great mini-adventure game, the game seems to lack a few bit of polish, perhaps a bit more than the lacquer on the matryoshka dolls. When I first started the game, I had to get used to the camera angle since it is located a bit above the main character's head. It changes depending on how close you are to walls or other dolls, for example, but sometimes my view would get blocked after I would unstack from a doll. One time I also got stuck after unstacking because one of the computer dolls decided to stand in front of Charlie, pinning me next to a wall. I had to wait for about a minute for the doll in front of me to move out of the way for me to escape. I also found the game to be short if you just play it to finish it and not to completion. Finishing it might take you a up to three hours, and if you want to solve all your tasks and collect all the unique dolls, it may take you one or two hours more. I only wish the game offered a bit more variety in gameplay besides just the same stacking principle it introduces hours before. But I also don't know how a new gameplay feature could have been implemented without ruining the simplicity of the game.
After controlling a doll and stacking into others to hide your true identity, you could make an analogy and say that Stacking, like Charlie, is a game that tries to be something it's not. From the outside it looks like a beautifully designed adventure game with a colorful cast of characters and visuals, but once you play it you will discover that it is a very simple puzzle-oriented game that is geared towards a younger audience. And yet, the innuendo in some of the dialogue and the themes of poverty and family are what an older audience will appreciate. So, think of Stacking as a fully stacked matryoshka doll, full of layers, both good and bad, that overall make a sturdy, detailed work of art anyone would appreciate. Definitely check out Stacking if you get a chance. While it may be somewhat short, the experience is well worth it.
THQ provided me with an Xbox Live Arcade copy of the game to review. I played it to completion and also discovered most of the alternative solutions for all the tasks.