Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: 02/09/2011
Whenever a new game is announced by Double Fine Productions, I take notice. As a long time LucasArts adventure game fan, I tend to try everything that studios like Double Fine or Telltale put out. It’s partly out of loyalty and nostalgia, but also partly because I’ve liked everything I’ve played by them so far. Costume Quest was one of my ten favorite games of 2010 and when I found little Charlie Blackmore hidden in the game’s expansion, Grubbins On Ice, I knew his game, Stacking would be a day one purchase for me.
The funny thing is, I didn’t actually purchase it or receive a review copy. Instead it came free as a part of my Playstation Plus membership. I was hard on PS+ for the first few months of its existence, but between free copies of Stacking and Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, I’m pretty happy with it now. However, a free game doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good one, and the game still costs $15 to people without Playstation Plus. So the question left to answer is whether or not Stacking is the first chink in Double Fine’s armour.
Stacking is one of those rare puzzle games that has a story. Much like Henry Hatsworth, the story and the puzzles are intermixed in such a way that neither would work without the other. Your main character is Charlie Blackmore, the smallest member of the Blackmore “stack.” I’d say family or clan, but stack is more fitting (as well as used by the game), as the Blackmores, along with everyone else in the game, are Matryoshkas (Russian Stacking dolls). The game takes place in a fantasy version of the late 19th/early 20thcentury. Charlie’s father is destitute, but in what appears to be the family’s bleakest hour, takes a job with The Baron as a chimney sweep. Weeks go by and the head of the Blackmore clan has not come home. Because of his absence and the mounting bills, debt collectors (who just happen to work for The Baron as well) take all of the Blackmore children and use them as child labour to pay off the family’s debts. Only Charlie is spared because he is so tiny. Undeterred by his lack of size, Charlie sets out to save his family from indentured servitude, defeat The Baron, and put an end to child labour. You’re not going to see that comedy or plot in Tetris, I’ll tell you that.
Stacking is a wonderful comedic tale that never failed to make me laugh. Whether I was possessing the corpse of an ancient mummy, using a Matryoshka version of Pennywise to make small children wet themselves, or just watching the comedy antics of children dying from black lung, Stacking managed to be whimsical and dark at the same time. It’s a very well written story and you can definitely see Double Fine’s origins in games like Day of the Tentacle in it. Perhaps what is most interesting is that the game isn’t a linear puzzle title like, say, The Adventures of Lolo, where there is usually only a single solution to a puzzle. Each story related puzzle has three to five solutions and they are all plot related. I loved this, and between these puzzles and the optional hi-jinx, which are the equivalent of sidequests in an RPG, you can spend hours in Stacking and still find new things to do on each of the game’s levels. Stacking‘s characters and story will keep you entertained from beginning to end and once you’re done you’ll be amazed a puzzle game could make you laugh that much.
Story Rating: Good
Stacking‘s unique visual look was the first thing that had me hooked on the game. It takes so many elements that we rarely, if at all, see in a video game and combines them into one impressive package. First up – the Matryoshka. You don’t see those in video games very often, now do you? The dolls actually look like animated photographs rather than computer graphics. Take a look at the actual Matryoshka Double Fine is selling as an ancillary product for the game. They look exactly like that. Each Matryoshka has an amazing amount of detail to them and they are beautifully animated to the point where you would actually believe nesting dolls could walk of their own volition.
Then there is the fact the visuals in the game are meant to look like something out of the days when making children work eighteen hours in a coal mine was legal. It’s a fantasy version of the late industrial revolution, complete with cars made out of popsicle sticks (which aren’t really time appropriate, but Sakura Taisen has steam powered mechs during WWI era Japan, so live with it), and it’s all beautiful. I also love that the cut-scenes are done in a nickelodeon pre-silent movie house style. No, I don’t mean the channel that used to show Today’s Special (Hocus Pocus Alamagocus), but the only theatres that used to show “moving pictures” in the early 20th century. The game even gives these scenes a yellowish old style celluloid coloring that made the game’s visuals all the more endearing to me. You can’t help but notice the style this game oozes with or how beautiful it looks, even when it’s a little child Matryoshka urinating all over the place. Stacking is one of those games that is visually impressive because it does something truly outside the box rather than trying to push the graphical capabilities of a system.
Graphics Rating: Great
There is no voice acting in Stacking. Instead you get dialogue boxes or cut scenes that play out with the characters words written on them like in silent films or the aforementioned nickelodeon “moving pictures.” Honestly, this is a good thing, as it not only adds to the Old Tyme feel of the game, but I think voice acting in Stacking would have destroyed the overall ambience of the game. Much like Dave Nelson once said to the late Bill McNeil, “I think talking pictures are gonna ruin Hollywood.”
The music in Stacking fits the atmosphere perfectly. Some tracks sound like the old piano and/or organ grinder music you would hear during a silent film, while other tracks sound like music that would simply be heard during that era. Much like the other aspects of the game, the music is more about setting a complete picture with the rest of the game than something that should be taken on its own. The music and sound effects create a wonderful ambience. The music helps set the mood for the time period the game takes place in, while the sound effects range from noises made by diseased children to evil clown noises. It’s just an excellent package across the board here.
Sound Rating: Good
4. Control and Gameplay
The controls of the game are pretty simple. You move Charlie through each of the game’s very large levels and use his ability to stack with other Matryoshka to pass through puzzles that either move the story along or are optional bits to do for the sake of comedy (and trophies). You can only stack into a Matryoshka that is one size larger than your current figure, so you’ll constantly be switching dolls to find the right combination to advance. The key is that each Matryoshka has a special ability, and most of those abilities will come into play at some point to solve a puzzle. For example, you might need a doll that gives a hearty handshake to shake the lever of a mechanism that has trapped a diplomat in a room with stink gas. However, the great thing is that the story based puzzles have multiple solutions, thus, the above example is just one way to solve the puzzle. Another solution would be to get a female doll with a purse slapping ability, then stack her inside a hazmat suit. You take the hazmat through through the gas, unstuck to the female doll and have her slap the off button.
This is really all there is to the game. The key is simply using your wits to figure out the solutions to various puzzles. It is worth noting though that the hi-jinx puzzles are actually harder to figure out than the story based puzzles, and the latter gives you some direction, while with the former you have to figure out the question AND the solution. All you are given is the name, which is part of the fun. It encourages you to try all sorts of wacky stuff if you want to view the extra content.
The controls are simple to learn, although there are times when the camera can get a bit wonky or when you can get trapped (DON’T unstuck in the wrestling ring, that’s all I’m saying) and have to restart the game. For the most part though, Stacking is a fun game whose simple controls belie the actual depth of the game’s possibilities.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
The only real downside to Stacking is that it has the Replayability of a point and click adventure game rather than that of a puzzle game. You see, once you’ve done everything in Stacking, there’s no real reason to go back to it, as everything will unfold in exactly the same fashion every time. There’s a bit of replay value in trying to solve all the hi-jinx or find all the solutions to the story-based puzzle, but most people will do all of those in their first playthrough of the game, leaving nothing new to be discovered on subsequent returns to the title.
I enjoyed the story of Stacking and I had a lot of fun with it, but when I was done and saw I had 100%’d the game, I shrugged and deleted it from my PS3’s hard drive. Sure, I might play it again in the far future, but it’s not a puzzle game like Columns where I can replay it two or three times in a row and get very different results. Instead, Stacking is basically a one and done title.
Replayability Rating: Poor
Like a lot puzzle games, sometimes the solutions are obvious, while other times they can be pretty cryptic. At least one solution for each of the story based puzzles are pretty obvious, but others can take a bit of work to figure out. For those that aren’t used to deducing as much as they are shooting zombies, the game gives you three hints for each of the possible solutions, with the third and final one basically saying, “This is how you do it, you moron.” This means anyone should be able to view all the story based solutions in a single playthrough.
Hi-jinx, however, can be pretty difficult, depending on how good you are at randomly trying everything you can think of. All you are given is the title of a puzzle and you won’t know the solution until AFTER you’ve done it. For some hi-jinx, you’ll have to do an action repeatedly, so at least you’ll know what to do after you’ve triggered the first piece of the puzzle. The names aren’t always obvious either. For example, “Broadsides” is the name of one, and it involves getting a pirate to go, “YAR!” to several female dolls. Get it? Broad-sides? However, when you first look at that, you might think it has something to do with women or the female dolls, but that’s about it. This is where trial and error comes into play… or using the internet to find explanations on forums if you’re into that sort of thing. Either way, it’s interesting that the “sidequests” in the game are more difficult than the story bits of the game.
So the overall flow of the game makes it so nearly anyone can get through the core part of the game, but to actually see all there is in the game, you’re going to have to either be willing to put on your thinking cap, or just randomly try dolls and see if anything triggers.
Balance Rating: Enjoyable
I can honestly say I’ve never played a game remotely like Stacking. Sure I’ve played puzzle games with a story or where there is action in addition to puzzle solving. I’ve even mentioned a few of them. I’ve also played way too many adventure games and can see how that style of gameplay has influenced Stacking a bit. However, when it comes down to it, I can honestly say I’ve never played a game that involves Matryoshka characters in an open world puzzle game set during the late stages of the Industrial Revolution where you solve puzzles by climbing inside other characters and then use their special abilities to advance the plot. It’s also the only other game beside the Hamtaro title for the original Nintendo Game Boy where I’ve had to solve a puzzle by urination. In fact, the closest I can come to a puzzle adventure game like Stacking is Ham-Hams Unite! or Ham-Ham Heartbreak, and they’re still very different games.
One of the things I love about Double Fine is they constantly take a genre, like adventure, platformers, turn based RPGs, and now puzzle games and then make something totally outside the box with it. Stacking is innovation at its finest here. It’s a combination of so many things that haven’t been in a video game before coupled with mechanics that feel natural and familiar. Awesome.
Originality Rating: Unparalleled
Stacking is one of those games I beat in two sittings. I played the first level the first night just to get a feel for the game, then the next night I beat the thing in a marathon five-six hour session. That’s a long time for me to sit in front of the TV playing a game, but that shows you how much I enjoyed it. I really liked the main story a lot, but the hi-jinx were a bit dull to me. Sure, some of them were funny, but there’s only so many times I can have a goal of “fart on ladies” on each level before the comedy wears off. I think that might be the one problem with Stacking – the game doesn’t know when to quit certain jokes. Thankfully, those are only the area of hi-jinx, and because those are optional you don’t have to do those.
The other downside is that, unlike a lot of puzzles games like Puzzle Bobble that you can go back to for years, Stacking is a one and done title where nothing changes from one playthrough to the next. I can honestly say that as much as I liked the game, I knew I probably wouldn’t go back to it for quite some time, if ever. Now a Stacking 2 or some DLC? Sure. But the main game? Probably not.
Addictiveness Rating: Enjoyable
9. Appeal Factor
So far, everyone I know that has played this game has loved it. It’s one of those games that just oozes charm out of every pore. Well, if video games had pores, that is. It’s stylish, it’s innovative, it’s outside the box and like many puzzle games, the simple controls combined with addictive gameplay means that whether you prefer something like Final Fantasy VII or something like Pole Position, you’ll still be able to enjoy Stacking and be happy you played the game.
It’s weird, it’s unique, and it makes you test your grey matter. It’s one of those games that is sure to be remembered fondly by those that pick it up years after they played it. The fact that it’s free on Playstation Plus will only increase the game’s audience and popularity.
Appeal Factor Rating: Great
I’m not sure how much Sony gave Double Fine to make Stacking free to Playstation Plus users, but that was a very smart move. It gives the game an instant audience and it almost makes PS+ look great (you can’t deny it’s had a lot of problems since launch in the States) since they finally gave subscribers a day one release game for free, and one that a lot of gamers were interested in to begin with. For everyone else, you’re getting a pretty unique puzzle game for fifteen dollars. It might not be one you’ll come back to after you’ve beaten it, but $15 for an eight hour (give or take) title that combines the best aspects of adventure gaming and puzzle titles is a very good deal indeed. It’s definitely a game I recommend to just about anyone and it’ll be interesting to see if the game will have an expansion pack come out for it down the road.
Miscellaneous Rating: Good
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Stacking is one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played. It’s the only game I can think of that pits Matryoshka against the backdrop of the industrial revolution where you have to stop the practice of child labour in order to save your family from evil industrialists. It’s got mummies, killer clowns, pelicans, children with black lung disease and more. Stacking even manages to be stylish and charming when it’s throwing pee and fart jokes at you on a regular basis. Stacking is one of those rare games that you’ll fall in love with regardless of your usual genre preferences. It’s one of the most innovative and outside the box games I’ve played in years and you owe it to yourself to experience this gem.