Review: Stacking (PS3)

 

grab41A charming puzzle adventure from the house of Brütal Legend, Psychonauts and Costume Quest.

When news first broke that Double Fine would be forgoing development of larger titles to concentrate on smaller downloadable games people seemed pretty worried. Now, just months after the well-received Costume Quest and their second small title is equally appealing. Was the worry misplaced?

Story: Telling the story of a tiny stacking doll called Charlie Blackmore on a quest to save his family and put a stop to child labour and an evil industrialist, Stacking is just about the most unusual game concept you’re ever likely to come across. Despite the outlandishness – It’s a bold, funny, original story executed with confidence.

Presentation: The story progresses in-game through speech bubbles and cut-scenes played out in a projected silent-film style. The presentation is consistent with a lot of art neuvea and deco touches, hand-painted texture work and a great attention to detail. Double Fine’s previous games have shown the same love, and it’s good to see they haven’t skimped just because it’s a cheaper, lower profile title. Each of the dolls has a lot of personality and the animation is spectacular considering the dolls have no posable arms, legs, or, well.. Anything!

The sound is perfectly suited too, from the funny little noises the characters make, the steam and clattering of machinery. Perhaps the game would have benefitted from a little more music during gameplay? That’s probably just a personal preference. The music that IS there is in-fitting with the era and enhances the mood.

Gameplay: Charlie is controlled from a standard 3rd person view (right stick pans camera) The game centres around a hub-world like train station, allowing you to revisit any levels to unlock extra rewards and mess around. As you complete each scenario a new platform or train becomes accessible in the station. Cleverly little shrines are built in the station documenting your progress throughout the game, complete with murals and a visual record of the dolls you’ve used. It’s a lovely little touch as it makes your achievements in the game seem much more tangible. I’d like to see this sort of thing in other games.

 

Each level consists of a location, say a cruise ship – with a few main puzzles which can all be solved in multiple (usually 4+) ways. Each of the puzzles depends on clever use of each of the stacking dolls’ abilities. With more than 100 different dolls ranging from rats and mummies to socialites and musicians – each of the dolls has its own specific skill. Charlie can only stack into a doll of the next size up, and so on, so you find yourself shuffling around between different dolls, sometimes needing two dolls’ skills to complete a puzzle. The concept is pretty hard to explain, so here’s some gameplay in an official trailer.

For old-timers – the core gameplay is similar to Paradroid, though much more accessible and with no danger of death/failure. As a result – the level of challenge in Stacking is.. Well, there isn’t really much of a challenge. It’s quite a stress free (casual?) experience. Running through the main story will likely not take you more than four hours in a single play-through. Most of the value comes from messing around and trying to think up new ways to solve each of the puzzles. Much of the dialogue and situations that play out as you interact with the dolls is very entertaining and well worth the extra time. There are even mini achievements labelled “hijinks” asking you to do lots of dumb things, rewarding you with prettified dolls. eg; you might have to head-butt 10 different dolls, or shake a lot of people’s hands.

 

Conclusion: All in all as a complete package at a good price Stacking is a gem of a title as long as you don’t expect long term challenge. I enjoyed it thoroughly and it’s actually refreshing to be able to complete a game within a reasonable period of time, knowing I can dip back into it and unlock further stuff. This seems ideal for a downloadable title of this kind. It’s not so long it drags, but it could probably have done with some advanced challenges as an optional aside. Portal is a good example – a short puzzle game with an obvious progression through a pretty easy campaign with the hard challenges unlocked at the end. As it is, Stacking is not going to appeal to some players, though I’d urge you to try it out and support Double Fine’s original efforts.

N.B: This month Stacking is FREE to members of PlayStation Plus, so obviously that’s worth downloading.. As for other buyers – if you like the style and think you’d enjoy the gameplay you’re not likely to find such a fun, if short diversion.

Rating

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Notes: Played once through the PS3 version. Still have to 100% all the unlockables and achievements. As far as I’m aware there is no difference between PS3 and ‘360 versions, so count the review as both.