Stacking Review

StackingKeyArtFinalI mentioned doing some sort of Double Fine review string in terms of their first wave of smaller downloadable titles.  And since I am dreading going back and trying to review Xenoblade, with only notes of the first 90 hours to guide me, I’m going to talk about the other two titles they made in that time period.  Starting with Stacking, an Adventure/Puzzle game about Russian stacking dolls and child labor… It is really hard to dislike your game ideas, you silly billies!

Stacking Review
Release Date: 09/2/2011
Platforms: XBLA(Reviewed), PSN, PC
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: THQ

You assume the role of the smallest stacking doll in the world, Charles Blackmore, the youngest son of a family of stacking dolls, who has been struggling to feed its members.  To the point where his brothers and sisters are taken by some debt collectors, and taken into child labor.  Except for Charles, who is too small, and decides to go on a quest to save his family and end child labor the world over!

With the help of a kindly old hobo, who I think is an expert craftsman, he needs to use the power of his love for his family in order to possess dolls that are exactly one size larger than himself, or whichever he is possessing.  And use their unique ability to either conduct Hi-jinks, because with great power, comes great opportunity to abuse said power.  Or maybe that is just Double Fine being Double Fine.

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I genuinely adore it when games do this sort of thing, by having a very noble goal used to justify all sorts of light hearted anarchy.  Just to name a few things you can do, possess a bear’s carcass and scare newborn babies.  Cause individuals to absorb gas strong enough in terms of stinkiness to knock them out.  Give wedgies to rich capitalists.  Pour oil onto orphans who are carrying disease filled soup.  Attract about 25 gentlemen by causing one specific doll to rock her hips around, and lead them to a corner, abandoning the hip rocking doll, playing the violin as you dash away from the scene.

Yet you are fighting a character who is so one dimensionally evil, he has the bringer of bad news turned into wood chips of screen.  While everyone rightfully considers you to be a hero, only for you to then have a fat man fart into their face.  It is the kind of mix between unnecessarily cruelty and being claimed a hero that I always find to be cathartic whilst playing games, and all of it is done while still keeping a nice eerie of innocence about itself, never seeming like something you would not be okay with your six year old playing.  And being the closest thing Double Fine has done to a traditional “adventure game”, excluding that Kickstarter thing, because the game is not done yet.

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Aside from mucking around and putting sheets onto dolls that were forces to have toilet brushes attached to their heads, and having the game keep count of it.  You spend the rest of the game using the unique dolls around you to solve puzzles.  There are only about four areas in total, each of which contains up to five puzzles each, mostly centering around getting person X out of area Y, so you need to use Doll A, and occasionally B and C in a combination.  However, they avoid the largest problem of the traditional “adventure games”, by having there be multiple answers to a solution be logical, at least for the most part.  Every puzzle had three to five different ways to solve them, and while you only need to do one, I find the fun of the game to be in figuring out all of them.

It makes a lot of them easy to see through having both the necessary dolls be close to the puzzle you would need them for, having the doll you need to interact with often give you hints like, “Be careful with that cannon” being a cue to try and see what you can do with said cannon, and then find out that there is a pipe you can shoot a ball into.  Or there’ll be environmental hints like telling you about a Boxing Pharaoh via a poster, and there is a gentleman who can do a proper uppercut.  Or In case you never heard of the Pied Piper, there are several images of him leading some rodents around.  However, when you mention monkeys not being in the kitchen, I naturally want to find a monkey to bring into the kitchen.  And due to how many dolls there are, some are never even used for a puzzle, and seeing some be used for more than one solution for a puzzle was something I just never thought much about for the few instances where I needed to.

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Unfortunately, I must admit that this game can occasionally be a bit unstimulating to play.  There is a lot of trial and error involved if you want to get all solutions, all while the game has a semi-film grain to make it feel more like an old timey movie, along with the cutscenes being silent.  I also had a problem with that in regards to playing Professor Layton for more than an hour, so I would not call this an exclusive problem, but it was originally enough to turn me off at first, and I would not recommend going through more than one of the three main areas in one sitting.

Speaking of the areas, they are simply massive.  This game has that is common with the Katamari series, where you start out the level relatively small, and as you get bigger, you feel as if you have a greater control over your surroundings, and it makes every time you get a new doll feel rewarding in some way.  And oh boy, there are tons of different designs for dolls in this game.  Every level has a list for the unique ones you collected, with there being most likely about 100 unique designs for all of the dolls, keeping the variety of the game flowing, almost to the point where I think it could squeeze another hour or so of creative ideas in order to expand its relatively short playtime of about five hours.  Granted, it is a very enjoyable five hours, and justifies the price tag of $15, but I think this is one of the few instances where a downloadable game could have benefited from having its ideas fully fleshed out.

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However, the visuals are certainly fleshed out, seeing as how this game is gorgeous.  When I reviewed Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I mentioned how the gimmick of everything being made of paper was unfulfilling, because the world did not feel like it.  Here, everything is built around the idea of these things being dolls that are identical other than a coat of paint, or their size, while having everything around them be so well presented.

From the very in-depth and genuine looking designs of the characters.  To the world that feels like a mix between luxurious locals from the mid to late 1800s that are still juxtaposed by the very idea that all of these are maintained by unseen children.  Everything from the film grain, to the waddling of the dolls make this game stand out brightly among most other games, even if the textures aren’t all that good when you get up close to a lot of them.

Along with a string of fitting music that does border on seeming a bit too generic in terms of background music for the time, still fits the mood, which is enhanced by the very fitting sound effects given to most of the dolls, something that I think was sorely lacking from the game they made prior to this, Costume Quest.  It really does enhance the fun to be had with screwing around with these dolls.

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While I could go into more depth and find little nagging issues about certain puzzles, a few dolls being hard to find.  Along with knowing the title for each puzzle solution would’ve prevented me from looking some up online, they are barely even afterthoughts.  To me, a game with a lot of charm or appeal can make up for a lot of mistakes.  And while some areas do show how the game only had a few people working on it, it never feels like it is getting old or outstaying its welcome.  In the end, Stacking can be called dull, samey, and even a bit contrived at a few points, but it is charming as a game about Russian Stacking Dolls trying to stop child labor can be.

34/40
Great
An impressive product, won’t always astound due to a fair number of flaws, but is very enjoyable and worth a purchase.

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