Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Stacking review

Stacking is the latest game from Double Fine Productions, offering a healthy dose of adventuring and puzzles. Focusing on a world and characters that have not been used before in gaming, Stacking was a risky move for Tim Schafer and his team. Does the risk pay off, or will it be confined to the history books as the one that tried too hard?

 Set in a vintage world inhabited by Russian stacking dolls, Stacking tells the story of the Blackmore family, and more importantly, little Charlie Blackmore. His father is offered a great job by the evil Baron, which would finally relieve the family of their financial woes. It seems too good to be true, and it is; the Baron has his father trapped and soon enough he kidnaps the Blackmore children and forces them to work on the railways, ships and zeppelins. Charlie is left behind, deemed too small and useless to be of any help. Bad move. What Charlie lacks in size, he more than makes up for in fearless determination and bravery. And so Charlie leaves his mother and sets off an a huge adventure.

A visual explanation of stacking

The story is split up into four areas. First is the Royal Train Station, which is both the first level, and a hub for the other three areas. You are taught the basic stacking methods, how to use intuition and hints, and you will get your first taste of how the rest of the game will work. There are literally dozens of dolls in every level, and over twenty of them per level are unique. You can stack into a doll which is one size larger than you, so by stacking into one larger each time, you can end up controlling a character which towers over the other dolls. The dolls also have unique powers, some useful, some just fun. Each level in Stacking consists of a number of puzzles, which can be completed by utilising the powers of a certain doll. But for almost every puzzle, there is not just one solution. The real challenge comes from finding each and every solution to all of the puzzles. You will need to use some lateral thinking to figure out which doll will be suitable for the task. For example, an early puzzle sees you trying to empty an exclusive lounge. One way is to lure the guard away with a beautiful, seductive lady before unstacking and running through the door and annoying the snotty waiter. This method is fine, but to fully complete the game you must find another way. A quick look around the station will introduce you to a number of characters which could potentially solve the puzzle. Try it out and maybe it will work, maybe not. It’s all a part of the fun of the game.

Seduction power in action

As well as the puzzles, there are other challenges and rewards on offer. To get full completion, you must find each unique doll throughout every level, and you must complete a number of Hi-Jinks. Finding the unique dolls can be fun, can be easy but can also be challenging and time consuming. Once again, you may need to use another doll’s power to allow you to stack into them. Finding each unique doll on each level usually happens when progressing through the story and completing challenges, but now and then there are some dolls that can be confusing to get into to. The Hi-Jinks are basically pranks that you pull on other dolls. Sometimes you must do it on a specific doll, sometimes only female or only male dolls, and sometimes anyone will do. These challenges can be as easy as using a flatulent man to stink out the place, or delivering a powerful uppercut to ten different people. They can also use two different dolls, one for the set up and one for the final blow. For example, use a very ill man to sneeze on a group of people, and then use a waited to give soup to the newly sick. Completing these is very satisfying and upon completion you will get a bonus in the way of a golden item or piece of clothing.

It isn’t perfect across all areas though. The camera can get annoying when in claustrophobic locations, and coupled with the sometimes awkward controls, it can make a simple situation quite confusing. At times, leaving a key doll unattended for too long will cause them to go for a walk, which can be annoying if speed is essential, and generally because you made the effort to put them there in the first place. This doesn’t happen as much as the other issues, thankfully, but is still a minor annoyance.

With beautiful visuals, emotional storytelling, great humour and some of the best ideas in gaming, Stacking has a lot to offer. The control and camera issues do detract from the experience slightly, but not enough for you to miss this game. You may find issue with that fact that it only takes a few hours to complete the game to 100%, but it isn’t a big problem. The game is so adorable and can be played by the whole family, so it doesn’t matter that it’s a bit short. A slightly smaller price tag would make the game more appealing but if you can afford it, it’s definitely worth it. It’s definitely one of the most stylish and unique games on the Xbox Live Marketplace and will undoubtedly stay with you for a long time.

9/10

by Louis Gardner

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