Double Fine's new downloadable adventure, Stacking, has finally hopped its cute little self onto both Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. Set in a world populated exclusively by Russian "matryoshka" nesting dolls. Stacking places players in the role of Charlie Blackmore, a particularly tiny doll with the ability to stack himself inside larger dolls. The story begins when Charlie's family is forced into indentured servitude by a malicious character called The Baron, in order to pay off family debts. Charlie escapes, and embarks on a quest to save his family from The Baron's clutches.
As the screenshots and trailers show, Stacking's visual sensibilities effectively combine the traditional art-style of matryoshka with a Great Depression-era aesthetic. The game's period-appropriate soundtrack is filled with piano and violins, which compliment the game's feel quite well, and play nicely into its use of silent film-era dialogue cards that convey the exposition. Dolls of various sizes hop along at a good clip, each moving in a way that speaks to character-type. Normally, I'm hesitant to use words like "charming" to describe games, but Stacking's presentation is the very definition.
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Each of the game's levels is fairly large in size, and packed with dolls of different types. Charlie doesn't really have any of his own abilities to speak of, but has the power to stack himself inside dolls of increasing size, or un-stack, as necessary. Each of Stacking's denizens has a unique ability that Charlie can use, provided the particular doll is the outermost one in his stack. These abilities range from seemingly useless (sipping tea) to the obviously useful (unlocking doors). The core gameplay in Stacking centers around finding and using the correct dolls (and their abilities) to solve different puzzles.
Stacking's story is broken into chapters, each set in a different location. Charlie's primary objectives typically center around freeing or collecting a matched set of dolls. Challenges must be completed for each doll in question, such as freeing them from a captor, or disrupting an event. This is where the game gets particularly clever. Each of the challenges that Charlie needs to complete have multiple solutions, only one of which must be found to progress the story. Finding the initial solution to one of these challenges isn't usually that difficult, but the game encourages you to go back and try other solutions to the same scenario. It may not sound like much, but it's a move that really caters to those who like challenging puzzles, without the risk of alienating less puzzle-inclined players because they get completely stuck. The hint system, opened via the in-game menu, which allows you to gradually reveal clues about any particular challenge, might make things too easy for some. Thankfully, the hint section of the menu can be ignored.
In addition to the game's core challenges and objectives, players can occupy themselves with a few other activities. Each of the game's areas has a large number of unique dolls (and sets of dolls) to collect. Each area also has a list of optional "Hi-Jinks" players can try to complete. Hi-Jinks are essentially a list of doll-specific bonus challenges that center around using their unique abilities in specific circumstances. The real trick is figuring out the nature of these bonus activities, since the one-line clue about each isn't always obvious. Completing challenges, objectives, or Hi-Jinks also adds collectible stuff to Charlie's hideout for later viewing, making the package even more compelling to collectors and completionists.
Stacking is a title that I highly recommend to anyone who likes adventure games, or maybe even those who once liked adventure games, but have burned out on them in the past. Where the game succeeds most is in bringing the elements of exploration and puzzle-solving away from the worn out pack-rat/trial-and-error type of gameplay that's so typical of the genre.
Stacking review based on final debug code on the Xbox 360, furnished by Double Fine. Stacking is currently available for download from Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points, or $14.99 on PSN. PlayStation Plus subscribers can currently download Stacking for free, for a limited time.