Stacking (PC)

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Not, in fact, a game about putting out supermarket stock. Surprised?

Stacking's premise is as brilliant as the name that encapsulates so neatly the main mechanic of, uh, encapsulation. Charlie Blackmore, the smallest matryoshka doll in his family, is the only one left after a villainous child-labour magnate named The Baron kidnaps his indebted parents and siblings. He courageously sets out to find his family, despite being so small you could trap him under a bottle cap, but here's where the action of the game title comes in: Charlie can hijack any doll one size larger than him, and go from there to hijack a larger doll, and then an even larger doll, and so on.

We've all read enough game blurbs to make statements like "every doll has an unique ability" feel lifeless and perfunctory. But, well, every doll has a unique ability. This is completely accurate, and at the same time a complete disservice to the job Double Fine has done forming the shape of a fat bowling pin into numerous eccentric, personable entities that provide a multitude of ways to overcome the game's many puzzles.

Cheese flinging vendors and tea sipping ladies are some of the dolls you'll inhabit, either to use their own ability or as a means to take over an even larger doll. Scores of other dolls include industrial tycoons spewing smoke from their top hat chimneys, and gastronomic enthusiasts releasing equally poisonous fumes from...elsewhere. The variety and imagination of these dolls can't be understated. It only lacks milkmen whose milk is delicious.

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The game offers rewards for hijacking every single type of doll in each level, but the real reward lies in discovering each doll's wacky function and how they interact with the wonderfully broad pastiche of Victorian life the levels are made of. And, of course, these "puzzle tools" are just as capable of inflicting various methods of comedic torture on other dolls as they are of securing progress in the main game.

One of the major criticisms of adventure games - and this is, at heart, an adventure game - was the way they often forced players to meet the inscrutable demands of an uncompromising single chain of logic. Stacking circumvents that issue by providing several equally absurd solutions for practically every puzzle. Not necessarily simple, one step solutions, but entirely different approaches that achieve the same end result by very different means. As at least one solution should become clear shortly after finding a puzzle, challenge comes not from divining the one intended series of actions the game expects, but in exhausting every possible combination the charmingly surreal environment and the zany characters swarming over it provide. Or, if you prefer, once the obstacle is removed, you can just move on to the next challenge, but the game will sensibly goad you to explore other ways to succeed.

Unfortunately, by trying to remove the frustration a single path can cause, not all of the solutions provided prove equal. The resulting cost of such a wide spread of puzzle solutions is patchy quality. Double Fine clearly try, but some solutions are painfully obvious in an already undemanding game, even without the occasionally useful progressive hints system, and not all puzzle outcomes meet the frivolous high standard the studio is capable of. Smooth progression by one of many routes has the danger of ushering players past some of the game's most inspired moments, if they allow it to, although the game makes it clear those players are missing out.

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Cutscenes have a great mock silent film/music hall style

Always imaginative and stuffed with details, some levels still have their functional failings. One level may introduce ingenious shortcuts to ferry the player from place to place, where other levels with a greater need for their own internal transit system lack one completely.

Most issues are just minor niggles. Games made with torrents of imagination, partly impeded, but never obscured, by budgetary restraints and minor design flaws (Psychonaut's Meat Circus still stings) have become Double Fine's trademark. Stacking continues this. It's more mechanically engaging than Costume Quest before it, while keeping the warm humour and charm, and it's yet another fun excursion into a unique world from a studio that specialises in these experiences.

I have removed my words from this site.

DeadpanLunatic:

And a few other things, like how I assume it should be "frivolously high standard" or "one step" in "one step solution" could use a hyphen or that I like italicizing titles.

Honestly, the only reason I didn't italicise titles was because it looked strange beginning with an italicised possessive. That, and I couldn't be arsed to rewrite a functional first sentence for an aesthetic quibble, so I ignored it for the whole review.

DeadpanLunatic:

Curiously, I do own this game and still cannot be bothered to play it. I know that I can expect heaps and heaps of charm, but I don't want to deal with whatever mechanical distractions are in the way of narrative this time. That sounds overly harsh, I even enjoyed the platforming of Psychonauts in the end. I just can't bring myself to start this one.

Bah, maybe I'd have persuaded you with appropriate hyphens and italics. It's very short, worth trying at some point, especially if, say, you maybe want a break from Dark Souls's vicious difficulty.

 

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