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Stacking: The Lost Hobo King XBLA Review

02/05/2011 Thinking Story Gamer Review
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Stacking: The Lost Hobo King XBLA

Stacking: The Lost Hobo King




Further reading:
Murnau's Nosferatu
Stacking podcast

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Further reading, films and books that create similar stories:

Stacking: The Lost Hobo King XBLA takes Charlie Blackmore to the Hobo kingdom of Camelfoot in a snappily self-contained downloadable adventure.

Stacking is the kind of game that lends itself well to sequelising and expansion.

While there was a strong, simple central narrative to the main game with Charlie Blackmore's quest to reunite his family and defeat the Baron, the appeal of the game lay more in its rich world of painted Matryoshka dolls and silent movie aesthetics than in the completion of that central narrative.

While for other games DLC chapters may seem pointless sitting outside the plot of the main game, or struggle to distinguish themselves as anything other than a re-arrangement of existing assets, Stacking's playful approach, with it's emphasis on exploration and experimenting with combining dolls, actively encourages expansion.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that The Lost Hobo King benefits from the break with Stacking's train station hub and main storyline: by whisking Charlie away to the hobo kingdom of Camelfoot, Levi also takes him away from the familiar sets of dolls that wander throughout the original game's many levels.

In other words, while the main play mechanics of using dolls' special abilities to complete challenges and perform hijinks remain the same, everything else is (with a couple of minor exceptions) all-new: new dolls, new abilities, a new self-contained world to explore.

The Lost Hobo King benefits from the break with Stacking's train station hub and main storyline

It's a different flavour of world, too. Stacking's environments were all based around the transport of the industrial age: zeppelins, steam trains, cruise liners. It was a world of giant machines and polished handrails.

Camelfoot, on the other hand, is a rustic East European kingdom with a bustling dock, open market and underground ruins. On top of the Slavic flavour there's also an element of the mythic American hobo, with giant tuna cans, box cars and the like. It's an odd mash-up of cultural influences, but all in good humour.

While there are superbly inventive touches throughout - stacking the animal characters is particularly fun, with some logical but creatively executed abilities - the crypt sequence is the most memorable, pushing the world of Stacking deeper into the fantastical while also expanding the silent movie aesthetic.

As Charlie approaches the ghoul-infested ruins, the game slips into a spooky, washed out visual style reminiscent of Murnau's Nosferatu, with black edges around the screen and a slight projector flicker. It's a cheerily creepy touch, and sheer fun.

The Lost Hobo King is a relatively short expansion, especially if you concentrate on completing the main mission to crown the heir to the hobo throne rather than working towards 100% completion of all the challenges and hijinks. However it's also very reasonably priced, and is predominantly new content rather than old assets.

The game slips into a spooky, washed out visual style reminiscent of Murnau's Nosferatu.

Its very contained nature is also a strength. While the open, exploratory nature of Stacking is an asset, towards the end of the main game it became a bit of a chore to explore every nook and cranny of the various levels to tidy up all the sidequests.

Camelfoot, on the other hand, is a compact world that lends itself to having every corner explored, with no room for pointless backtracking or dead-ends. As such the Lost Hobo King is a slightly less frustrating experience in its later stages.

I hope that the Hobo kingdom isn't the last part of Stacking's hand-crafted world we get to see. The series approach to doll-based puzzling has endless potential for new environments inhabited by new sets of bustling, eccentric dolls (ed: even a Star Wars themed universe, as we pondered in our Stacking podcast).

On the evidence of The Lost Hobo King, Double Fine seem to be in no danger of running out of clever ideas for Stacking, so hopefully it won't be long before Charlie Blackmore gets another outing.

For now, though, The Lost Hobo King is an entirely charming, short and sweet adventure that's a must for Stacking's many fans.

Written by Mark Clapham

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Mark Clapham writes the Story Gamer column.

"I love a good story. Games tell many different stories: the stories told through cut scenes and dialogue, but also the stories that emerge through gameplay, the stories players make for themselves."

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