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Stacking didn't have me rushing to get under the skin of its nested dolls concept. Once inside though I found an intuitive and enjoyably challenging non-linear adventure that redefined my expectations.
I ended up being more and more impressed with Stacking as I got into it, despite the fact that initially I was unimpressed. I didn't know a great deal about the game beforehand and I personally found that the opening cinematic took too long to play out its silent-movie-style introduction. My other half was sitting with me as I played it and her response was similar: "goes on a bit doesn't it? When do you get to play?" Then, once the story was established and the inevitable tutorial character finally let me go and do something by myself I found the first few quests in the train station felt a bit thin and not particularly rewarding.
Stacking was worth persevering with, however. The realisation I had was that the opening level, set in a big open train terminal, is actually better thought of as a combination level hub, tutorial and character sandbox. As an introduction to the game I have to say it's very misleading and I would encourage any player to persevere beyond this point because what waits after this is well worth patience.
What is immediately striking about the game is the setting. There's not many games that successfully create a pseudo historical-style as successfully. It's somehow Steampunk, only without the Punk; Stacking creates a stark industrial setting which complements the child-labour subject matter but injects a cartoon-style sense of fun and comic proportions.
The game itself provides a kind of sandbox of puzzles and collectibles. It encourages you to find sets of dolls, exploit each of the unique abilities of every character and find multiple solutions to the each puzzle. There are usually four or five different solutions to each puzzle although in some cases the different solutions are simply variations on a theme. However, the route to finding all the solutions is generally fun and rewarding.
Stacking does execute some elements very well though.
There is a well implemented hint system for the puzzles. I found this essential as some of the solutions are a bit out of left field -- there are none as nonsensical as the legendary Monkey Wrench puzzle from Monkey Island (ed: it was the Chicken Pulley one that stumped me) but there are some which are obscure enough to at least required a prod in the general direction. But, I would have preferred the hints to have been locked until after I'd already found one of the possible solutions myself. As there are multiple approaches I think most players will either deduce or stumble across at least one solution for each challenge without additional help.
Stacking does execute some elements very well though. The technical aspect that impressed me most was how it takes a complicated concept - that of upgrading character powers, or finding specific tools to unlock puzzles - and wraps them it in a simple concept that anyone could grasp instantly. Combine this with the realisation that you can grab dolls of different sizes and, effectively, store them for later and what you have is an incredibly powerful and flexible inventory delivered through a transparent and intuitive design.
It's nice to see Double Fine producing these types of - almost boutique - games as they demonstrate a high creativity and are great fun with little complexity. Comparing this side-by-side with Costume Quest I think I see a design pattern emerging: an open environment full of puzzles to complete at the player's leisure; themed levels based around the same set of repeated challenges in a different theme. The downside to this is akin to the only criticism I made of Costume Quest: I couldn't shake the feeling that the challenges on each level were essentially the same, just dressed in different graphics. For example, each level has a set of matching dolls to find and features a challenge to hit one subset of dolls with a specific doll. I think it's achieved better here than in Costume Quest but it tends toward the same feeling.
The technical aspect that impressed me most was how it takes a complicated concept and wraps it up in a simple concept.
If you have the patience for the cut-scenes and you like a nice lengthy check-list of challenges to tick off this game is definitely for you. It's also very appealing if you long for the days of the old point-and-click adventures as there is more than a little of that old spirit here. Also, if you are the sort of player who, like me, immediately resorts to head-butting a Mime when a game makes this choice available, then the humour here is probably for you as well.
[Chris Jarvis writes the Novel Gamer column where you can read his Stacking fiction.]
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