Continuing their commitment to downloadable titles, after the slightly shallow experience that was last year’s Costume Quest, Double Fine return with their latest attempt, Stacking for PSN and XBLA.
This time the games hook is centred on those quaint Matryoshka Dolls, more commonly known as Russian Dolls, which have smaller copies nesting inside each one. The game puts the player in the role of Charlie Blackmore, whose family is thrust into poverty and his brothers and sisters whisked away into slavery by the evil Baron. It’s down to little Charlie, quite literally the smallest of his family, to track them down and bring them home safely.
The game takes the form of various puzzles where Charlie is required to use his unique skill of jumping into the various other Dolls that inhabit the world. As the levels progress the player can occupy more and more Dolls of increasing size, each of them with their own unique traits which can be used to solve puzzles.
This can be something simple such as posing as a seductress of lure a guard away from a door, or jumping into a family of matching Dolls to reunite them all. More complicated puzzles include finding the right doll to interact with the environment in a certain way, such as using a key holder to unlock a gate, organising a queue of dolls by size to clear the way, or breaking wind through a fan vent to clear out a room. Yes, Double Fine have relied heavily on the comedy staples of burping, farting and projectile vomiting to raise a laugh, but to be honest the game is so utterly charming in its approach that it come across as anything but crude humour.
This is never more apparent than during the hi-jinks sub-challenges that feature in each of the levels. These aren’t essential to the main storyline, but they do provide the opportunity for some mischief with the various skills that some Dolls have. It really does bring a smile to your face as you use a Judge’s hammer to sentence the required number of Dolls to the gallows, or sneak into a toilet and put off the occupants from doing their business. The humour is even there in the sound effects, from the disgusted yelps of the Dolls on the receiving end of a particularly smelly back-door toot, through to the blustering and screeching of the larger Dolls ordering the others to get out the way.
The main puzzles themselves aren’t particularly taxing and won’t have players scratching their head for any great deal of time. However, longevity is increased by the main puzzles having several solutions. While you only necessarily need to find one to progress, diligent players will be rewarded with unlockables and Trophies / Achievements for working them all out. Finding these alternate solutions are actually quite rewarding in themselves and the added humour encourages players to tackle them multiple times. In fact it even allows you to revisit each of the stages through the main `hub` of the train station level, so once the levels are completed the player can go back and mop up any they may have missed.
Just like Costume Quest the game is incredibly endearing and there’s a strong visual appearance which oozes an undeniable charm, helping to carry you into the game. It’s certainly unique for any game to feature Russian Dolls, let alone in such a pivotal way, and everything from the glossy sheen on their polished surface, to the way they potter around the levels, is delightful. The only downsides we could see is that the game suffers from the occasional frame rate issue and, while we’re more than happy to accept that it could have been down to our ageing eyes, the bobbing motion of the dolls did cause headaches after prolonged playing. However it’s arguable that not everyone will suffer from this and the answer is surely to stop sitting in front of your TV for protracted periods of time.
It’s also somewhat annoying that the games cutscenes are a little drawn out due to their early cinema approach of a bit of silent action, followed by a screen of text. Endearing at first, especially with its beautiful piano music, it does become irksome by the end of the second chapter and can’t be skipped.
But these are minor gripes which certainly don’t stop Stacking from being a simple, yet fantastic little title. Unlike the flawed Costume Quest, which made it difficult to overlooks its faults, with Stacking Double Fine have managed to build on an idea, ensuring that it doesn’t feel repetitive within half an hour’s play and is something of a Matryoshka-themed marvel.