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Stacking Review

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Both a well-crafted puzzle game and a good-natured send-up of antiquated industrialist politics, Stacking is one of the more satisfyingly strange downloadable games you're likely to encounter.

The plight of the proletariat has never been so preciously portrayed as it is in Stacking, the latest game from the newly download-focused developers at Double Fine Productions. Set against the backdrop of the industrial revolution's autumn years, Stacking uses the concept of Russian stacking dolls as the core conceit for its puzzling adventure. As a sentient doll in a world full of dolls, you use your ability to stack with larger dolls to take control of them, thus giving you access to their unique abilities to solve world-based puzzles and defeat plutocratic greed in the name of the working class. Not exactly the kind of subject matter one tends to find in games intended to amuse and inspire warm feelings, but honestly, when has Double Fine ever stuck to tried-and-true, broad-spectrum comedy? That the brains behind Stacking were able to create such an engaging and chuckle-worthy puzzle game around such depressingly bleak concepts as child labor and the working man's burden is, in a weird way, almost par for the course with this studio. 
 

You're a good man, Charlie Blackmore.
In the game, you are Charlie Blackmore, the lil'est child born into a family of hard-working chimney sweeps mired in debt, poverty, and (paradoxically) almost disconcerting levels of hope and positivity. One day the family patriarch returns to inform his family of good news: the local baron (whose industries seem to mostly revolve around indistinct acts of evil, hatred of children, and a generalized insidiousness) has hired him on, meaning the family's money troubles have come to an end. Grand news, until father disappears, and the baron's cronies come for the rest of the Blackmore brood to pay off his debts--except, of course, for Charlie, who is far too little, and thus far too incapable of manual labor to be of use to the baron. As it turns out, the children are being held prisoner along with myriad other adorable scamps who should all be enjoying the innocence of their formative years, and not toiling away in the bowels of luxury ships and monstrous zeppelins as chimney sweeps, coal shovelers, and, most undignified of all, waiters.
 
So Charlie sets off on a mission to rescue his family, despite many a doubt about his fortitude, due to his minuscule stature. Good, then, that he can stack with other dolls to make himself larger, and able to solve the problems that unfold in front of him. Stacking's mechanics are simple enough. As you move around the world, you need only to sneak up behind an unsuspecting doll and press a single button to essentially possess them for as long as you please. The only requirement is size. The doll you stack with must be one size larger than you, though once you have a larger doll, you can then stack multiple dolls atop one another until you've run out of sizes to ascend. In effect, you can possess the souls of several different people at once, and use their bodies to do as you please. There's something vaguely terrifying about that idea, but hey, it's all in the name of saving your family.
 
Each doll that occupies this world has a specific ability. Some of these are little more than trifling amusements (that occasionally still solve puzzles), like the ability to cough sickly on other people, or the ability to fart at will. Others are a bit more generally useful, like a boxer being able to deliver a "proper uppercut" to anyone and anything nearby, or a fancy lass who can immediately identify other dolls who are "important." Others still are very specifically useful for certain puzzle objectives within a given level. 
 
There's a wide variety of dolls to inhabit and use throughout each of the game's four main levels, and though not all of them seem immediately useful, many actually have some function within the game's more opaque puzzle solutions. Every level presents multiple problems that must be solved, be it guards that must be lured away from doors, caviar-consuming aristocrats who must be denied their delicious delicacies, or gigantic goons who must be scared, sickened or stiffened in the name of rescuing a family member. Every one of these objectives comes with multiple solutions. For instance, a guard could be dispatched by stacking up a fire chief doll (who comes complete with a fire hose atop his head) and a doll encumbered with a freezing fan, then using their abilities in combination to wet, then freeze the hapless fellow. If that's not to your liking, how about inhabiting a waiter doll who permanently travels around with a bowl of soup for a hat? In that case, you can have a nearby bird fly down and use the soup for a bird bath, thus poisoning the fowl-intolerant fellow
 
Stacking inside other dolls affords you new abilities, and opportunities to make awful, awful jokes.
In that regard, Stacking is an obsessive completionist's dream. The game is dead set on having you discover every possible way of solving a specific puzzle, rewarding achievements and trophies for finding all the solutions in each level--or, at least, all the ones the developers conceived. It is very occasionally possible to solve a puzzle using a method not intended by the designers, which rewards you with nothing more than the knowledge that you're smarter than the people who make the games you buy, and an ultimately empty feeling in your heart. It's a rare enough issue, thankfully, and if you're the sort that likes a challenge, many of the puzzles offer extremely off-kilter solutions for you to deduce. 
 
As for those who aren't into completionism? There is, thankfully, a reasonably obvious solution in front of you in most cases, meaning you rarely have to push your logic skills to their limits if you just want to progress through the story. The downside to that methodology is that you skip roughly half the game in the process. Aiming to do everything nets you a little over six hours of game to play through, but skipping the extra solutions results in a game that's roughly half that length. The good news? You can always go back and play through the stuff you skipped, should you feel so inclined. Still, if you're dead-set on blowing through the story and ignoring the content that lies beneath the beaten path, you could be forgiven for finding the game's $15 price tag a touch steep.
 
Still, you may find yourself compelled to explore, even if you're vehemently anti-exploration in most games. Though you'll see the bulk of the game's humor and plot just by going one-and-done on each puzzle, there are hidden objectives, obscure secondary dolls, and a variety of goofy sight gags you might not see on a cursory first playthrough. Double Fine has done a fine job of crafting a relatively expansive open world that's actually pretty fun to paw through. Perhaps taking a cue from the design concept of "big, but not huge" that governed Costume Quest's world designs, it's easy to get lost exploring each stage's nooks and crannies, though you'll never actually be lost if you have somewhere you're aiming to go. 
 
 There are multiple ways to lure this guard away. This one is the most erotic.
As they are often wont to do, Double Fine has imbued Stacking with its trademark sense of humor. The entirety of the game's story is presented in cutscenes steeped in the sepia-toned silence of the earliest films, with large title cards spelling out the dialogue the dolls have with one another through wild gesticulation--despite their lack of limbs, they're awfully expressive--and old timey piano music signaling the moments of tragedy and triumph with delightful results. The early goings of the game are perhaps more clever than legitimately funny--you get a lot of moments that inspire thoughts like "Yes, that was quite amusing" than actual, bona fide laughter. But as the game rolls on, the sets and scenarios get increasingly elaborate, and the humor follows suit. There are some truly excellent comedy bits peppered throughout the adventure; the scene leading up to the final confrontation of the game, in particular, is the first legitimate belly laugh I've gotten out of a game in ages.
 
Stacking looks like a trifling little downloadable title, but the game has a surprising amount of heart. There's nothing particularly heady about the game, mind you. Its a relatively easy-going puzzle game that only rarely, truly challenges, and it uses its marginally Marxist leanings to send up wanton materialism in a fairly lightweight and cartoonish way--though, that said, if you're the sort of person who clings aggressively to Ayn Rand's writings, enjoys the meaning behind Neil Peart's lyrics, and/or unironically considers themselves a monocle enthusiast, be forewarned, you may be horrified. By the same token, every time Charlie encounters a new character, a new situation, or a new environment in Stacking, you can't help but smile at the painstakingly crafted silliness of it all. Similarly, it's hard not to love the all-too-obvious metaphor of a family's need to stick (or stack, in this case) together to succeed--a metaphor that plays out beautifully in the final moments of the game. Like its pint-sized protagonist, Stacking is a small game with scads of pluck and spirit, and only the stingiest, penny-pinchingest players would fail to find something lovable about it. Alex Navarro on Google+
93 Comments
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Posted by Venatio

XBLA reviewer Alex!

Posted by CoolRssL

sweet

Posted by Portis

Want.

Posted by Soap

Can't wait to get this! :D

Posted by ZeForgotten

Great review Alex.  
 
I'm buying this as soon as it's up on XBLA here.  
Granted getting it for free on PSN+ is all well and good too buuuut I wanna support people for making something different yet also funny. 
 
 
It's good to have a lot of money to waste on whatever the hell you feel like wasting them on. 

Posted by Bloodgraiv3

Very well done review, im getting to today!
Posted by Master_Funk

Cool. Will get it since it free on ps+

Posted by roars5000

BAM!

Posted by Uberjannie

This is one of the good games that never sell well :(

Posted by outerabiz

seems like something i would enjoy as i am only ironically a monocle enthusiast. This will be my first double fine game in a while

Posted by Underachiever007

Great review, Alex.

Posted by drag

Double Fine have slid into an awesome groove, long may it continue. 

Posted by Babble

I'm looking forward to this one!

Posted by SuperSambo
@ZeForgotten said:
" Great review Alex.   I'm buying this as soon as it's up on XBLA here.  Granted getting it for free on PSN+ is all well and good too buuuut I wanna support people for making something different yet also funny.   It's good to have a lot of money to waste on whatever the hell you feel like wasting them on.  "
You think that Double Fine will see nothing from the PS+ deal?
Edited by eulogize_my_baked_goods

Please Mr Publisher release this game for PC. I really don't want to have to buy a damn 360 just to play a $15 game. :(

Posted by PLWolf

Free on PS+ so, YaY!
Was already buying it, after the QL-EX. The Free part just makes it all the more awesome.

Edited by ZeForgotten
@SuperSambo said:

" @ZeForgotten said:

" Great review Alex.   I'm buying this as soon as it's up on XBLA here.  Granted getting it for free on PSN+ is all well and good too buuuut I wanna support people for making something different yet also funny.   It's good to have a lot of money to waste on whatever the hell you feel like wasting them on.  "
You think that Double Fine will see nothing from the PS+ deal? "
Oh no, I'm sure they will but it just feels weird to me and I can't help but just giving them my money. 
Even if they get the same amount of money from Sony that they would have gotten from me it still makes me feel like I'm cheating them :P  
 
I'm weird like that :D
Posted by ZeroCast

Sounds good. Here's hoping for a PC version soon.

Posted by b00tableByte

Thanks for all the dismemberments Dead Space 2. Time to stack some tchotchkes!

Posted by rndmtask

That was one the best written reviews I've read a long time, Alex. 
 
I will get this game, but I can't fork over $15 bucks for it just yet.

Posted by UberExplodey

tomorrow! 

Posted by Grissefar

Double Fine + Hitman
 
PS+ here I come.

Posted by Jolt92

Good review, Alex!

And I'll pick it up this friday or saturday and play it.

Posted by Raciend

I'll be getting this. I NEVER say no to a free game (and it is even better when it is good)!

Posted by bkbroiler

Gotta love a review that starts with some bitching alliteration. 

Posted by Draugrim

Great review Alex. Plunking down on this day one.

Posted by A_Cute_Squirtle

Really strange to see Alex review this. I for some reason expected Brad to shoehorn his way into reviewing this. He sounded really interested in it. 
 
I am stoked to play the demo of this game though. 

Posted by SpicyRichter

Downloadable titles are getting better and better all the time. Here's to double fines future sucess

Posted by Redbullet685

Finally decided to try out PS+ because this is free on it. Looks like a great game!

Posted by wewantsthering
@Raciend said:
" I'll be getting this. I NEVER say no to a free game (and it is even better when it is good)! "
Not fair! :-( I wish I still had a PS3. :-) Guess I will have to wait another day AND pay for it.
Posted by Krystal_Sackful

This is coming out so soon!?

Posted by Raciend
@wewantsthering said:
" @Raciend said:
" I'll be getting this. I NEVER say no to a free game (and it is even better when it is good)! "
Not fair! :-( I wish I still had a PS3. :-) Guess I will have to wait another day AND pay for it. "
well, to be fair. I live in Europe, so I also have to wait another day. Alas, no payment for me :P
Posted by ghostNPC

Fantastic review Alex.

Posted by EgoCheck616

Mmm. Can't wait to download my free copy off PS+.

Posted by b33

sweet

Posted by Baltimore

I am amazed just how charming this and Costume Quest are.  It's make me happy to see Double Fine finally getting some success.

Posted by beard_of_zeus

Well-written review, Alex! This seems like yet another hand-crafted, fun little experience from the wonderful folks at Double Fine. Hopefully the rest of those downloadable games they have in the works are even crazier. Definitely gonna pick this one up very soon though.
 
As an aside, the fact that there seems to be no real concept of one's self in the world of Stacking still boggles my mind.

Posted by yyZiggurat

Great review, Alex.  I've been looking forward to this game since playing Costume Quest.

Posted by artofwar420

Seems awesome, nice.

Posted by Brackynews

Mmm. Can't wait to give Double Fine some of my own money.

Posted by Peanut

Really excited to get this tomorrow. I may wake up a little early to play some before work. If I like this half as much as I loved Costume Quest, I'll be satisfied. 

Posted by Ghost_of_Perdition

I'm getting it as soon as it's available on XBLA. I need a break from Dead Space 2 anyway. Many, many limbs to lack of limbs...yep.

Posted by MiniPato
@Venatio said:
" XBLA reviewer Alex! "
He should change his name to ALBX amirite?
Posted by WorldDude

Great review, Alex! I couldn't be more excited to try this.

Edited by PKHilson
@SuperSambo said:

" @ZeForgotten said:

" Great review Alex.   I'm buying this as soon as it's up on XBLA here.  Granted getting it for free on PSN+ is all well and good too buuuut I wanna support people for making something different yet also funny.   It's good to have a lot of money to waste on whatever the hell you feel like wasting them on.  "

You think that Double Fine will see nothing from the PS+ deal? "
Exactly. Sony will definitely compensate them for each free download. It's a win-win for Double Fine and PSN+.  
EDIT: I hope this "free games to help developers who usually suck in the sales department" trend continues on PSN+!!
 
That being said, why the hell is it not up on PSN yet? I want me some more free stuff! 
 
Man, I've already gotten MUCH more than my money's worth from PSN+ and there's still 4-5 months left until my renewal is due. NO WAIT, I got 2 free months since I jumped on board right away, so 6-7 months left :)
Posted by danimal_furry

The preview video made this game look good. Along with this review, that makes two fairly glowing views. I have to remember to check this game out.

Posted by MisoRonery

That alliterative intro nearly made me gag.  In a good way.  Great review Alex, I've been very interested in this one.

Posted by enemymouse

Politics aren't going to stop me from playing this. 

Edited by bybeach

Great review Alex. It's obvious you invested in the game, and now I am exposed for the monarchist I am..monicle wearing made me think of Rubashov's next door prison cell denizen in Darkness at Noon. As usual I am a bit wondering why one of the regular guys didn't review this, but it's nothing personal,.. and you were a good choice. I don't think I will mention it anymore. 
 
 
I'm definetly getting this game, damn, and GB just talked me into Magicka!..... 
 
More monies out.
 
Posted by Skald

Neat stuff. Free for Playstation Plus subscribers too.

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