Stacking's undeniable charm can't mask its shallow gameplay forever.
Double Fine games are usually bursting at the seams with charm and creativity, and Stacking is no different. Stacking’s gameplay revolves around Russian matryoshka dolls and their wondrous ability to stack into other, larger matryoshka dolls. Every doll has singular, unique power at their disposal, and you’ll have to utilize these skills to complete the obstacles presented to you. Although this is undoubtedly a wildly creative concept, the puzzle solving isn’t engaging or involved enough to stay interesting, and the monotonous gameplay can hide behind the charm the universe exudes for only so long.
You play as Charlie Blackmore, the youngest and smallest in a family of nesting dolls. Stacking is set against the dark backdrop of Russia’s industrial revolution, where child labor is running rampant and evil barons are ruling with an iron fist. As such, your brothers and sisters are forcefully pushed into horrific, unethical workplaces, and it’s up to you to save them. The narrative is relayed by cutscenes that play out like a silent film, with character’s gesticulations followed up by text that takes up the whole screen. Save for one particular cinematic near the finale, the humor in Stacking won’t have you outwardly guffawing, but rather chuckling inside your head at the whimsical and pleasant tale that is spun.
Every doll in Stacking has a particular talent, and you’re going to have to fling yourself into a wide variety of figures to find out which ones are going to be necessary to solve the myriad of puzzles the game throws at you. These abilities can range from an obese fellow ripping a hefty fart, or an old timey boxer with a curly mustache throwing an uppercut at whatever is in front of him. All these powers are accompanied by a cute little animation, and just looking at the ridiculous things all the dolls would do is half the appeal of Stacking.
Unfortunately, the gameplay becomes stale extremely quickly. Because each doll only has one ability, the gameplay mostly boils down to leaping into dolls to test out whether their ability is useful to solving the puzzle blocking your progress. These challenges aren’t difficult in the slightest, as the necessary dolls are usually placed within the same area as the puzzle room itself. There isn’t any finesse or thinking required once you’ve found a proper doll to solve the puzzle. I often found myself just mindlessly throwing myself into every doll in the room and mashing the button to perform their ability to see if it would accomplish the task at hand. A new gameplay mechanic is introduced really late in the game that I thought had the propensity to add some much needed spice and variety, but it’s only used a few times before it reverts back its relatively simple, perfunctory gameplay.
Stacking attempts to lengthen its relatively short campaign by offering numerous solutions to the same puzzle. For example, if you need to infiltrate a room protected by a security guard, you can use a seductress to lure him away from the door, or you can control a wrench wielding engineer to pry open a vent to gain access. Trying to figure out some of the more esoteric answers grasped my attention for only a short while, as all them ultimately lead to the same conclusion. Unless you’re a compulsive completionist or someone thirsting for those illustrious achievements and trophies, there isn’t a compelling incentive to discover all of them, save for a minor difference in the resulting cutscene. There are also special characters peppered throughout the world that have unique actions called hi-jinks. Performing these hi-jinks on various characters or objects throughout the levels nets you a neat little animation, but these are purely cosmetic and don’t have any effect on the gameplay. I was partial to one called Mass Effect, where a magician would perform an illusion on an oblivious fellow. Stacking does a great job of keeping a comprehensive log of the myriad of things you can discover, but I personally had no burning desire to go back and explore every nook and cranny.
Stacking is a Double Fine game through and through. It’s packed full of charm, creativity, and silliness that will make the coldest of hearts melt in an instant. But it’s just a shame the adorable world cannot buoy the tedium of the gameplay.