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Stacking Review

Review; Mar. 11, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Kyle James Hovanec
Valley of the Lower Class Dolls

If you had told me a few months ago that I'd soon be playing a game consisting of dolls, I'd have called you crazy. Yet here I am: controller in hand, guiding my little doll around the screen, searching for the train conductor to take me to the cruise ship. For a game involving dolls -- for crying out loud -- Stacking makes one hell of a charming and engrossing title.

Stacking Screenshots
Click the image to view game screenshots

Stacking is the latest from Tim Schafer and Double Fine Studios, the creators behind hits such as Psychonauts and Costume Quest. The premise behind the game has you playing as Charlie Blackmore, the youngest son of a chimney sweep, who after an unfortunate incident, has to save his family from indentured servitude. While it might sound like a grim premise, or the video game version of The Jungle, it’s anything but.

The main drive behind the game's stages is to complete puzzles, each one's solution varying between incredibly simple to incredibly cryptic. It is extremely fun to solve a puzzle one way and immediately see a possible solution forming. Each of the environments has a variety of puzzles to solve along with multiple solutions to each of them. This allows for a large amount of replayability.

Besides the puzzles, there’s the dolls themselves, which play a pivotal role. Charlie, despite his small size, has the ability to combine with larger dolls and utilize their special abilities. Once you stack into a doll slightly larger, you can stack into one even larger, and so on, each time gaining a new ability which becomes essential to solving puzzles, as well as goofing around with the rest of the cast.

Each of the environments provides plenty of other dolls to stack and interact with, as well as puzzles to solve. There are also opportunities to commit different acts of mischief, which provide their own rewards. You'd think it'd simply be juvenile to go around farting on random people -- and you’d be right. But when you get to witness each character’s humorous reaction, and then you're rewarded as well, you're hard pressed to resist the chance to do so again.

The game is rather short, easily finished in about four to five hours if you only go through the main puzzles and only finish the story. This could be viewed as a criticism on the longevity of the game, but to do so would be detrimental to the game experience itself and miss the point entirely.

Stacking is more than its puzzles and doll-stacking mechanics. While these are important and well done, there is so much more to this game. If you take the time to explore and immerse yourself in the game's environments and quirky dialog, you'll get a whimsical and rewarding experience that very few games have provided. The levels evoke the look and feel of an old fashioned toy set, from the wood block animals and the sepia tone colors of the walls. The cut scenes of each chapter are done in the style of a 1920s silent picture, complete with vaudeville piano tunes playing in the background. The act of finding other dolls to stack with and how each of these dolls provides a different power has a distinct “gotta catch 'em all” feel to it that will have compulsive collectors going well out of their way. 

Finally, the way the game handles such heavy themes while remaining light-hearted is very well done. Each of the dolls represents not only a new character to use, but a physical example of social stratification. The largest dolls are usually the most important, such as train engineers and upper class socialites, while the smaller ones are reserved for animals and menial workers. It paints a stark message: By being a member of the upper class, you have a noticeable effect on the world; by being a lower class doll, your efforts are, for the most part, in vain. 

Stacking might not be the longest downloadable title, nor is it the best. It is, however, the most fun I’ve had playing a single player video game this year. Amid all the blockbuster FPSs and survival horror titles, a game about playing dolls has captured my attention and become my favorite single player title of the year so far. Its charming story and environments combined with compelling puzzles makes this a title well worth your time and money.

Playing with dolls is awesome after all.

Comments

Review Score
9.0

Everyone

Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.

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