What's It All About:
If you told me this year I would be playing a fun game about Russian nesting dolls, I would have been skeptical, but here it is, a tremendous downloadable X-Box 360 title from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions. At this point, if you're a video-game fan, and you don't count yourself as a member of the cult of Schafer, you really need to re-consider your gaming hobbies, as the man has been behind a large number of some of the most enjoyable and creative games in history, and his team's newest title, Stacking is yet another inspired blast of pure imaginative fun. As tiny Charlie Blackmore, the youngest in a family of matryoshkas, you're charged with rescuing your siblings after they are turned into child slaves to pay off the family's debt. To do this, you explore several beautiful, "hand-crafted" turn-of-the-20th-Century levels by jumping into increasingly larger nesting dolls, and utilizing their unique abilities to solve puzzles and advance the story. The goal is saving your family and defeating the evil Baron behind the child labor schemes, but in the end it's really all about having fun playing with dolls, and as you can expect from a game with Schafer's mark, it's funny to boot, loaded with those odd touches we've come to love and expect from him.
Starting out as Charlie, you hop around looking for larger dolls to jump into and take control of, each with its own unique ability. You need their help to solve a series of puzzles on five levels, leading you to your captive family members. The story unfolds in cut-scenes animated to look like silent films shot on creative low-tech sets, complete with title cards. The keys to the game are exploring everywhere you can, trying out all the dolls' abilities and talking to everyone as everyone. Though you can use the game's pause menu tools to help keep track of what you're doing and how to get it done, and you have a guiding light available to point out nearby challenges, you're going to spend a good amount of time looking around and meeting people to figure out what they can do and what your mission is. Some objectives are so easy you can't even consider them puzzles, while others are a bit more obscure and require some genuine thought. Eventually though, if you walk around enough, you'll find either inspiration or just an obvious answer smacking you in the face.
In this respect, the game is essentially quite easy, and most gamers won't need more than a lengthy session or two to complete the basic game, especially if you take advantage of the comprehensive clues system, which can tell you exactly how to beat a puzzle if you so desire (or just offer vague hints.) (Thus, there's no reason for anyone to not beat this game.) That's where the mad geniuses at Double Fine worked their magic though. Instead of there being just one way to beat a puzzle, there can be three or four ways through the maze, so to speak, utilizing any number of abilities and doll combinations for success. It's in trying to reach completion that gamers will find their satisfaction with Stacking, as you have to be able to approach each problem a number of ways. You may take the easy way out to get the win at first, but you'll be back to figure out more ways to get that monkey out of the car (which is not an analogy, but an actual challenge.)
Beyond the puzzle-solving, there's a grand challenge of collecting and achieving built in as well, which will extend your gameplay many times over. Just simply finding each unique doll is a challenge in and of itself, but throw in the rewards for grouping matched sets, which are kept in your hobo buddy Levi's secret train station hide-out, and you've got plenty to keep you busy. On top of that, there are the achievement-like Hi-Jinks, mystery mini-challenges offered in multitudes on each level. All you get is a list of names, and it's up to you to use them as clues to figure out what to do (most of which are tied to a certain doll's ability. Some are quite easy and obvious, like slapping 10 dolls with a white glove or farting on five dolls, while others may take you some time and some trial and error. "Broadsides" and "Girls on Film" took me a while to work out. Between these two options and the many ways to beat the main game, you're getting far more than your $15 in MS points.
I am hard-pressed to find anything I don't like about Stacking, but I did come up with one. The inability to advance through the cut-scenes faster definitely frustrated me at times. I'm a fast reader. I don't need titlecards to be up so long. Let's move it and get back to the fun!
Not a stitch of online play, not even leaderboards, my good man.
Though the focus on puzzle solving doesn't require tremendously responsive controls, you won't run into any problems moving your dolls around, as the control scheme, built around stacking and unstacking, talking and using your special abilities, is very comfortable and intuitive. There's also no need to be entirely accurate with your use of the dolls' abilities or their placement, as the game auto-corrects if you're close. No complaints here.
There are 21 achievements available in the game, for a total of 250 points, but at the moment you can only actually achieve 17 of them, as four of the achievements (50 points) are tied to a yet unannounced DLC stage. Surprisingly, there's no creativity to the achievements (possibly because so much went into the in-game "achievements" known as Hi-Jinks) with everything here being tied to either finishing a level or collecting all items of a particular type.
Combining the charms of a miniature world made of household items, the feel of silent movies and an early 20th Century art style, this games' graphics are simply gorgeous, especially when it comes to the dolls you control. Each of the many different dolls has a unique, highly-detailed look, an assortment of physical reactions to what's going on and excellent (as well as adorable) movements. Watching these dolls bounce and clatter their way through levels just adds to the game's quirky appeal. Though you'll find yourself focusing on the dolls, the settings are equally beautiful, with a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a diorama come to life, a beauty best illustrated by the jittery, music-accompanied silent-film cut-scenes. The camera is solid as well, though occasionally you'll find yourself wondering where you're looking when surrounded by bigger dolls or stuck in a tight spot. At least you have pretty constant control over where you're looking.
The music goes a long way toward establishing the old-timey feel of the game, with dead-on silent-film scores. Not once did I notice an annoyingly repetitive tune, despite being on each level for an extended amount of time exploring and hunting. Part of what helps avoid that deadly aural sin is the vast array of sound effects, tied to characters and locations, which ebb and flow as you wander the levels. While some are less attractive than others (the audio cue for the doll that "tosses his cookies" is truly disgusting) they all are basically perfect. In fact, the only notable problem with the sound is the lack of voice acting, resulting in that kind of Peanuts-style mumbling. Considering the characters are wooden dolls with drawn-on mouths, that's somewhat acceptable though.
And in the End...
While I understand that there's a lot of people out there who will take one look at this game and start another FPS round instead of try something new or unique, here's to hoping the rest of you reading give this game a chance. Though the main challenge isn't that long, there's more than enough supplemental exploring included to give you your money's worth, and it'll be more fun and entertaining than the majority of what you've been playing lately. If for no other reason, download this title so we get more unique experiences on our consoles, rather than more movie tie-ins.