Stacking ReviewJoe Shaffer
Minimalistic mechanics can be tricky to pull off. Some developers pad their less interactive titles with copious amounts of cinematic sequences, while others attempt to barrage you with artsy, ambiguous imagery in the hopes of conveying some vague meaning. There are some, however, who have discovered a means of effectively implementing minimalism without using the aforementioned examples as a crutch. For instance, Double Fine's offering from years ago, the puzzle adventure title Stacking...
One could argue that Stacking, thanks to its unique visual style and theme focused on child labor, is an artsy title. That might be true, assuming one ignored the more puerile aspects of the game. You know, like barfing on a map or cutting a juicy fart into a ventilation system in order to solve certain puzzles. No, Stacking is not above going the toilet humor route, but what else can you expect from a game that allows you to take control of a dog whose special ability is dragging his rear end on the carpet? Clearly the game sports such juvenile abilities because it wants to remind you that it's a game and not a glorified movie or purely a "work of art."
This is not to say that there isn't much of a story. The game's tale revolves around a minuscule youngster by the name of Charlie, who's on a mission to abolish child labor and bring his siblings back home. Charlie's diminutive stature renders him unable to fight or use fear to manipulate his opponents. However, he possesses a handy skill in the form of taking over the bodies of passers-by. You see, Charlie dwells in a world where all living beings are actually Russian stacking dolls (hence the title), and Charlie can leap into the body of someone just slightly larger than he. His talent doesn't stop with one doll, either. Taking over one doll increases his size, thereby allowing him to take over larger characters, granting him access to their unique techniques. For example, Charlie's not exactly capable of seducing a a doorman. However, after taking over the body of a certain voluptuous widow, he can easily arouse the guard and cause him to drop his.... uh, guard, allowing Charlie to sneak by.
Completing such tasks is a central part of the game. Each chapter consists of a handful of goals to accomplish, most of which involve spurring characters into motion. For instance, the second act requires you to start a mutiny on a cruise ship by pissing off a few dolls in various sectors of the vessel. Enraging each character is not a simple matter, demanding that you examine their surroundings, take into account the talents of individual dolls in the vicinity, and work out a solution based on your observations. This might involve irritating a chef by botching his caviar, annoying a museum curator by absconding with a mummy, or ticking off a man running a carnival-like game by freeing his Kodiac bear. The game doesn't hold your hand when presenting these tasks (although it can give you clues when you ask for them), but leaves most of the work up to you.
Speeding through the campaign would reveal that Stacking is a fairly short title. In so doing, you won't experience the game's best moments and features. You'll miss out on side events, like one that revolves reuniting a family of magicians on the cruise ship, or another that grants you access to a unique doll called Pied Piper. Taking control of him allows you to lure rats anywhere you wish, an ability that can be used to complete certain tasks. Best of all, each puzzle you encounter has multiple solutions, and solving each one begets teensy (but enjoyable) rewards, such as access to specific unique dolls.
Attaining 100% completion can be rewarding, and at the same time daunting. Attempting to do so can stretch the game's length out generously, but you might feel it overstaying its welcome in the process. This becomes most apparent when attempting to figure out how to complete certain "Hi-Jinks," or silly actions that unlock cosmetic alterations for certain dolls. Again, the game doesn't hold your hand when it comes to Hi-Jinks. Rather, it provides you with a vague list of actions to accomplish, then leaves you to figure them out on your own. Some of them are obvious, like "Slap Happy," which you can complete by slapping other dolls. On the other hand, some are a little more inconspicuous, such as "A Little Relieved," which you can only remove from your list once you've urinated in the men's room. Although Hi-Jinks can be tricky and entertaining to solve, most of them require you to utilize the same asinine abilities repeatedly. It's elating when you use your intellect to decipher what a Hi-Jinks's title entails, such as discovering that "Lil' Stinky" requires you to break wind on ten dolls. However, actually ripping ass on ten dolls grows tiresome, especially when you've had to slap nine of them, upchuck on eight of them, and seduce five of them prior to that.
Worse, some Hi-Jinks feel like filler, like "Bathroom Chatterbox." Seriously, all you have to do to accomplish this one is talk to two people in bathrooms. That's it.
Although there's a missed opportunity with Hi-Jinks, the game as a whole is still very worthwhile. It's both thrilling and enticing to tinker with myriad dolls in an effort to discover their talents while surmounting a variety of hurdles with nothing but your noggin as your weapon. Stacking is a charming title that demonstrates that minimalistic games can offer much in the way of entertainment and content, provided that developers do their damnedest to deliver clever, amusing gameplay.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.