Saturday, October 13, 2012

You Should Probably Play This: Stacking

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column. In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention. It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better. This time: A game from DoubleFine.  Who are awesome.

 Stacking is an adventure/puzzle game by DoubleFine.  DoubleFine are a pretty awesome game development studio, responsible for such games as Psychonauts, Costume Quest, Brutal Legend (pretend there's an umlaut in there), and the upcoming DoubleFine Adventure.  Previously, studio head Tim Schafer is responsible for such awesome adventure games as Grim Fandango, Day of The Tentacle, and Full Throttle.  Stacking was released in 2011, I picked it up during the Steam summer sale, so let's talk about it!

Stacking, to me, is one of those obvious but awesome ideas that makes me go, "Why didn't anyone think of this before?".  In short, it's a puzzle game in which all the characters are matryoshka dolls.  You play as Charlie Blackmore, a tiny doll who has the ability to stack inside larger dolls and take control of them, allowing you to stack inside progressively larger dolls.  Each doll has their own special ability, which you use to complete the various puzzles.

For the most part, the puzzles aren't that difficult.  The dolls you need are generally in the immediate area, so it's mostly a matter of figuring out the right combination you need to use.  However, each puzzle has three to five different solutions, which is where most of the difficulty comes from.  The game encourages you to figure out every solution, and it can be tricky, because some of them require some pretty creative thinking.

So the gameplay of Stacking is solid and a lot of fun, but what really makes it excel is its excellent presentation.  DoubleFine is in general great at developing unique and charming feels to their games, and Stacking was the pet project of the company's art director, so it's really turned up to 11 on this game.  Stacking is a great example of a game with a unified style, from the period-appropriate music, to the design of the menus, to the constant vignette and depth of field effects during gameplay.  The cutscenes are even silent movie-style, with film scratches and title cards for dialog.

Stacking is really one of the most charming games I've played.  The presentation is great, everything looks really nice, the dialog is light-hearted and funny, and there's plenty of good-natured slapstick.  If you don't like Stacking, or at least it's presentation, you may be dead inside.

I'll only talk briefly about the story, because it's not really the focus of the game.  Basically, you are Charlie Blackmore, of the very poor Blackmore family.  Due to the poorness of your family, everyone but you is forced by the evil Baron to work as slaves.  So it's up to you to rescue them.  It's worth mentioning that the game manages to pull off a light-hearted look at child labor, but overall the story isn't really particularly notable, although the cutscenes are appropriately charming.

Value for money might be a sticking point here, for some.  The game's $15, I played through it in about five hours.  People might find that to be terrible playtime for money, but I disagree for two reasons: 1.  $15 for five hours is $3 per hour, or $6 per two hours.  That's considerably cheaper than a two hour movie on a price per hour ratio.  2. There's still stuff left in the game.  I played through it in five hours, but I haven't found every puzzle solution, and I haven't completed the various little sidequests you have to do.  Stacking's a good game for completionists, or those who want a game they can come back to now and again to just play for a bit and feel like they accomplished something.  Of course, if the price is still too much for you, you can always wait until a Steam sale.

So, in conclusion: Stacking is a fun and charming puzzle game.  Although it's fairly easy to breeze through the game, there's more to sink your teeth into after you do so.  If you like unique aesthetics or unique puzzle games, definitely check it out.

Stacking is available for PC on Steam for $14.99.  There's also an XBLA version.  The PC version comes with the short Lost Hobo King DLC, which is a separate purchase on XBLA.  Coincidentally, all DoubleFine games are on sale in a bunch of places until October 16th, so now's a good opportunity to pick it up.  Also get Psychonauts because it is amazing (but that's a review for another time).

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