When Tim Schafer and Double Fine announced that the second of its four mooted downloadable projects would be a matryoshka doll-themed adventure, gamers failed to bat so much as an eyelid. This, after all, was the same studio that brought us a psychic platformer, heavy metal action-strategy game and Halloween-themed RPG. While the latter, Costume Quest, pioneered the studio’s new downloadable dawn with the action of a Saturday-morning cartoon, Stacking takes its cues from very a different source – revolution-era Russia – which gives rise to a brilliantly stylised industrialist world populated by the aforementioned stackable dolls.
Don’t be put off if you’re not a Bolshevist though. Stacking is every bit a Double Fine creation, with all the whimsy, charm and wit we’ve come to expect from the studio. Players step into the bottom-half of Charlie Blackmore, the smallest doll in the world, who embarks on a quest to save his siblings after they’re tricked into child-labour by the villainous Baron.
Every character in Stacking features a special ability, some unique, others not. Thanks to his stature, Charlie is the only doll that can stack with others, enabling players to take control of NPCs, and use their abilities to solve the environmental challenges that present themselves.
The stacking mechanic requires Charlie to walk behind an NPC a size bigger than whoever he might be occupying, enabling players to carry a full stack of three characters, plus Charlie, at any given time. Some NPCs refuse to turn their back on you and so require distracting with a specific ability, but for the core puzzles multiple solutions are often within reach.
An early mission requires Charlie to empty a snooty drinks lounge at the Railway Station that doubles as both opening level and game hub. Rather than set a convoluted series of hoops for players to jump through, the lounge guard can be circumvented in a number of different ways; talking to the many travelers bustling around the station hall, as well as the guard himself, unveils clues as to which abilities might best serve the task at hand. Later challenges aboard a cruise ship prove just as tame, but still hugely satisfying thanks to a combination of player-exploration and silent-movie style cut scenes.
Many puzzle solutions display a tendency towards finding a nearby doll with the correct ability to help you progress, but their variety and the wealth of content – unique dolls to find, matched doll sets and mini-challenges to complete – means there’s plenty to return to after all of Charlie’s brothers and sisters have been found across the game’s four main environments.
Meanwhile, Stacking’s presentation, animation and exquisite visual design add to an adventure that harks back to Schafer’s earlier work at LucasArts. Humour spills from even the simplest of situations whether running around performing the tiny ‘hi-jinks’ challenges, such as breaking wind, or burping (often reserved for child dolls), stacking with a boxer to uppercut people into a queue, or watching the hilarious animations that represent a two-piece dog performing tricks.