Platform: Xbox 360
Category: Adventure, Puzzle, Xbox LIVE Arcade
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Russian Nesting Dolls, who would have thought a game based on these cute little toys would even be possible? Well Tim Schafer did, and given games like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and the recent XBLA title Costume Quest, which he had a hand in developing, if anyone could make it work it would be him and his studio Double Fine Productions. Well, THQ has released Stacking, an adventure puzzle game based on these Russian Nesting Dolls. After sitting down and playing the final version of this downloadable title on the Xbox LIVE Arcade (XBLA), I have to say that I am very impressed with the final product.
Visually, Stacking is an amazing game, especially given that it is an XBLA title. It is very stylistic and there is a great use of colors. Each level is so original and well designed too. As you venture from level to level you will quickly learn that each environment is designed with everyday items you can find in your house. Using matchboxes, buttons, thimbles, and even cigars to bring each level to life, you will appreciate how each level is more than it seems. The best game for comparison I can use for the design aspect is Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I gave that game high marks for the visual presentation.
The stars of the game are the dolls themselves, and they are incredible looking. Each one looks like it has been painstakingly created by hand. There is lots of detail in the painting and they look very realistic. Animation is also incredible to watch. Each doll moves in a style all their own, from a sexy swagger to throwing an uppercut, the movements of each one are so good that you will forget that these dolls have no legs or arms to speak off.
If there is one area to complain, and in the big scheme of things it is minor, it is that the camera does get wonky now and then, and seems to get in too close, but this happens quite infrequently and won’t ruin much, if any, of the experience.
Given the nature of the silent film approach, you won’t find any voice acting here, but you will find a lot of other good stuff. The music is just like the visuals, very stylized. It matches the presentations approach very well. As for the sound effects, they too match everything in the game from stacking in and out of other dolls, trains rolling, gloves slapping, to bears growling. Overall the sound effects are bang on and make your gaming experience as enjoyable as everything else in this package.
Believe it or not this adventure puzzle hybrid that utilizes Russian Nesting Dolls has an interesting story to move the game along. You are Charlie, the smallest doll around. Your family is forced into into ‘slavery’ so to speak, and it is your job to help them and all the other child dolls that are being forced to work for the Baron, the evil boss of this game. Yep, the focus of the Stacking’s tale is child labor. The story is played out through cutscenes that are akin to the days of the silent movie era. There is no doubt that you will find yourself pretty invested in the story and you’ll even care about these cute little dolls. The narrative is well told and overall you will appreciate what is here.
The gameplay is quite simple in someways, as you wander around each level talking to all the other dolls looking and listening for hints on how to solve problems (puzzles so to speak) that need to be solved to advance along your adventure. Where the game becomes more interesting, and challenging, is how you solve the problems by taking control of special dolls that have unique skills to get through each problem. To do this you hop inside the doll of choice. You just can’t hop into any doll either, as you can only hop into a doll one size up, so you will have to find other dolls to ‘stack’ into at times, hence the game title “Stacking”.
The puzzles that you will come across range in difficulty and in the manner that they can be worked out. You will solve labour disputes, infiltrate rooms, and even get a cruise ship to return to it’s port of call to name a few things. To do this you have to take control of various dolls in each level that is specific to your task at hand. You’ll find yourself taking control of a sexy doll to distract a guard, taking control of a doll that has a mean case of “gas” that can clear a room, taking control of a bird doll to reach higher areas, to taking control of a muscle man doll who is the only one that can move an item to clear a path. Overall there are some pretty interesting ways to solve some pretty interesting puzzles.
If you are looking to plow through the game, only solving each puzzle once, you won’t find yourself too challenged, given how there can be easy ways to get to your goal, and the game can be completed in a few hours. To compensate for this, and to give the game some more legs, each puzzle has a total of four different solutions, with each one requiring a different way to reach the end goal. Each of these solutions gets harder, and more creative as well, so be prepared to test your puzzle solving skills more often than not. This is where the meat of Stacking lies, and why the game is so enjoyable. For those that do get stuck though, there is a hint system that, in my opinion, is far to easy to use as after each use it only needs to ‘recharge’ before you can use it again. With this in mind you need to have a strong will not to abuse it.
Stacking just doesn’t require you solve puzzles. Each level has a list of “hi-jinks” for you complete if you desire. These do not have to be completed to finish the game, but as with the multiple solutions to each puzzle or problem, it gives the game more legs. These “hi-jinks” are exactly what they state, situations that cause you to do some crazy things, like chatting it up in the bathroom, slapping other dolls with a white glove, to taking pictures of other dolls just for the heck of it. Completing these “hi-jinks” is actually a lot of fun given the freedom it gives you to mess around with the other dolls, and it is something I think all those who play this game should do.
Of course given that there are so many dolls in each level and you will need to find some very ‘collectible’ ones that get added to your list. Hunting for all the collectible dolls also is a challenge given there are different ones in each level. This is yet even more incentive to explore and interact with all the dolls you come across.
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