Double Fine has finally shaken off its chronic case of "If Only." As in, "Costume Quest is adorable, if only the combat wasn't so repetitive," or, "Brütal Legend is such a fun world, if only the mechanics worked better."
With Stacking, the developer's new downloadable puzzler, Double Fine has delivered a well-rounded game that's drenched in as much charm as you'd expect. But's it's been married to a great gameplay conceit that could more than stand on its own.
You're Charlie Blackmore, a chimney sweep attempting to reunite your family after they're kidnapped and put into servitude by the Baron, an evil industrialist. What sets young Charlie apart from every other video game lead is that he happens to be a Russian Matryoshka (nesting doll), but what sets him apart from the other dolls is that of the six different sizes that Matryoshkas come in, he's the smallest ... and he appears to be the only one.
While he may not cut the most impressive figure, Charlie does have the singular advantage of being able to leap inside other dolls as long as the body he's currently occupying is one size smaller than the one he's attempting to possess. But size isn't all that matters: Each doll has a special ability, some that are necessary to rescue your family (the doll whose head is a key comes in awfully handy), some that are just for laughs (the kid who farts on people) and some that straddle the line (interestingly, the adult who farts on people).
While most early puzzles require only one doll to solve (find the Pied Piper doll to lead mice into a kitchen you need to disrupt) as things progress, you'll need to use skills in tandem. The doll whose head is a flare isn't enough to light a guard who prefers shadows, but if you've also absorbed a doll that spills oil from his head, you may have a fighting chance. The only real problem with game's structure is that even when you have a vague idea of what you should be doing (or perhaps a very clear one thanks to a robust hint system) it can be a chore to find specific dolls.
You could just blow through Charlie's adventure, solving puzzles a rushing to the end, but Double Fine imbued the world with an impressive number of reasons to stick around. For starters, most puzzles have multiple solutions that you'll want to discover and each of the worlds you visit will have unique dolls to track down. Charlie's hobo friend Levi actually charts the progress of his friend's adventures with dioramas that are increasingly detailed depending on how many solutions and unique dolls Charlie discovers.
Even if you didn't have Levi's artwork prodding you on, the world and its industrial aesthetic are a real treat to get lost in, not to mention the fun of playing with all the different Matryorshka dolls and seeing how they interact. Critics are constantly crying out for fresh mechanics, and this is a wonderful one that I hope I get to see an evolution of. (As long as we're at it, Double Fine, as much as I loved Stacking's silent movie presentation and terrific score, could we please have fully voiced characters next time?)
Much like Costume Quest before it, Stacking's central gimmick works as both gameplay and metaphor. Charlie may be small, but he's the only one that can save the day, that's an easy message. But there's something else going on here, a sweet vignette about a family whose bond is represented by their ability to be physically encased in one another. It's not a traditional way of telling the story, but why would you ever want it to be?
This review is based on early review code of Stacking provided by THQ.