Friday, February 11, 2011

REVIEW - Stacking.


A word that quite aptly describes Double Fine's newest endeavor is 'unique' - because it certainly is - but I'm not sure that's the best word. I think the best word is 'innocent' or perhaps... 'childlike.'

I do not mean these as insults.

What I mean is that Stacking, somehow, miraculously, has tapped directly into the story-telling style, the play-style, the imagination-style of a child, sitting in their room, creating worlds of the mind and grand adventures for their dear toy companions.

The skewed, yet consistently maintained logic of Stacking's world and narrative are told in precisely the same way. The puzzle solutions are as simple and as strange as a child could imagine, yet still make sense. The way the Russian nesting dolls which populate its world talk, move and interact is exactly the way a child would have them move, talk and interact - if their tiny hands were guiding the toys through Double Fine's beautifully painted world.

For that unique, innocent, childlike, spectacular point - Stacking gets a huge thumb up. There is nothing else like it.


The gameplay is... easygoing. You wander around a world that is, at times, constructed of household items (sewing pins serve as posts, glowing marbles are overhead lights) and cardboard cut-outs. You are the smallest doll in the world - the only doll which cannot split apart to reveal an emptiness within - but is uniquely capable of inhabiting every other doll.

To control a significantly larger doll, you must start small and work your way up the sizes. It's simple, intuitive, and zipping into and out of dolls occurs in the blink of an eye. Every doll has an ability for the purpose of puzzle solving or humor (I still haven't found a puzzle solution that relies on one boy's ability to poop his pants), and this allows you to while away a few minutes sipping tea as a cultured madame, meting out "royal wedgies" as a big bruiser or using the judge doll to "deliver justice."

Taking repeat advantage of some of the more humorous abilities is obvious trophy-hunting filler material - defend your honor by slapping ten dolls with a white glove, for example - but it's much more enjoyable when the talents come into play during puzzles.

A glove slap is a little old thing will
get you sat-is-fac-tion.
Glove slap, baby.

The puzzle designs are a bit of genius, really. They're not offensively challenging (or easy), and whenever your progress is impeded in the game, the puzzle blocking your path has no less than three solutions - and often more. This all but eliminates the frustration of a single, elusive, arbitrary answer demanding a visit to GameFAQs. You and I may approach the same puzzle in different ways, but we can both solve it - we can both be right.

Like the optional repeated use of abilities illustrated above, this system is utilized to further extend the title's playtime. Once you solve the mystery of accessing the exclusive club, you're welcome to stick around and try to find the other two or three solutions - find every solution to every puzzle in a given level, and ding - trophy.

While it does come across, at times, as padding, the variety of answers allows the player to quickly negotiate a puzzle, feel suitably clever for it, and keep moving forward in the story if they so choose.

Throw in a consequence-free hint system, and we have a title that clips along at a speedy, relaxed pace - if you want it to.


That is, essentially, all there is to Stacking. It looks simple, yet often very pretty - particularly if you pay attention to the lovely sheen on the avatar you're piloting, or take a moment to appreciate the painterly art that graces each and every doll in the game.

The music is a standout at well - entirely orchestral - capably recalling the silent films of the early 1900s and matching the required emotional punctuations while the dolls onscreen recoil in shock or move in for a tender embrace. Double Fine again prove themselves masters of expressive animation, and here it's doubly remarkable - what they can accomplish with so little.

The game can be beaten in about four hours - but not completed, of course - which does supply one with a touch of sticker shock at its $14.99 asking price. It would be an easier recommend if I felt more strongly positive about the gameplay itself, but - as with any Double Fine title - that's not the main attraction, here.

The main attraction is playing something so damned different - which may also preclude some gamers' ability to enjoy the title.


There's slapstick comedy, but a near-complete absence of violence - and it's by and large a comedy. This title runs in opposition to almost anything that's currently popular in the realm of gaming - but it may just shock you with its guileless frivolity and willfully uncensored imagination.

The gameplay is fine. Like most of Double Fine's efforts it's well-realized, inoffensive and a bit forgettable - but (like all Double Fine's efforts) the experience and emotions the game provides and recalls are simply singular.

It lets you feel, here and there, that you are six years old again - sitting cross-legged on the floor of your room, inhabiting some far-off place - breathing life and meaning into the expressionless toys you take in hand, and creating an adventure out of nothing but imagination, based on the incomplete perception of reality you wielded at such a tender age.

Honestly, it recalled that feeling, for me. Repeatedly.

The gameplay is merely okay. The experience is exceptional.


THE GOOD
-strong art direction
-single-jointed characters with weirdly expressive animation
-capably-executed puzzles, each with multiple solutions
-great music
-directly elicits the wholesome sensation of playing with toys as a child. it's... frankly, shocking
-lots of extras to see and do

THE BAD
-all those extras seem like blatant padding of a
-pretty short game
-gameplay is merely good enough, and only gets really interesting towards the end
-fourteen bucks!


THE VERDICT

Those with an appetite for whimsy should definitely check out Stacking - all others need not apply.

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