Review: Stacking

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: NR - Not Rated
My Rating: Ages 10 and up
Genre: Adventure / Puzzle
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2015
Review Published On: August 26th, 2020
Played on: Thaddeus

Available from:

Gamer's Gate, Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

Your progress is saved* whenever you return to the main menu or close the game. On the other hand, should you wish to pause the game, bring up the pause menu by pressing ESC*.

Summary of
Major Issues:

The primary concern with this game is the occasional use of gross humor, such as solving puzzling by weaponizing farts.

Screenshots

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A brave new world

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You know what you must do

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Memories of the Meat Circus



Game Overview

As a studio, Double Fine Productions has developed a reputation for creating very unique, if also very weird, games. Stacking definitely falls into this strange little niche of theirs, as it revolves around an unusual mechanic* that would make next to no sense in any other game.

In Stacking, everyone is a wooden nesting doll, or matryoshka. In many cases, related dolls form a set, with the eldest members being the largest dolls and the children being the smallest ones. Most dolls also have their own special abilities, some of which are more important than others. In order to overcome various obstacles and solve puzzles, you'll need to put one doll inside another until you have the doll you need. Combining dolls like this is referred to as "stacking", hence the name of the game.

Now, overcoming the challenges that a game presents can be a lot of fun, but it helps to know why we've just instructed a grown man to fart into an air vent. Fortunately, the story is very simple: an evil Baron is kidnapping children and forcing them to do menial tasks like shovel coal or serve meals to snobby rich people. At the beginning of the game, the Baron has already abducted most of the Blackmore family. As the only child of the Blackmore family still free, Charlie Blackmore decides to take on the Baron, free the other children, and bring an end to child labor.

All this makes for a good set up for what could have been a great puzzle game, but unfortunately, there's a bit of a problem. It doesn't feel like you're really solving anything. The dolls you're supposed to use to solve a puzzle are made to stand out and typically hang around the puzzle they solve. You're even provided with hints and a guide beacon feature to help you work things out. This is like locking a door, leaving the key on the step, and then acting surprised that someone got inside.

There's a lot of good and clever ideas here. It's just a pity all that energy ended up being put into the game's graphics and environment instead of its gameplay. You can see there were a lot of ideas behind the game; there are tons of optional challenges and even a tally at the bottom of the pause menu that tracks how much of the game you've completed. Stuff that, in many other games, is a welcome addition. Here it just makes things feel more stretched and empty.

Ultimately, I don't think I can recommend Stacking; it feels like a novelty, not a polished game, and that's disappointing.

Points of Interest

Free second story
After saving the children of the world from an early death via black lung disease, Charlie and his hobo friend can leave for another adventure. In this second tale, you'll be using the same strategies as before to solve new puzzles and appoint the true Hobo King.
Other things to do
Each area has a bunch of normal dolls and a handful of unique dolls. Normal dolls may still be able to contribute to one of the area's solutions, but it can be a small challenge to find every unique doll in an area. At the very least, keeping an eye out for the unique ones is important: they're likely to be the ones that have the abilities you need to progress.

Each area also has a list of "hi-jinks", special actions that you can perform as an extra challenge. You'll need to make it some way into the game before the submenu with this list unlocks, but once it does, you can always revisit previous sections to take on these silly tasks.
Steam community features and Trophy room
Charlie and his hobo friend Levi find a nice empty lot at the beginning of the adventure, and as you progress and complete various challenges, Levi touches the place up with statues and paintings that reflect your accomplishments. In a way, this allows you to collect every Steam achievement* every time you play the game. These achievements* follow a predictable pattern: you'll get one for completing an area, finding every solution to an area's puzzles, locating every unique doll, and so on. While completing all 21 achievements* is still quite a feat, it's disappointing that none of them involve being clever or doing something more than just basic grinding*.

There's also a set of Steam trading cards*, if you're interested in collecting those.
An easy victory feels unearned
Every puzzle in the game can be solved in more than one way. This gives the player some freedom in advancing the story (which is good), but it's also one of the reasons that Stacking feels too easy. Since unique dolls are typically the solution to a puzzle, having several in one area almost always ensures that you'll spot a solution before encountering the puzzle itself. This makes it feel like the game is providing you with the answers instead of letting you figure things out, and that kind of ruins the fun of a puzzle game.

Concerns and Issues

Mild violence
Throughout the game, a number of dolls get mistreated in different ways. They might get punched, smacked around, lit on fire, hit by an explosion, or even get split into their respective halves. But, none of this is lasting, as the victims always carry on like nothing has happened. Presumably, this game operates under cartoon logic.
Crude humor
Double Fine Productions has always had a good sense of humor, and it shows in their game design. This time around, they opted to get a little more into gross humor, adding in dolls with abilities like farting on command or sneezing on people. Both of these characters end up being very useful to our protagonist, as smelly farts can not only get people to leave an area, they can also be combined with open flames for explosive results. (Obligatory don't try this at home warning)
A bit of magical fantasy
The DLC* side story about finding the true Hobo King takes Charlie and Levi through a fantasy story, filled with magic. You have wizards, fortune tellers, zombies, and knights -- everything you'd need for a fanciful quest.