What happens when you mix farts, classical music, Russian Matryoshka dolls and a slightly dystopian outlook of the world? You might end up with some wicked dreams, but if you're a game designer like Lee Petty, you might just come up with a game like Stacking. Part adventure, part puzzler, Stacking tells the story of the Blackmores, a poor family with a crippling debt. Since they're unable to pay, the evil overlord comes to claim the children and put them to work — well, all of them except Charlie. You see, Charlie is the world's smallest Matryoshka doll so no one thinks he can do anything. No one except him mom. She believes in him, so Charlie sets out to save the family.
Being of small size and even smaller strength, Charlie can't do much by himself. Being small means that he does have one unique ability: He can hop inside a larger doll and take it over. It's sort of like a cute version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but you're the one doing the invading.
The trick here is that Charlie can only take over a doll that is one size larger than himself. If a doll is two sizes larger, he first has to take over a medium-sized doll before he can take over the larger doll. Early on in the game, there are only three sizes of dolls, but this quickly ramps up to four, and before long you'll be seeing levels with seven different sizes of dolls. Part of the challenge is going to be how you navigate to find the specific doll that you need.
Taking over a doll is fairly straightforward. Sneak up behind one, press the action button, and voila! You're inside. Although this works most of the time, some dolls aren't always available for the taking. For example, in one challenge, a guard doll was on high alert. As a result, he would always face the player character, never turning away so there was never a chance to take him over. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
We ran into the guard doll while adventuring through a train station. Serving as the hub level for Stacking, the train station also doubles as a tutorial level when you play the game for the first time. It is where the nesting mechanic (otherwise known as taking over another doll) is introduced via a series of basic puzzles. The overarching goal is to take over the matched set of three station bosses to negotiate with the union. Once you have control of the set, you can move on to the next area.
Finding a matched set of unique dolls is key to solving all of the major plot puzzles in the game, but Stacking was designed with plenty of optional puzzles in mind. One that we saw involved a lost German family. Reuniting the family (by collecting all of them into one doll) rewards you with a small movie. The doll models are then added to your trophy room. Initially a bare place, the trophy room fills up with all of the unique doll sets that you collect over the course of the game.
Getting back to the guard doll mentioned earlier, the reason he's on high alert is because he's guarding an exclusive club that you need to empty out. How you do this is up to you. In fact, every single puzzle in the game has multiple solutions. You only need to find one to move on, but discovering them all will net some rewards. We saw two ways to clear out the club.
The first was a somewhat uncouth, yet effective route. Little Charlie took over a doll with some gastrointestinal problems (dude was passing gas like it was going out of style) and then walked over to the club's air vent. After ripping a big one, the game switched into "fart cam" mode and followed the stink as it got sucked into the air vent and spread throughout the club. Those inside ran out the front door, including the unique doll that you needed.
A second solution involved taking out a sexy lady doll and using her to seduce the guard. Once he was distracted, we were able to sneak inside the club. Of course, the presence of lower-class "undesirables" meant the exclusive atmosphere of the club had been breached, and the crowd rushed out. What's interesting is that each solution can be played after the other. Even though the goal was reached as soon as the puzzle was solved the first time, Stacking allows you to keep playing a single puzzle until all the solutions are discovered should you choose to do so. It's a nice mechanic that promises to cater to the completionists out there.
Visually, Stacking is modeled after old-school dioramas — the kind of environmental models that we all used to make in grade school. As a result, everything in the world has a very colorful and inspired look to it. You'll see things such as cigars serving as smokestacks on a steamship. The details aren't immediately obvious, but you'll notice after a bit of play. It's a level of care in the art direction that really gives Stacking a feel all its own.
Like other games on XBLA and PSN, Stacking has Achievements and Trophies, but it also features a number of "mini-achievements" called hijinks. These are things that you can do simply because they are fun. They also happen to unlock accessories that will change the characters slightly. For example, on the steamship level, one of the hijinks was simply to go around and slap people with a glove. Do it enough, and you earn a golden glove.
We only got a quick look at Stacking, but what we've seen so far is quite promising. Rather than try to do too many things at once, Stacking focuses on the "nesting" gameplay and appears to hone that mechanic to perfection. With the ability to stack and unstack at will, the game's success is going to rely on how well the developers craft the puzzles that surround the "nesting" mechanic. If the promise of more than 100 unique dolls to collect isn't an exaggeration, then depth of play shouldn't be a worry.
The best games are often the ones that are willing to take a risk and try new things. Stacking certainly takes a few risks, yet it seems to all be meshing well. Having seen the first two areas, we've started on the path to completion. Be sure to check back after the new year after we've had the chance to add a few more dolls to the collection.
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