Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks)

Platform(s): Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Herringbone Games
Release Date: April 1, 2020


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PC Review - 'Stacks on Stacks (on Stacks)'

by Cody Medellin on July 6, 2020 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) is a 3D tower builder where you execute architectural feats of balancing while incorporating mixed-up materials.

How do you make a puzzle game different? You could change up the graphics and gameplay so you'll be in a 3D space instead of the 2D one that most popular genre entries occupy. You could make it so that it isn't another line-clearing game or one where matching three or four of a kind is the focus. You could also give it an interesting aesthetic, so genre fans will be happy to go through the same mechanics with a fresh coat of paint. While all of these are viable solutions, Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) goes for a different approach: throw every single wild idea you can into a mix and see what works.

The first sign that you're getting something off the wall is in the story, which is told in a manner similar to a children's storybook. In a far-off world full of a menagerie of anthropomorphic creatures and rainbows, large blocks began to fall from the sky. To mitigate the calamity, the townsfolk called upon their best hope: Rocket, the Master Stacker. Using her psychic helmet, she must keep the blocks stacking without having them fall on people or their houses.

The core mechanics of the game are easy to understand. Much like Tricky Towers released a few years ago, your goal is to take the blocks that are falling from the sky and create a tower of a certain height. Thanks to physics, that means also making sure the tower stays stable for at least a few seconds. Any pieces that fall out of the play area count as a strike, and three strikes end a run for you. The task of creating that tower is harder than it sounds thanks to the random sizes of the pieces you'll get, which range from cones and curved pieces alongside the squares and rectangles, and your inability to rotate them beyond the horizontal axis. While you have a decent-sized base to work with to spread out the pieces that would mess up your tower, you also have to contend with the fact that this all plays out in 3D.

To be fair, Stacks on Stacks tries to compensate for the fact that you're viewing it all in 3D as opposed to the 2D perspectiv,e but you still get the feeling that some tweaks could've been done to make these concessions better. You can rotate the camera to get a better viewpoint of the field, but you can't tilt the camera or change the zoom. You have a separate screen that provides a top-down view of the field, but you can't change its size, often causing you to forget it exists since it isn't in your immediate peripheral vision. There are decent-sized shadows for the pieces, and a pop-up appears if the game detects that the camera can't see the shadows, but some may wish for an option to show ghosts of the pieces so you have a better idea of where they'll land. The game is still playable in this state, but further tweaks would've been nice, especially since it doesn't seem like the tweaks would alter the difficulty too much.

If you can handle the game mechanics as-is, you'll find that the developers have done a good job of mixing up your goals, so the game feels fresh throughout its 36 stages. Some levels try to make you go below a certain height instead of reaching it, all the while making sure you use the limited pool of pieces it gives you. Others ask you to make a tower while the field is made of quicksand, which seems like an impossible task if you're given the wrong pieces. All the while, beating levels and trying to finish under the par time will give you coins, which you can use to dress up Rockit in case you tire of her default outfit.

All of this seems rather benign until you get the random block that gives you different variables once it lands. One moment, you may be dealing with a giant baby overlooking your tower while wooden letter blocks fall from the sky. The next moment, you might be trying to add a giant painting to your stack or deal with falling fish tanks. Your play field might be resting on a giant spring, or you have to balance scales. Some of those changes even involve you turning into a tiny frog and grabbing all of the coins around your tower for a bit. Even if you encounter nothing strange by the time you wrap up a level, you'll still get some oddness in the form of a whale with a wrecking ball tongue that encourages you to topple the tower that you just completed.

Those odd additions keep Stacks and Stacks fresh, since you're likely to keep playing to see what sort of strangeness emerges next. The game does a good job of restarting quickly if you fail, so you can quickly overcome those failures. Little touches like that and seeing your completed tower on the world map are nice, and they keep players motivated enough to finish the campaign.

Aside from the main campaign, the title features multiplayer, and its implementation is fine. There's a split-screen versus mode where you play against one person in a race to see who can outlast the other in creating stable towers before reaching three strikes. There's also a co-op mode where players take turns putting down each piece, but considering the nature of the game, that's more of a task for players who want to play the game at the highest difficulty unless you're completely in sync with your partner.

Like the rest of the game, the presentation is all over the place — but in a good way. The graphics have a clean look and bright colors, and it all runs at a very stable frame rate without the need for powerful hardware. It helps that everything is made with an obviously low polygon count, so all visuals have an HD PSOne look, from the giant fish to the giant babies. Sound-wise, the effects are rather low in volume, so having a block fall into the danger zone is the only thing with some impact, and laying down an actual block is almost silent. Despite that, you aren't going to mind the silence since the soundtrack sounds like something that came out of a 1990s fever dream. It's a little manic but very high energy, so it works well with everything else in the game.

Your enjoyment for Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) is going to be largely dependent on how much you can accept its randomness. The lo-fi graphics and sound work well, since they combine with the various random events to create an Adult Swim kind of manic experience. Its core mechanics could use some tweaking to be more accessible, but it still works well enough to keep you coming back again and again. Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) is a puzzle game that's worth checking out if you want something in your collection that's out of the ordinary.

Score: 7.5/10

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