Stacking is one of the toughest games I've ever had to review, because, depending on the perspective I decided to take, it could be considered Double Fine's' best or worst effort yet. As a long-time follower of Tim Schafer and co., I came into the title knowing what to expect: an extremely stylized and humorous game with a unique gameplay premise that might be a little rough around the edges. And that's exactly what I got.
The method of solving puzzles - "possessing" larger dolls by getting behind and jumping inside them, then using their special powers - is so intuitive and natural it's a wonder that no game has tried it before. Each of the game's four main levels have a variety of puzzles with multiple solutions, with most being cleverly designed enough that the solution is apparent through dialogue, but difficult enough that you might need to dip into the game's hint generator. There is the occasional obtuse puzzle with poorly explained parameters or additional solutions that aren't brought to your attention, but given the fact that Double Fine is treading new ground Stacking is pretty well composed.
The stylistic mixture of Russian matryoshka dolls with U.S. depression-era characters, music, locations, and cinematics is not something you'd expect, but the game is all the better for it. And the humor is the right mixture of Double Fine's subversive tone with a smattering of more adult themes. Fans of humour in general and Double Fine Studios in particular won't be disappointed with Stacking, as the amount of content catered to them is hardly in short supply. However, it's possible to play Stacking the completely wrong way, which is something I can't ignore.
I began playing the game the way that I'd tackled previous Double Fine games - by exploring every detail of the environment and fully completing every puzzle, finding every special stacking doll, and engaging in each of the game's secondary "Hi-Jinks" objectives. I was able to complete the final two stages in under an hour by rushing from puzzle to puzzle without taking the time to appreciate the unique world.
The thing is, I could have made even shorter work of the endgame by mercilessly exploiting the hint system. To the best of my knowledge there's no in-game punishment for doing it, so if the developers had made the hint system a bit less forgiving and the "Hi-Jinks" a bit more complex - I was able to complete a good 75 percent of them in a matter of seconds by using a doll's special move on the 5 or 10 nearest characters - Stacking would have been able to make players more appreciative of its unique universe.
If I were to rank Double Fine Studios' oeuvre, Stacking would have a strong shot at nestling at the top of the list. Even though I beat the game this past weekend, I'm tempted to jump back in and explore Stacking more fully, without a looming deadline to keep pulling me through. However, the game has a few flaws that are difficult to overlook and could make it a less than ideal introduction for newcomers. If you take to Stacking the wrong way, it can topple on you.
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