Stacking Cover
Platforms Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, Windows
Genre Russian dollathon
MtAMinutes to Action 4
Keep Playing? Yes

Well, this has been a long time coming.

Stacking came out for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network in early 2011, and it immediately captured my interest. With characters based on the Russian stacking matryoshka dolls and the narrative devices of silent films of yesteryears, it was definitely a unique offering, though looking over Double Fine Productions’s history it’s clear that that’s their thing. Quirky mish-mashes: RTS and musical influences for Brütal Legend, Halloween outfits and RPG elements for Costume Quest, and summer camp and psychic abilities for Psychonauts. However, I just never got around to getting it due to my severe distaste for buying Microsoft Points, since the conversion rate of USD dollars to Space Bucks never seems to be in the buyer’s favor.

Flash-forward to July 2012, and the Steam Summer Sale has now concluded. I was able to snag this bite-sized adventure for a cool couple of bucks, as well as a slew of other titles. But for now, let’s play with dolls for an hour and see how things turn out.

Minute by Minute

00 – I select “New adventure” and we’re off to a loading screen, which houses a newspaper declaring that child labor is a dirty affair. I feel inclined to agree.

01 – Other than that, story in Stacking is told through the silent film format. This means a lot of gesturing, pantomiming, catchy piano riffs, and title cards for setup and dialogue. Via this, we are introduced to the Blackmore Stack, a large family of working dolls, which means plenty of mouths to feed and debts to pay. Thankfully, little Charles Blackmore’s father has good news—he’s to be the Master Chimney Sweep over at the Baron’s new enterprise. However, his father disappears, and now the Blackmore kids—minus Charles—are forced to work for the Baron. It’s up to Charles to save his family and stop all this cruel child labor.

04 – Now in control of Charles. He’s so teeny tiny!

05 – I barely get down the hallway, and we’re into another cutscene. This one’s called “Coalition of the Unwilling.” There are some serious problems beneath the tracks. The miners are striking!

06 – Yup, it’s true. Quest updated! I’m tasked with getting all three members of the Train Guild to leave the lounge and then take them down to the main platform to deal with the striking Coal Union dudes. Sounds pretty straightforward though I’m sure it won’t be. Charles has already confirmed that adults just won’t listen to him so talking won’t be the way to go.

07 – Upon entering the Main Platform area, the camera takes over and provides a sweeping shot of it as a whole. The place is bustling with dolls. Tutorial text cuts in, teaching me how to stack within dolls one size bigger than Charles. Once he’s inside that doll, he can stack into a doll one size larger…and so on and so on.

09 – Exploring the Main Platform area, talking to lots of dolls. I was also able to stack inside a unique doll—Key Master Dawson! I can now use his “unlock” ability to open the sealed gate doors, getting me one step closer to the Train Guild members.

10 – So many freakin’ dolls. Off to the side, running by, calling me over, doing their own thing, living their doll-size lives. It’s a wee overwhelming at first. I want to stack inside each and every one of them, if only to try out their abilities. Some powers are more silly than others, but all charming nonetheless.

Stacking Train Charlie Blackmore

12 – More tutorial text and learning about “Challenges,” which are basically level puzzles solvable with multiple answers. I need to empty out the lounge to get the Train Guild members out as well. The main problem is that the front door is guarded.

15 – Hmm…thought I was on to something there, but it didn’t seem to work. I stacked into a female doll with the power to “seduce”—basically, she shakes her hips back and forth, which is accompanied by a hilarious cymbal crash—and tried to lead the guard away from the door. I took the guard halfway across the level, ran back to the door, but couldn’t open it. Phooey.

16 – So, instead, I found a doll with the power of “flatulence” and, as gentlemanly as possible, tooted something foul and ferocious into a vent, which fed the lounge its air conditioning. That cleared the room faster than you can say, “Who did that?! Paul?!”

17 – All right, you can try other solutions right away or continue with the main objective. I noodled out a second solution to the lounge problem. Used the “maintain” repairman doll to open the no longer smelly vent, slipped in through the tiny space with just Charles, and went right up to the host of the party. He was so annoyed that an uninvited guest got in that he disbanded the whole affair, thus emptying the lounge again. I wonder what the third solution is…

20 –I guess I’ll take the Train Guild members down to where the Coal Union is creating a stir. I stacked them all up, and the largest one has a power called “full steam ahead,” which sends him flying forward like a speeding train, vision blurring and covering a large distance in a short span of time. It is, at once, hilarious and amazing.

21 – The Train Guild members make short work of the Coal Union workers. They promise to meet all demands of the Coal Union workers so long as they go back to shoveling coal themselves and free the children they are using in their absence. The strike is over, and Little Albert Blackmore is saved!

Stacking Train Guild Union Leader

24 – Unfortunately, Charlie’s sister Agatha was taken aboard the Baron’s Gilded Steam Ship. However, I also have the option to stay in the train station and explore more. Yes please. I still haven’t found all the unique dolls yet. I need them like you need air.

25 – Don’t get very far before a seagull stops Charles in his tracks to inform him that his friend Levi would like to speak to him…at the secret hideout. Dun dun dunnn. Okay, so it’s basically a room which visually shows you your progress, such as the dolls you have collected and the number of solutions resolved for each puzzle with a piece of painting. Neat-o, but not very interactive. I get all this information when I press START and flip through the menu options.

28 – Just looking around for more dolls I haven’t stacked into yet. Searching every nook and cranny, as well as trying every single doll I come across, because some of them look similar, but could potentially be special. I’m a little confused though because when I walk by the lounge area, it shows me at 3/3 solutions solved, which is not right at all. I was only able to do it twice, I thought.

30 – Found all members of the Allendorf family, and for it, I am rewarded with a cutesy cutscene.

34 – Stubborn is as stubborn does…I’m trying to seduce the guard away again from the lounge’s front door. This has to be the third solution.

36 – Hmm. Realized what I was doing wrong. The door to the lounge is locked, so leading the guard away is only half of the solution. I also need Key Master Dawson stacked with my group to finish the job. Yay, I did it!

Stacking Russian Doll Toss

39 – I’m missing four dolls still. Where, oh where could they be?

42 – Found the Coal Room, which I somehow totally missed before. Not my fault, really. The level design is such that doorways and corners are hard to see and easily looked over. Especially when you are the size of Charles, and everything around you looms. Anyways, inside the Coal Room…a doll: the drummer Percy! Three to go.

45 – To all First Hour readers, I apologize. Really, I do. Reading about someone’s hardcore OCD over collecting stacking dolls can’t be fun. Not when there is much more engaging gameplay to experience. Let’s just move on to the next area in hopes of saving the Blackmore sister: the Gilded Steam Ship.

47 – This Gilded Steam Ship is more like a Super Funtime Carnival Cruise Ship Deluxe. Except for all the child labor, but that’s in the background where nobody is looking. On its surface, there’s a lot of fun happening here: safari games, caviar, art museum, bike rides, and more. To save Agatha, Charles has to start a mutiny by upsetting certain dolls. The first doll I stack into has the ability to slap other dolls. That’s a good start.

48 – To upset our first shipgoer, Charles must cause some chaos at the onboard safari to get it shut down. If we do that, the safari owner will be very angry with the captain.

50 – No chaos made yet, but I was able to stack inside a pirate doll and yell “YARRRR!” at anyone that got in my way. This also unlocks a new doll size that Charles can stack into. Guess the dolls are gonna keep getting bigger and bigger…

Stacking Steam Ship Captain

52 – Okay, used the cannon at the safari show improperly, forcing the place to close. That’s one for mutiny.

53 – Found another spot to start some mutiny. Seems like there’s a fancy museum exhibit onboard, and it would be just terrible if anything happened to the priceless artifacts.

56 – While roaming the ship, I stumbled upon a third place to stir up some emotions. There’s a caviar belt that is very popular. So popular that it might upset a few if the belt ceased to work or produced less-than-stellar caviar.

57 – Stacked into a doll with the power to “summon chef,” who I then stacked into. Now in control of the chef, I went back into the kitchen and proceeded to spill all the remaining caviar on the floor. Muhahaha. That’s what you get for eating…caviar. Actually, that might help make the caviar taste better. Zing! Anyways, that’s two shipgoers up in arms with the captain now.

59 – Found another solution to the caviar puzzle. Not telling you what it is!

60 – For my last minute with Stacking, I stacked into a doll with the power to “toot”—as in play butt music—and played a sassy song on some innocent cruisers, completing a hi-jinks mini-challenge. There sure is a lot of puzzle solutions based around farting in this game.

Stacking Russian Doll Bouncers

First Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 4

What I loved: Everything? Well, just about everything. Like everything minus one or two things (see below). The design for all the dolls are spectacular, and Stacking, as a whole, has this infectious aesthetic, from its look to its sounds to its gameplay. At first it might seem like nothing goes together, but it all mixes extraordinarily well. It’s nearly impossible to go a minute without smiling at some small detail or adorable power or the fact that the foliage in the train station is really just olives on toothpicks or that when a doll’s power is to “toss cookies”…he does just that, chocolate chips and all. It is a rare adventure, based around tragedy, but brimming with laughter.

What I hated: Not too much. Controlling the dolls, mostly Charles alone, felt iffy. I walked into walls a lot instead of around corners. I also wish there was a way to lock on to dolls, as it was hard to move around them and keep them highlighted as “stackable” since you can only stack into a doll if they aren’t facing Charles. Other than that, not much else to hate on here.

Would I keep playing? An emphatic yes. This is my kind of game. Charming, funny, not stressful at all, and a relaxed pace. Plus, with the hi-jinks, unique dolls, and multiple solutions to puzzles, there’s plenty to do. The story isn’t going anywhere amazing just yet, but the hooks are in enough that I’d like to see the whole Blackmore family safe and at home before the end credits roll.