All dolled up with charm

Playing with dolls is fun again with clever 'Stacking'

Jeff Marchiafava / Game Informer Magazine /

With releases like “Brutal Legend” and “Costume Quest,” Double Fine has cemented its reputation as a go-to developer for unique gaming experiences, even if the company’s offerings don’t always find an audience. “Stacking” may be Double Fine’s most niche concept to date, but it’s hard to imagine a player who wouldn’t enjoy the game’s clever puzzles and charming story.

You play as Charlie Blackmore, the innermost doll and youngest child of the Blackmore family, a Russian matryoshka set. After his siblings are kidnapped and forced into child labor by the evil Baron, it’s up to Charlie to track them down and free them. Luckily, Charlie has the ability to hop inside larger dolls, each of which has a special ability. Some of these abilities are purely for entertainment, but many are vital to progressing through each level.

Despite this novel mechanic, the core gameplay of “Stacking” is the same as any good adventure game: creatively solving unique and humorous puzzles. Each level contains several challenges Charlie must overcome, which in turn have several unique solutions. Upon completion, a puzzle will instantly reset, allowing you to try it again without having to reload a save. This ingenious mechanic solves one of the most common problems with the genre: searching for an off-the-wall solution that only makes sense to the developer. Instead, virtually everyone will be able to come up with at least one solution (such as using a mechanic to open a traversable ventilation duct) and continue with the story, but dedicated gamers can wrack their brains for more obscure solutions (such as farting into said vent to clear out the adjoining room). An optional time-based hint system reduces the puzzle-based frustration to nearly nonexistent levels.

The Baron’s evil traps aren’t the only problems you have to overcome. Your character is about as responsive as you would expect a wooden doll to be, and his sluggish pace is annoying, especially on levels that require a lot of backtracking. Camera issues emerge in close quarters, and can make targeting dolls next to walls a pain.

The sense of progression also falters; while you unlock the ability to stack with larger dolls as you continue, it doesn’t add much to the gameplay. The biggest changeup is the ability to combine characters’ powers. This leads to some great puzzles, but this mechanic shows up too late in the game and isn’t used enough. A few side objectives such as finding complete doll sets or performing mischievous acts add length to the gameplay, but there’s not much payoff for completing them beyond unlocking models at your secret base. Thanks to a little eleventh hour variety, “Stacking” ends on a high note, but the rest of the game could have used more gameplay twists like those introduced in the final scenes.

Aside from creative puzzles, a good adventure game needs an engaging story, which in “Stacking’s” case is simple, yet charming. Despite only the most primitive of animations (most dolls can only move at their midsection) the characters are memorable, and the Blackmore family is positively endearing. Humor plays an equally important role, and “Stacking” delivers in this regard as well. Most of the laughs are pretty adolescent, with no shortage of dolls that feature farting as their special ability (with a surprising variety of sounds). If you’re too stuffy for this breed of humor, you can expect more sophisticated laughs as well. The Great Depression and child labor are two topics that might not instantly spring to mind when it comes to comedy, but Double Fine uses them to great effect.

“Stacking” is a bit rough around the edges, but the puzzles are clever, the humor hits the mark more than it misses, and the characters and story are delightful, leaving adventure fans with little more to ask for.

‘Stacking’

8.5 (out of 10)

PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

THQ, Double Fine

ESRB rating: E10+

New game releases

The following titles were scheduled for release the week of Feb. 13:

• “Hard Corps: Uprising” (X360)

• “Brunswick Pro Bowling” (X360)

• “Ys I & II Chronicles” (PSP)

• “Dance Paradise” (X360)

• “Gears of War Triple Pack” (X360)

• “Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds” (PS3, X360)

• “Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together” (PSP)

• “Hyperdimension Neptunia” (PS3)

• “Oscar in Toyland 2” (DS)

• “Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation” (DS)

— Gamespot.com

Top 10

PlayStation 3 games

The editors of Game Informer Magazine rank the top 10 PlayStation 3 games for February:

1. “LittleBigPlanet 2” (Sony)

2. “Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds” (Capcom)

3. “Dead Space 2” (Electronic Arts)

4. “Gran Turismo 5” (Sony)

5. “Call of Duty: Black Ops” (Activision)

6. “Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit” (Electronic Arts)

7. “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” (Namco Bandai)

8. “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” (Ubisoft)

9. “Stacking” (THQ)

10. “Test Drive Unlimited 2” (Atari)

— McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Weekly download

‘We Bowl’

For: iPhone/iPod Touch

From: Freeverse

Price: It’s complicated

Freeverse has demonstrated a mastery of dangling carrots with its outstanding “Skee-Ball” and improbably addictive “Coin Push Frenzy” iOS games. But it errs miserably with “We Bowl,” which validates every concern ever expressed regarding the “freemium” game model. On the surface, “Bowl” is a pleasant bowling game. Like “Skee-Ball,” it rewards good performance with tickets that, once accumulated, can unlock pins, props and clothes for your customized bowling alley and bowler. Problem is, “Bowl” is only playable when you have golden balls, which is its form of in-game currency. You start with 20, each throw costs one, and when you run out — even mid-game — you either have to wait 30 seconds to bowl again or pay real money to purchase a “bag” instantly. “Bowl” clearly wants to you exercise option B if the blanketing of “Buy this!” reminders is any indication, and the net result of waiting and being pelted with ads for balls is so much worse than if “Bowl” had just asked for a few bucks up front and left you alone to play the game. The bowling isn’t good enough for this hassle to be worthwhile, and the only thing “Bowl” nails is how to alienate customers before they can even drop a dime.

— By Billy O’Keefe, McClatchy-Tribune News Service