Tag Archives: adventure

Stacking Review

3 Mar

Did I just ‘sip tea’ as an attack? I think I did. Wonderful, what next? Ah, obviously I’ll tell these people to get out of my way. Bulletstorm appears to be gaining acclaim for inventive gameplay, but it’s archaic when compared with Tim Schafer’s latest release, Stacking. After the excellent Psychonauts and the underrated Brutal Legend, Double Fine (Schafer’s development company) turned to download-only releases and it’s been a resounding success so far. As the mainstream stagnates and physical releases become ever more bland, Double Fine have carved out a niche for intelligent and unique titles. Costume Quest was the first and Stacking the glorious follow-up.

A combination of adventure and puzzle game, Stacking has a gameplay mechanic that other developers have failed utterly to implement. Remember the altogether disappointing ‘Messiah’ from 2000? You could be forgiven for being unable to, but if you do, you’ll remember it offered the ability to possess other characters and use their abilities. The problems this presented were that firstly, most human characters are essentially the same and second, it takes an imaginative mind to make this in any way useful in terms of gameplay. Schafer is one such creative mind and thankfully Stacking fails to suffer from use of something so complex. Rather, the game makes the whole concept seem remarkably simple, and therein lies the brilliance of Double Fine’s latest creation.

The locations all look fantastic

Using Russian Stacking Dolls as characters allows the player to inhabit the body of larger dolls and use their ability, so you can go from a small child to a tea-sipping lady, to an elderly gent struggling with his hearing. If that sounds utterly ridiculous, that’s because it is. Stacking is a game with its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek and each and every doll has a charm all its own. Gameplay is simple, with left stick moving, right stick controlling the camera and the four main buttons controlling entering and exiting dolls, talking and using a unique ability, each doll has one. These abilities are used to solve the puzzles presented, in a similar manner to the classic adventure games which made Schafer’s name. Each doll is akin to an item, some can open doors, others can distract guards and so on. It’s all extremely easy to play, though the puzzles are satisfyingly tough.

Each obstacle presented by the game can be overcome in several ways, using different dolls and their abilities, which avoids the major pitfall of the adventure game – a lack of creative freedom. Stacking asks players to be intelligent, rather than just lucky, and there are no absurd item combinations or illogical answers. Each problem has a common sense solution or two and gameplay is a simple matter of finding the right doll for the job, then having the imagination to use it. An early example is distracting a guard with a ‘sexy’ doll who can seduce him from his post. Later puzzles involve quite silly abilities and often elicit a laugh, such is their absurdity. Stacking amuses and delights in equal measure, and a large amount of effort has clearly gone into creating an experience that feels a world away from the average game.

Each doll is unique and has bags of personality

Further setting Stacking apart is the setting. Opening with a silent movie style introduction, with a family of dolls gyrating, followed by cards showing what they have said. An evil Baron has kidnapped children, and the youngest child must rescue them. Nothing too complex, but the presentation is exquisite. Cut-scenes move between location theatre style, sets fall away and are replaced, rather than characters moving. The locales reflect the Russian doll styling and look like ‘The Last Express’ re-imagined by Pixar. This aesthetic style is a visual treat, with the dolls looking like painted wood, reflective and smooth, and backgrounds having a period style reminiscent of a drama set in 19th century Europe. Even the occasional tutorial is expertly presented, with a film-reel appearing on the edge of the screen as the game quickly introduces its controls and puzzles. The music also, is perfectly fitting, and creates an atmosphere of joviality without sacrificing the slow melancholic sound of the style it draws upon.

This sumptuous design is a rare treat in gaming. While many games have incredible graphics, few have this level of art design and ultimately that is far more impressive. Even the simplest of elements, the way the dolls move, is brilliantly realised. They all move by gently rocking from left to right, but some are more or less pronounced depending on personality. The aforementioned ‘sexy’ doll rocks the top part of her body as if rocking her hips, while other dolls move in a manner which reveals the smaller doll beneath. Attention to detail like this makes Stacking constantly interesting and appealing, as each new doll is more than just a new ability in a pretty shell, but a character all its own. You will likely spend a few moments just walking around looking at the dolls in each new location, wondering which to control first.

I'm a bit lost for words on this one.

Stacking is a genuinely new experience, feeling like little else, and looking more like a CGI cartoon than a game. It’s full of the kind of humour and personality Schafer’s games have become known for while addressing the problems adventure games often fall victim to. This is the evolution of the point and click into something far more intuitive. It’s clever in so many little ways that it shames the average mainstream release. In times past this would have been one of the biggest releases of the year, rather than an afterthought to the likes of ‘Worst Game Title Ever Award Winner’ Killzone 3 or Bulletstorm. It’s a pity many will miss out on this due to its non-physical release and the relative obscurity that brings, as not only is it the best game of the year so far, but will be a definite contender for game of the year when December comes. On the other hand, sometimes finding and appreciating a game like Stacking makes it that much more special.

Top 100 Games – 98 – The Last Express

15 Feb

The Last Express
Year: 1997
Genre: Adventure

The Last Express is almost as well known for its lack of success as its quality, and that is a pity. Developed by Jordan Mechner, the man behind Prince of Persia, The Last Express is an absolutely unique and incredibly clever adventure game. Taking the pre-rendered backgrounds popular in the mid to late nineties and adding an animation style called ‘rotoscope’ which creates an impressive visual style. It’s reminiscent of the art popular during the era of the game’s setting, a visual style that has never really been used elsewhere. Only Bioshock comes to mind, but it’s still a far cry from the level of accuracy shown here. Taking place over three days prior to World War 1, on the famed Orient Express, the game is a little Agatha Christie and a little Hitchcock, possibly evem some F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our hero, Robert Cath, is more Indiana Jones than Hercule Poirot or Jay Gatsby, but it’s the setting and large cast that make it stand out.

The art design is incredibly unique

The train itself is a monument to excess and adorned in a gorgeous art-deco style. It’s all accurate, down to the weather outside, the stories in the newspaper and some of the political groups and events mentioned by characters. This exhaustive research combined with the period visuals make an immersive experience that has rarely been matched. The real-world period setting may have put off many gamers, but this is a remarkable achievement. The characters are the most important element of the game however. There are no stereotypes here, each minor character is brilliantly acted and memorable. The characters also speak in their native tongue and subtitles only appear if Cath understands their language. From a Russian revolutionary to the naughty aristocrat’s son, they are all evocative of the era. Even more stunning are the conversations which occur as the game plays out in real time. There is the palpable sense of the end of an era, the shift in power from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. Travellers on the Express speak of revolution in far-off nations and your character is embroiled in a plot to arm the Serbian resistance. Communists reading Nietzsche cross paths with society ladies looking for adventure. It’s a truly incredible atmosphere.

The gameplay is a little different to the standard adventure game. There are multiple endings, and minor alterations in the players actions can lead to death, premature ending or, if you’re lucky, reaching Constantinople. The ability to ‘rewind’ time allows these outcomes to be changed, and actions understood. It’s a huge encouragement to play again, and the story is mysterious and exciting, yet slow-paced. The game plays out like a novel, the action is not always on-screen and there is more subtle conversation pushing events forward than outright confrontation. Diplomacy and intelligence win the day, though the threat of violence looms heavy in the air. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on is compelling, with even Cath himself being of questionable moral standing. The Last Express is an absolute one-of-a-kind in the gaming world – slow, thoughtful and highly intelligent. If most games want to be movies, this one sets itself apart by wanting to be a book.