This may seem a little left of centre to begin with, but Playstation Plus has not proven to be the game-changer I thought it would be. I thought the paid-for service which entitled subscribers to free games and exclusive offers every month would mount a challenge to Xbox Live Gold, in terms of both value for money and popularity. I was wrong (for now at least), as I very rarely found myself engaging with any of the free content, while discounts were applied to some of the more lacklustre offerings on the Playstation Network. This tarnished view has been challenged somewhat in the last few months. Firstly, most full retail games that have been released on the PSN in the last few months have been available for download via the "Full Game Trial," feature. Mass Effect 2, Assassin's Creed II, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 have all been available for a timed trial, and while most would have played these games, the option to try before you buy is appreciated. It's just a shame that Australians are charged an arm and a leg for these releases in digital form. Further to that, a greater range of titles (for both PS3 and PSP) have been available at reduced prices to Plus users. The improvements are fine, but still do not amount to a worthy investment.
That is until Thursday last week, when Double Fine Productions' latest release, Stacking was made available to Playstation Plus subscribers at no cost.
Stacking features the tale of the Blackmore family, a loveable band of chimney sweeps who've been separated by the nefarious Baron upon incurring a large debt. The Blackmore children are forced to work in each of the Baron's gloomy domains with the youngest child (not to mention the smallest), Charlie and Mom left at home. Despite his diminutive size, Charlie resolves to reunite his family and bring an end to child labour along the way. It may sound like a depressing situation, but every scene, environment and character is rendered with a silent film-era charm that is undeniable.
If you've never read about Stacking previously, it's an adventure puzzle game where the action revolves around stacking Russian dolls; each with their own unique abilities that can be combined to solve various humorous, sometimes dangerous dilemmas. Few of the scenarios provide any real challenge, particularly as you become more familiar with each of the various dolls' abilities. There are even facilities to lead you to the next challenge, as well as offer hints if you become stumped. Stacking is meticulously directed, especially for a puzzle game. So much so, that I breezed through it in about three hours. You can extend your playtime by discovering the various solutions (usually three) for each puzzle, engaging in doll-specific hijinx and by collecting each of the unique character dolls in each of the four environments. Truth be told though, I can't see myself combing through the game for any of this extra content as the first playthrough was more than enough for me. Some of the alternative solutions I found were reasonably inventive, but the action is no less simplistic.
The main reason I would think to recommend Stacking is the quality of the presentation, which is an aural and visual delight. Every scene is composed of a mixture of hand-crafted details and art-deco, almost steampunk design. Players will traverse across steam-powered sea vessels, trains and an airship over the course of the adventure, and each environment is impressive from both an artistic and technical perspective. The frame-rate rarely dips, and while you will find the occasional clipping error and camera fault: Stacking should be one of the more visually memorable downloadable games of the year. My favourite aspect of the presentation though, is the score, which once again draws from the silent film era. The whimsical, piano-centric music captures the drama emotion of each sequence expertly.
7.0/10 - I can't help but think the reason I liked Stacking so much stemmed from the non-existent purchase price. After eschewing this shallow observation however, I found that the game's superior art and sound design made for a thoroughly memorable experience that is well worth downloading. The action may be overly simplistic, but when a game is as enchanting, and downright charming as Stacking is, why should you (or I) care? It's incredibly difficult to not enjoy vomiting on a map to then find that you actually solved a taxing puzzle. If you're a Playstation Plus subscriber, there is absolutely no reson for you to not play this. For those who aren't, or for those who only own an Xbox 360, know that Stacking is a short, wonderful ride that you may not find to be worth 1200 Microsoft Points.