It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Mid-morning – something like that. Poor little Charlie Blackmore and his family were sitting at home shivering in their Dickensian surroundings of bare, splintering floorboards, thin soup and Hounds of the Baskervilles, while their greased-up windows were busy framing bleak-looking chimneys. Outside, interminable Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals stalked the streets and factories. Then, all of a sudden, old man Blackmore burst into the kitchen-lounge-bedroom-refectory, and announced that he had secured gainful employment and the family was saved. There was much rejoicing.
Mere weeks later, however, daddy was nowhere to be seen, and the family was in disarray – possessions hawked to pay for soot, the same underpants worn on successive days, etc. – when even more of a sudden, a masked hoodlum arrived and pressed the Blackmore children into the service of renowned industrialist and evildoer The Baron, in order to pay off their father's debts. There was less rejoicing. Charlie, having been deemed too piddly for manual labour, was left behind to rue. But rue he would not. Though he may have been the smallest of the Blackmore children, he set out to rescue his siblings from a life of servitude and choreography the only way he knew how: stacking.
Tim Schafer's latest game – to be fair, he doesn't make them all, but we all wub him so much that we refuse not to invoke him when we mention anything with Double Fine written on the front – is a puzzle-driven adventure starring, of all things, Russian stacking dolls. Charlie is a tiny, cap-wearing little scamp, and by moving up behind other dolls he can hop inside them and take on their appearance and unique abilities. And they can hop inside other, larger dolls, and so on and so forth.
Charlie faces obstacles at every stage of his journey, but drawing upon the abilities of the local dolls he is able to turn the tide in his favour, and he can do so in several different ways for each scenario. One of the first things he has to do, faced with industrial action at the Royal Train Station, is locate and assemble guild bosses, who are attending an exclusive party in a swanky club and are needed in order to break the picket lines.
Having located the puzzle – the right bumper highlights the route to the next challenge – one solution is to distract the doorman using a nearby strumpet ("the Widow Chastity") whose special ability is "Seduce". As she leads him away, wiggling her wooden hips (similar to Traveller's Tales and its LEGO characters, Double Fine's animators extract a lot of physical comedy from their dolls' restrictive frames), Charlie can unstack himself, sneak behind the doorman and seize control of him, gaining access to the club. Alternatively, he can take over a nearby engineer and use his wrench to crack open a vent.
Those are two of several solutions, and the spectrum of possibilities broadens further as Charlie uses the Royal Train to visit new locations. On board a cruise ship, for example, he must disrupt a deck-top safari, steal from an Egyptian exhibition, halt the caviar service and vandalise the map room, and each has various solutions ranging from the simple – using a deck cannon to pop a ball down a steam pipe – to the more elaborate and gratifying, like hijacking a family of dolls riding a four-tier Penny Farthing and employing it to shatter a cardboard zebra. Once a challenge is complete, it's reset so that you can try for other solutions.
In best LucasArts tradition, everything is a joke, and as well as a punchline you're often treated to a reward. A family of illusionists includes a dog who wipes his lower half across the carpet, and a father in a top hat who waves his wand to paint other dolls purple – and if you collect complete doll sets, like the Illusionist Family, you're rewarded with an amusing cut-scene.
Elsewhere, an old gent slaps people with his white gloves and there's a bonus for tagging 10 distinct dolls. Startled dolls totter away from you leaving little mounds of sawdust in their wake, and some of the bumbling roars of old ladies and the "YAR"s of pirates are entertaining enough that you happily spend a minute or so simply hitting the action button to amuse yourself (or to torment other people in the room, obviously).
At first glance the world is merely stylised, but the miniature detailing is almost as much fun to explore as the puzzles are to solve: posters are stuck to the walls with drawing pins, the smokestacks are Havana cigars and the cruise ship decking is lollypop sticks. Everything is aged and autumnal, and the silent-era cut-scenes and dioramas are supported by merry piano, the screen tinged by flickering film reel.
Movement controls are a little clunky and the frame-rate occasionally complains about all the depth of field and soft focus, but these already feel like trifling concerns that would be quickly and willingly overlooked should they endure until next month's release. Like last Halloween's Costume Quest, Stacking advances the argument that some of the best games of the moment are being brought to life completely outside the high-street sales model, and it was no surprise to hear THQ's Danny Bilson recently describing the game as every bit as valuable to the publisher as any of its marquee releases. The best of times, then, and almost certainly worth adding to your download queue.