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Written by Rob Larkin on 4/25/2024 for SWI  
More On: Stacklands

I nearly gave up on Stacklands before I really even began, but I am glad I pushed through. The game opens with a sort of a tutorial. It's not a tutorial really, it's the first steps of full play-through, but you are directed on the left side of your screen through what early game progression looks like. Pick some berries, punch a rock, sell the stone for coins, cash the coins in for a new card pack, open the pack... Each step is an item in your Quest checklist that only reveals once you accomplish the one previous. Until you reach the limits of the screen space for the list and you need to scroll, then what do you do?

There is a scroll bar, but there is no touchscreen support for the LCD and no way to actually grab it to drag it down. There is a cursor, but you can't just float it over to the checklist menu it just moseys around the game screen and is not allowed to cross over into menus. There are buttons all over the controller, but none seem to map to that space. I honestly thought it was maybe a bug, and restarted my game. The neat thing is all my previous progress carried over into the new run, the less neat part was I still couldn't scroll the checklist down... I might be looking at a fresh map and back at the punching a rock for a coin and the new pack part, but my checklist items in my Quest list are already completed, waiting on me to progress to the still hidden ones below the limits of my view. It was only then, a half hour or so in to the game and starting to get very frustrated I saw the little dash in the corner, and found my salvation.

The button that maps to the checklist and compendium screens is the minus button (-). I'm not sure I've ever even played a game on switch that actually used that button. Which introduced my next fear: I'm not even sure my aftermarket Bluetooth controller even has a minus button... And it was legitimate fear, because to pull this game off the dock and into handheld mode where I knew the Joycon would offer a minus button was a non-starter. The screen text in Stacklands is so absurdly small and I was in those days still waiting on a new prescription pair of glasses to arrive by mail order that I could not actually read the 6.2 inch LCD in handheld mode. It's docked or done for me. 

Thankfully my BT controller did have a minus button hidden away I never realized was there before, and once we finally had it all sorted out we were back into the progression of what to do next, and before long I was forging my own path with branching endgame objectives to venture down. I'm glad I didn't give up, but goodness knows I was frustrated initially to the point of wanting to. 

The core mechanic of Stacklands is the survival loop - get villagers and have them mine resources to sell for coins and eventually turn that into new packs, new discoveries, and crafting formidable upgrades. Fail to harvest enough resources or food and see the game run coming to a screeching halt. Upgrade a woodcutters bench for unlimited wood or a mine for rocks and now your economy is really starting to pick up. Craft a merchant shop to double your sales of resources, but don't forget to harvest food as each round is played on a timer. At the end of that timer, or "moon" (month) all your villagers have to eat, so you better have harvested enough sustenance because starvation at this checkpoint means death. There is even a distinct endgame with a shadowy magic forest to explore via portals that can randomly appear and spawn an enemy encounter if you ignore it, or choose to enter it and confront the witch that rules the dark forest from the other side. So unlocking weapon and armor recipes and crafting your villagers into archers, barbarians, or wizards becomes it's own steep challenge on top of managing the economy to provide wealth to your prospering village. 

The game is a lot of fun and settles perfectly into that addictive "one more turn" cycle that the best games in these type of genres do. In Stacklands' case it's more like "one more Moon" as each in-game month is a perfect breakpoint to both manage your food for you villagers and make sure you are not over encumbered with resources that your village lacks the storage capacity to hold. If you are, you must sell off enough to get under the limit before the next moon can begin. You quickly learn the value of investing early in storehouses and treasure chests and mess halls and animal pens and other quality of life crafts. 

And that's sort of the key. You'll get your economy going and get a little too daring in the dark forest and suffer losses you can't recover from and a run will end. But it's so easy to apply lessons learned from that last run into the next. You learn what to craft early, how to get up and running quickly. What is rare and needs to be hoarded, what can be easily farmed and shouldn't take precious inventory space, and when to focus on increasing inventory so you know you're prepped for the next few moons and whatever endeavors you intend to tackle in those. The game largely settles into two phases: exploration and optimization. 

In exploration you're learning the core mechanics. You're throwing all your coins into new packs just to unlock recipes to even know how to smelt the iron you need for the half-dozen projects in your todo list that require it when you have none. Or how to build better armor and weapons or even introducing yourself to entirely new endgame options like that dark forest or exploring or seeing if you can unlock that next hidden item from the to-do list. 

Then once you've got the knowledge sorted and with those crafting recipes and difficulties unlocked on the next new run, you move into optimization. You've got a mine and wood cutting station laid out by your second moon to have endless base resources. You're popping out new village babies (you see kids when two villagers love each other very much and go into a house for a bit and...) and nurturing them into finely honed clogs of either your economic pipeline or a raiding party. You're hoarding every piece of flint until you have your iron mine. You've got a pipeline of fruit smoothies heading right to market and chests of gold you can't even spend fast enough. Each hinderance or bottleneck from an earlier failure becomes a finely honed strategy in the next until the next new hurdle is unearthed to repeat the explore/optimize loop anew. 

The end result is actually a much more fast paced game than shuffling around cutesy cards might lead you to imagine. But unfortunately, a lot of the actual workings of the game go unexplained, which can loop back into the explore part even when you thought you had moved past it. A brickyard's item description will only indicate that it "makes bricks faster" but not note it also does so more efficiently, turning just 2 stones to a brick as opposed the the three that it takes to do by hand. For something like a brickyard that's fine, but other times it becomes an impediment to effectively plan a battle party when none of the weapon or armor descriptions actually list the combat or defense stats until you've dedicated the precious resources and built the item, which can be a little frustrating. I can't exactly remember whether a sword or spear might be better from one run to the next and the game won't tell me until I've spent most of a moon gathering and building the item itself. 

Overall though, I think the game is rather excellent. I really enjoy playing it and at just $15 on the Nintendo Store it's a steal. The real issue I have is how un-optimized it is for the Switch. This is the classic case of porting a PC game over to the Switch without taking any effort to embrace the difference in the hardware. The map is so busy but screen and text so small I find it frankly unplayable in handheld mode. It's great when docked and projected onto a screen or monitor, but if you're locked in to a docked mode it begs the question: why play on Switch at all? I'm going to give it an 8.0 and call it good, with the significant reservation that if this were a PC review or if it were optimized I think it would deserve something better. Heck, a little tweaking of the font and adding touchscreen support and there's no reason this game couldn't climb to a 9.0 or even higher...

Stacklands is a really enjoyable game. It combines a clever survival loop of exploration and optimization, it is easy to grasp the core concepts and get your runs moving, and it definitely grabs your attention with the "just one more turn" hallmark of the best of these type of round, time, or turn based games. The only real drawback here is the Switch, or rather how uninterested this game is of making use of what makes the Switch great. It's fine when docked on to your tv or monitor, just as if it were still running on the PC. I'm thankful the developers have brought it over so Switch players can get to play it, I am just recognizing not optimizing it for a 6.2 inch touchscreen is a missed opportunity. 

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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