Developer: Double Fine
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
The Cave sees a return to Ron Gilbert’s stable of adventure gaming after some sidestepping into the realm of the action-RPG genre with the great DeathSpank series. My initial reaction when I was asked to review The Cave was, how shall I say, restrained. An apt description, as it would be the same response I’d give if someone asked me to go caving. The Cave is somewhat of a gaming nemesis for me, it being a hybrid platformer/puzzle/adventure, a combination that doesn’t usually inspire many outbursts of excitement from the gaming couch in my household. So, with my jaw set in grim determination, I donned my hardhat, checked my clamps, turned on my torch and descended into the depths of Ron Gilbert’s mind.
The first thing you encounter when you start the game is the deep and slightly amused voice of the cave itself, which appropriately sets the scene for this odd but amusing adventure. You find yourself outside of the entrance with an eclectic group of seven characters: The Knight, The Monk, The Time Traveler, The Hillbilly, The Scientist, The Twins and The Adventurer. Your first task is to choose three of these to help you navigate the cold, dank depths of the cave. Each character has their own story and special ability, which can help you solve the various puzzles the game merrily throws at you. For example, The Knight can surround himself with a lair of invincibility that can negate all damage (but is stationary as he does so), while the The Twins can create a ghostly double of themselves, which continues to do the action they were doing when they spawned it. The selection of the characters also determines the puzzles that your small caving group encounters.
Each of the seven characters also has their own story that unfolds as you progress. This being the mind of the aforementioned Mr. Gilbert, we quickly find out that there are no heroes among your seven; each has some dark backstory and is psychologically flawed in a major way. I thought this was a refreshing and interesting touch (but then, I am a psychologist). The backstory aims to be more of an introspective journey of self-discovery designed to challenge your ideas of right and wrong, and of human morality. Having played around with different combinations of the characters, it becomes apparent that some are more useful than others, with the Knight, Monk and Twins probably falling into the most useful category. The Cave obviously wants you to uncover its dark secrets, as none of your quirky adventurers are allowed to die. No matter how many times you drop them into lava pits, barbecue them in dragon fire, or blow them up with dynamite, they’re quickly teleported back to safety.
The Cave is an adventure game populated with puzzle-solving scenarios and blended with a 2D platforming style. You control a single character at a time, using the D-pad to switch between your three selected characters. I found this to be one of the tedious aspects of the game. When you need three people to complete an action, but two of them are on the other side of the level, it becomes a little tiresome switching between them, running to where you need them, and then repeating the process until they’re all together. The game does group up your characters in certain locations, such as when you’re transitioning from one cave section to another, but it’s too infrequent overall. The characters look good and move well, and each has their own movement idiosyncrasies. The game setting is quite magical, put together in Double Fine’s familiar cartoonish style. The artwork is beautiful and engaging, especially regarding the surprise locations that you accidentally discover (medieval castle, museum, shark-infested sea).
The game includes general puzzles to solve and character-specific levels that need to be traversed. The puzzles are pitched at the right level in terms of not being either too easy or desperately hard. Some puzzles take a little while for the light bulb of solution to switch on. I found that the character-led levels were a bit hit and miss (which just might reflect my personal bias). I liked the Knight and Monk-themed levels, but absolutely hated the confusing Hillbilly Carnival scenario. The fact that the explorers have no inventory slots, restricting them to carry one item at a time, provides yet another twist as you attempt to figure out how to get the right characters to the right places with the right tool for the job. There’s an over-arching sense of repetition that pervades your gameplay. This is not only in terms of the puzzles, but also when you play it again with different combinations of characters. Nothing changes from playthrough to playthrough. The Cave cracks the same jokes, and the same characters pop up saying the same lines. This is a shame, as it really impacts of the longevity of the gameplay. Most games you feel you can go back to the beginning and get different experiences. I didn’t get this feeling at all with this one.
The Cave is almost a metaphor for the mind of Ron Gilbert. At times pensive and funny, at other times sarcastic, the game’s nothing if not an entertaining and amusing companion. It’s a work of love, populated with chuckle-inducing gags and lovely graphics. It does also have you inadvertently explore some of the bigger questions in life, but not in a conspicuous way that spoils the experience. It does suffer from a number of technical imperfections, especially with frame-rate issues that can cause stuttering. While it never happened to me, some gamers have actually fallen through the game world and have had to kill their characters to re-spawn into the confines of the cave. So hopefully we can expect some patches. The game’s an interesting experience, but I found it a little claustrophobic, and it doesn’t lend itself to hours of replay. If you liked the DeathSpank series, then this game would probably appeal to you, if you bear in mind the above points. I’m not an immediate fan of problem-solving games, so although I had fun exploring The Cave, I was somewhat relieved to come up into the daylight.