The Cave Review
The Cave has been in development for over twenty years. Well, at least the idea has been bouncing around in veteran designer Ron Gilbert’s head for that long. The guy who brought you Maniac Mansion all those years ago has teamed up with Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts) to deliver this ingeniously designed – if somewhat tedious – puzzle adventure that is destined to test both your intelligence and your patience. If you play it with a friend, this game becomes much more appealing and far less annoying; playing co-op is highly recommended.
One might assume the inner workings of a cave to be mostly dark and dank. But of course, this is no ordinary cave; for one thing, it speaks, and for another, it features quite the assembly of surprisingly exotic locations. The animations are pleasant and nicely implemented, the detail is charming and diverse, and the cleanliness of the visual presentation in general is impressive. Too many of the various rooms and paths look a little too similar and not every last available tool is easily visible, but those are only minor drawbacks. Besides, the graphics play second fiddle to the design, as is the case with any hardcore puzzler.
The audio benefits from the quality narrator who plays “The Cave,” and the special effects are crisp and solid. The soundtrack is nice and even effective at times but for the most part, it takes a back seat to the gameplay. This allows one to focus fully on the task at hand but even so, I had hoped for a more frequent allotment of choice pieces. The narrator also repeats himself one too many times for my liking, but at least he’s competent. On the whole, the technical facets of the game are good without being great, clean and slick without being beautiful, and mostly devoid of glitches and hitches. In short, we’ve got a very stable foundation.
If you remember Maniac Mansion in the good ol’ days, you know just how devilishly ingenious Gilbert’s mind can be. In The Cave, we get an adventure that features high accessibility – control is never a problem, right from the start – and a significant challenge that steadily increases with every step we take. It’s a well formed quest that ditches the old-fashioned point-and-click mechanic in favor of the more modern and more fluid action system. Jump, climb, pick up stuff, and use a character’s special ability; that’s all you have to do, so it’s not complicated. The basic control is responsive and reliable.
There are seven total characters to try in the game, but you can only take three at a time with you into the cave. The cool part is that because each adventurer has his or her own special ability, and because only certain characters can gain access to certain parts of the cave, the experience is different depending on your picks. This adds plenty of longevity to a relatively short game. The other interesting part is that due to the fact that you can choose any three characters, there may be different ways of solving various puzzles. The extra depth afforded by this setup is appreciated; it goes beyond the concept you may have see in Trine, where three unique characters must work together.
From freaky animals to Egyptian pyramids, the cave holds a great deal in store for the industrious explorer. Granted, there’s not much in the way of “exploration,” at least not in the modern sense of the term; in other words, this isn’t a sandbox adventure. The freedom comes from your character choices and the different ways you can solve puzzles. However, you won’t be able to see everything the cave has to offer in one play-through, so that expands upon the traditional linearity. Overall, the design is borderline ingenious and will definitely force you to be observant and clever. You must also be patient and diligent, so be prepared.
I mentioned patience once before and here’s why: Unfortunately, there’s a lot of backtracking involved. You can only carry one tool/item at a time, and some of those are necessary for working numerous puzzles. Hence, you have to drop them in one place and retrieve them later; this requires a lot of backtracking. Couple this with the necessity of placing all three characters in the correct positions, and there are many potentially frustrating situations. The good news is that you can easily switch between your three adventurers with a quick press of the d-pad, so that’s helpful. The drop-and-retrieve process is just a little overdone.
Gilbert and Co. decided not to give you an inventory, so as to streamline the gameplay even more. That works out fine but you know, I think I would’ve preferred the inventory. It’s true that it requires more strategy when you’re only able to carry one item at a time but the trade-off is the aforementioned flaw. If that flaw wasn’t quite so constant and irritating, I’d say fine. But in this case, I think an inventory would’ve allowed for better pacing and would’ve further allowed the designers to become even more inventive with their puzzle creation. I don’t want to imply that this feels like a watered-down experience, though.
At any rate, this is why I highly recommend that you play this game with a friend or two. Obviously, with three characters journeying into the cave, three humans can participate and control each character. So while someone is always tasked with the chore of going back to get a tool, at least you can take turns. And besides, the game moves much faster; not only from a mechanical standpoint but also because you’ve got three minds attempting to solve the challenges. Plus, due to the inherent humor involved, everyone will appreciate the experience more. It’s the difference between watching comedy alone and seeing it live, when the laughter is infectious.
The Cave is a fun, challenging, well constructed puzzle-based adventure that occasionally drags due to tedious backtracking. The story isn’t anything special, either, and some puzzles are goofy to the point of being obscure. But most challenges are extremely well designed and implemented, the attractiveness of the pleasing visual presentation, and the uniqueness of the seven characters makes this game well worth your time. Just bear in mind that the score you see here is assuming you play it co-op with others. If not, I’m afraid it falls a half-point or so.
The Good: Great animations and general design. Some ingenious puzzle creation. Depth and longevity via seven unique characters. Challenge is significant without being overwhelming. Fantastic fun with a friend or two.
The Bad: Too much tedious backtracking. Single-player experience isn’t as satisfying. A few obscure puzzles.
The Ugly: “How far back did I drop that thing?!”
1/24/2013 Ben Dutka