Review: The Cave

TheCave

Adventure games are one of the classic genres that I’m a total sucker for.  Old school adventures are what I cut my gaming teeth on, with titles like Day of the Tentacle, King’s Quest, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango helping to form my love and frustration with pointing and clicking on things. Not many other game types allow for such rich detail of character interaction and unique humor, yet at the same time puzzle logic in many adventure games more often than not slants toward the random and obscure mixture of mash everything together with the hope that eventually something sticks together and solves the problem.

Returning once again to the genre is Ron Gilbert with a team from Double Fine Productions to create a new take on adventure gaming with The Cave.  The premise: seven distinct personalities are in a talking cave and gamers must take three of the seven through a series of tunnels, revealing each character’s personal story along the way.  The cave itself is one massive level that can only be accessed by unique powers that each of the personalities possess.   Playing only three of the characters in one run through means that if someone wants to see how each story unfolds, the game must be played through three times.

Sadly, I couldn’t muster the desire to replay the game that many times. I could only make it through one time in full and about halfway through another trip, but I couldn’t bear to continue any farther.  It’s not that I don’t want to discover each character’s tale, but rather I don’t want to slog through the same puzzle sections more than once. The Cave is designed such that all areas can be accessed but only if certain powers (from specific characters) are being used at the time a new section is encountered.  For instance, the Knight has a special power that makes him invincible and as such the only way to unlock his story puzzles is to drop through several sections of the cave, avoiding damage from fire (and the fall itself) to unlock passage for the other members traveling with him on that particular playthrough.  The Twins have an ability that allows them to be in two places at once for a short period of time, so for example they can activate a lever or switch as a shadowy form while their physical form slips past a door.  And the Monk can use telekinetic powers to move objects into his hands, a useful ability for when an object is on the other side of a set of immovable bars.

One playthrough is relatively fun because each of the general puzzle areas that precede the character-specific puzzles have their own unique challenges and are interesting the first time you encounter them. However, upon a repeat visit I found myself suffering a bad case of déjà vu.  Sure I knew how to solve the puzzles, but what hampers the fun is the amount of backtracking that is required to complete even the simplest of tasks. Each character can freely move throughout any section of the current puzzle area and switching between the characters is handled by mapping each character to a button on the D-pad.  But actually moving through each section feels overly time-consuming.  An object such as an undamaged fuse may be in a panel two or three stories above where it is needed to activate a crane or a fortune telling box.  Navigating the area to get to the fuse, traveling back down to where it is needed to solve the puzzle, and then discovering that the fuse is needed once again to be used back in the original location feels like unnecessary busy work.  Especially if you select a character to carry the fuse back to the original location and then realize that that character needs to be in a different spot to use their special power once the fuse is back in its intended location. Backtracking for items is one of the more frustrating design limitations of the game, particularly when each character can only carry one object at a time.

Backtracking wouldn’t be as frustrating if the characters didn’t move with such plodding imprecision.  Jumping doesn’t always feel accurate and climbing up objects (either ladders or boulders) feels overly weighty and slow.  Using objects is also a hit or miss proposition at times.  Picking up one object drops whatever a character may be carrying.  Fine, but what if a puzzle trigger in the world is also next to an object that has been dropped?  Pressing the Square button to interact often times leads to picking up the object on the ground instead of using the object in hand with the trigger in the world.  The ability to easily choose which item you want to interact with is inconsistent and frustrating if too many interactive objects are close to each other.

For all my griping about the mechanics of the game, I can still honestly say that I enjoyed most of my time with the journey.  The spoken narration from The Cave itself is dark, wry and mostly damn funny.  The character stories and specific puzzles are also clever and fit with the narrative.  I absolutely loved the Twins backstory. Their home shows a mastery of level layout and design, consisting of subtle environmental details that flesh out their story while also providing a satisfying puzzle challenge. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the Knight, or the Monk.  While the dark and grisly ending of the Knight’s puzzle section was freaking hilarious, the amount of backtracking soured my time in that part of the cave.

My second attempt at playing the game led me to choose the Hillbilly, the Time Traveler and the Scientist.  Unfortunately, even their initial backstory panels couldn’t keep me invested in slogging through the same puzzles long enough to unlock the story beyond the Hillbilly’s unique section.  Movement, confined inventory/object management and the constant backtracking removed all of my goodwill toward playing through a full second time. If the game had nine characters instead of seven, and didn’t require replaying large swathes of the same sections over again and again, I could easily see myself playing through the game three full times.  If there were some way to bypass the general puzzles that tie each character puzzle together (once it was solved the first time of course), the game wouldn’t feel like such a chore. And if inventory was handled in a shared magic bag (if a cave can talk why can’t there be a magic bag that all characters have access to?) the game would feel a whole lot less tedious.  Of course, these “ifs” would likely break the balance of the game, but they wouldn’t necessarily need to be made available until after the game was completed once.

Humor in games is tricky, but The Cave offers a dark view that is genuinely funny. Unfortunately, the game mechanics drag down the pacing of the game such that the timing of the humor has almost a delayed reaction.  While each selectable character has an interesting story to discover, there are too many obstacles to make that discovery as enjoyable as it could and damn well should be. Even with its flaws, though, The Cave should be experienced at least once, if only to see just how crazy the layout of one gigantic level interconnects to tell the humorous stories of seven different characters.  Which characters are best to take on the first run through is hard to say, as I can’t bear to put myself through two more full sessions to find out.

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Pros:
+ Dark humor
+ Puzzle solutions seem natural, not random and forced
+ Multiple playthroughs are an option

Cons:
– Too much backtracking
– No shared inventory
– Movement can feel too weighty and imprecise
– No option to skip previously solved puzzles

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available on Steam, XBLA and Wii U eShop
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: 1/23/2013
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.