A critique of Ron Gilbert’s ambitious and yet oddly flawed adventure is likely to be as subjective as one of any of 2012’s best known experimental titles. The Cave isn’t nearly on the same level as Journey or Dear Esther and won’t be talked about in the same circles, that much is evident, but it envokes a similar sense of purpose: to let the player get as much out of the game as they wish, leaving the rest of the population playing a puzzle-based platformer with a heart of gold.
That desire to satisfy on numerous levels isn’t without merit, but the game suffers slightly as a result. For starters, the sprawling, cavernous, titular underground ends up without nearly enough signposting, and even when progress is seemingly clear areas that shouldn’t have presented themselves often do, leaving the player scratching their head for the wrong reasons.
To qualify this, it’s worth pointing out how The Cave works. At the outset of the game, as the title screen fades away and the omnipresent voiceover starts his dry, often witty exposition, the player is presented with seven characters (although one is actually a pair of twins). It transpires that ultimately each of these characters has their own particular attributes (and follies) and – once inside The Cave – their own distinct, unique puzzle areas. You’ll pick three of these characters to go into The Cave at any one time, and can switch between them at will once the game starts for real.
Select the Knight, for example, and his challenge will see the player tasked with rescuing a princess from a dragon. The Hillbilly? Winning the affection of another. The time traveller? Well, that one’s a cracker and we’d be silly to spoil it here, sufficed to say that the eventual solution – after much headscratching – is a joyous moment if you’ve managed it without a guide. The point is that although The Cave always starts off (and ends) the same, and features a middle section that never changes, around those fixed elements are offshoots from the path in which each character has time to shine.
This is largely because the main, always-part-of-the-game sections look and feel like the others, and the doorways between each part of The Cave aren’t distinct enough to convey a real sense of progression. You don’t always know when you’re going forward, and often, given the amount of back and forth trekking you’ll need to do, feel like you’re going backwards.
It’s buggy, too, with odd glitches and some wacky physics (hello, Knight and your endlessly ker-azy jumping) making the actual exploration aspect a hit and miss affair when it should only ever have been a way to reach the next set of puzzles. When you’re backtracking through considerable chunks of the environment getting stuck on corners and never quite managing to time a leap consistently are issues that should have been ironed out.
That said, once you’re fully involved with one of the characters’ own story (and appropriate puzzles) the game really shines. The Hillbilly’s carnival section is a delight, with sumptuous visuals backed with some devious (but massively rewarding) puzzles. There are elements of Gilbert’s Monkey Island legacy peppered around, and those nods are great and showcase a set of diverse yet consistent thematic puzzles especially when objects need to be combined with others, but there are – every now and again – some really abstract, almost ridiculously obtuse puzzles that require far too much trial and error (and wandering around).
The game attempts to set up some basic rules and mechanics in the opening stages (something that it repeats at the end for dramatic effect) but doesn’t really carry them through into the middle section, where the player is likely to have forgotten about dynamite – for example – because it was never really highlighted to start with. Likewise, elements that really stood out (like a monster that loves hotdogs) are drilled back into the player when come across for a second time, which makes The Cave feel like a game that doesn’t really understand where to hold back.
Indeed, the game does this on more than one occasion. A section towards the very end of the game, a charming enough (and visually lovely) interlude on a remote island, serves to point out the deliberately vague, open to interpretation notion of the cave itself with some success but also halts the flow whilst the player scrambles around trying to put things in motion to escape to the final area – at which point the pace is dramatically improved just before the credits roll.[drop2]The Cave needed to be more refined to achieve the lofty heights that the developers clearly aimed for. The frame rate is a mess (at least on the Xbox 360), the puzzles aren’t part of an overall difficulty curve (partly because the player is free to select which characters go into The Cave at will) and there’s too many bugs still present that should have been ironed out. From the point of view of someone wanting to play a platforming puzzler, The Cave probably doesn’t tick every box.
But, there’s some respite. The Cave, as you might have hoped, being helmed by the man responsible for some of the best point and click puzzlers since monitors turned colour, offers moments of pure magic for those willing to invest. The dialog, although the main characters are silent, is intelligent and actually – at times – quite funny; the overarching theme, although never really conveyed – seven characters, all with their own particular bad sides? Think about it – means that you’ll at least get something from the ending if you weren’t expecting it and finally, a second playthrough is infinitely more enjoyable.
It’s this post game spelunking that really works out best. Sure, the game itself is reset but the only thing that needed to be carried through is your recollection of events. You’ll bomb through the static, regular puzzles with ease and the new areas – depending on your chosen characters this time – will stand out much more than they ever could have in your first run. And, yes, you’ll need to beat the game three times to see everything with every character, but the third time is a blast, with just the one final new individual section to beat.
- Wily dialog and a neat, if not unfulfilled, storyline.
- Cute visuals, despite a poor frame rate.
- Local co-op multiplayer.
- A lack of signposting inbetween areas can feel confusing.
- Some puzzles are just too obtuse.
- Buggy and glitchy.
The Cave presents itself as a simple 2D platform puzzler – you can jump, pick up and drop, and use, and that’s largely it. At times it threatens to echo the likes of The Lost Vikings or Trine, but it’s never important who the other characters are in the individual chambers – they’re just there to hold a lever or prop up a rock or press a switch. But it doesn’t need to be anything its not, it’s a relatively brief trip into a genre we don’t get nearly enough of and it’s one that is largely on the right path.
Silly bugs and a slight feeling that you’re never really being directed enough means that there’s too much wandering and – even when you’re doing things right – there’s too much running back over old ground, but it’s frequently smart, rewarding enough to keep you going and largely consistent in its puzzling. It’ll keep you busy for a day or two, is actually pretty good value for money and is certainly something we’d like to see more of.
Think of it as a modern-day underground refresh of Maniac Mansion with the wit of Guybrush Threepwood’s adventures (with a much smaller inventory) and you’re probably not too far off.