Spelunk into the subterranean hollows of The Cave and you’ll find the genetic remnants of Ron Gilbert’s adventure game heritage strewn throughout. The numerous “New Grog” vending machines and sentient geology are homages to The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion; its puzzles are based on the collection and predetermined use of various everyday items; and each of the multiple playable characters’ stories is a darkly comic morality tale.
The fact that there are seven individuals to choose from is not an incidental design decision. Each has been drawn to the cave in search of what they desire most, delving down on a promise that should they best its trials, it shall be granted. The only thing connecting them is just how dark and morbid their backstories and desires are.
These intrepid explorers are all comically exaggerated archetypes. There’s the Scientist, the Adventurer, the Hillbilly, the Monk, the Twins, the Knight and the Time Traveller. You choose a party of three as the gravelly tones of an eighth character, the ever present self-narrating cave, perniciously sets (and is) the scene with gleefully sinister relish.
“Comically exaggerated archetypes”This is no ordinary cave. It has a personality, spouting sarcastic and pithy observations about each individual’s folly; and its depths house more than cramped dark caverns. Medieval castles, an English Victorian mansion and a sun baked desert island await inside, each a vertical cross-sectional maze housing traps, puzzles and monsters.
Some stages, such as a wildlife hunter’s zoo, are a constant presence, regardless of the chosen combination of explorers. But each character has an individually themed stage, relevant to their backstory. This structure dictates that multiple play-throughs – essential at least three times should you wish to explore every character’s story – involve re-treading a tedious amount of ground, especially as there is only a single rigid solution to every challenge.
The Cave’s overall structure is a hybrid of the classic adventure game template and that of a side-scrolling platformer. There’s no pointing and clicking, only running, jumping, lifting and switching. But The Cave remains a test of wits more so than reflexes, with instant re-spawns reducing platforming failure to an inconvenience.
“Puzzles are pure genre fare”Puzzles make up the adventuring half of this formula, and these are pure genre fare, involving the relocation and combining of items to their area of usefulness. One requires you to fill a bucket with some water before dampening out a lit dynamite stick, hurled at you by an irate prospector; once acquired the dynamite can be taken to a blockage of rubble, re-lit using a nearby torch and placed against the rock in order to progress. Most follow a similar pattern. They’re protracted, multi-stage logic puzzles, with the majority having just enough hints scattered around nearby scenery to challenge, but not frustrate.
The same can’t be said for a minority of puzzles designed around a confusing internal logic. Having to acquire a sausage from a vending machine in order to entice a giant path blocking crystal lizard toward a spike pit is a difficult sequence of events to discern, especially when there is no prior indication that the lizard has an appetite for frankfurters, and the vending machine next to the hot dog one is a redundant piece of scenery.
Compounding this issue is the fact that you are often presented with multiple independent puzzles that take place in the same area. The items required to solve these are normally located at a distance and aren’t always the most obvious solution, making it all too easy to waste time hammering square pegs into round holes. Almost all solutions can be fallen upon, but the more abstract are frustratingly obtuse sieges of trial and error in which logical deduction plays second fiddle to random testing.
“Irritating amount of backtracking”Many of the aforementioned problems stem from Double Fine’s decision to remove the inventory system, an adventure game staple, make every item a persistent object within the game world and limit each character to a single carried item at any time. It’s a design decision that avoids the cluttered mess of an overcrowded backpack, but introduces an irritating amount of backtracking should you leave that essential crowbar a couple of levels above when you really need it to prise a handle from a wooden well downstairs. The Cave’s local co-operative component does alleviate this issue somewhat, but the lack of a split-screen option makes it a limiting and unwieldy option.
There’s also a scant few puzzles that make use of character based special abilities, which range from the Knight’s cloak of invincibility, to the Monk’s Telekinesis. These add a refreshing modifier to the find-item, transport-item, use-item sequence of most solutions, but remain constrained to each character’s world as a result of The Cave’s constrictive world design, and are consequently underused.
A confluence of multiple minor design issues throughout The Cave make progression far more difficult and repetitive than it should be, but they never quite dampen the desire to do so. The reward of a newly themed area, each a lavishly constructed spectacle of design, effortlessly molding exotic locations into the expansive confines of craggy cavern, is always an enticing prospect. And the promise of more sight gags and cave-based quips makes for an alluring horizon.
It’s The Cave’s charm, built on a premise that sounds like a Double Fine directed episode of The Twilight Zone, that makes it worthy of a recommendation. What lies beneath is a nostalgic, ornate adventure game, weighed down by a few stifling design decisions, but these alone aren’t egregious enough to detract from how enjoyable its style, setting and stories truly are.