Review by MTLH

Reviewed: 03/22/13

The Cave is both charming and funny but can also be quite shallow.

Apparently the idea behind The Cave had been kicking around in Ron Gilbert’s head since his days at LucasArts. His legacy with regard to that company and the point and click adventure genre can not be overestimated. So when Gilbert announces a new adventure game, of sorts at least, that is a reason to sit up and take notice. When said game is going to be developed at Double Fine Productions, thus partnering Gilbert with his old LucasArts colleague Tim Schafer, the whole thing becomes even better. So The Cave has a lot to live up to and it remains to be seen if it can match the expectations.

The visuals may not necessarily be the most technically accomplished but that doesn’t stop The Cave from looking lovely. That is mainly due to the design which is pleasantly cartoony and does vaguely resemble the early LucasArts classics. It is clear that the visuals have been granted a lot of care and attention.

Despite being a subterranean cavern the Cave contains a lot of different environments, some of which are truly gorgeous. Travelling across a slope to a temple against a mountainous backdrop covered in mist is certainly a highlight as is the Victorian mansion in all it’s Burton-esque glory. The detailing is generally great with the various areas being littered with smaller and bigger details. Even the more generic cavernous areas manage to look different from each other.

Another highlight are the characters. Both the protagonists and the people they meet are detailed and animated very well. This is especially important for the controllable characters as they don’t speak and thus must convey their personalities through their movements. Through the floppiness of the Hillbillies’ limbs for instance or how the Twins never let go of each other or how the Adventurer’s cockiness shows through her self-assured gait.

The soundtrack is mostly atmospheric but the odd tune does occasionally play here and there, usually when entering a character specific area. The standout piece is the James Bond-esque music playing during the Scientist’s area which is especially well chosen. As mentioned, the various protagonists remain mute. The people they meet do talk however, as does the Cave itself who narrates the action. Voice acting is generally excellent with the highlight being the titular subterranean dwelling's voice which is literally dripping with sarcasm.

The plot revolves around the Cave who apparently is very much a conscious entity. A group of seven individuals, the Twins count as one, have come to take a tour through it's tunnels in the hope of acquiring that which they desire most. Their invariably grim stories are told through their misadventures and pictures which can be found by locating wall paintings. The Cave itself acts as a narrator, sardonically commenting on his visitor's deeds. The plot is a bit predictable at times and the individual stories are quite simple but the game's sense of humour does bind everything together nicely and lends it a pleasingly offbeat charm.

The Cave is essentially a platformer with a heavy focus on puzzling. The idea is to take three of the seven characters down into the Cave. The game is divided into areas that are specific for the characters and are linked together by more general ones that everyone must visit. The three can be switched between at will and both their presence and special abilities are required to overcome the various obstacles.

The platforming part is actually quite straightforward. Each character can run and jump and thus traverse the numerous platforms, ladders, ropes and chasms. The level design isn't all that spectacular, never really becoming more than a competent distraction. If anything, the platforming is merely a way to get to the puzzles instead of a goal in itself. That is not to say that it isn't enjoyable but rather that it's very clear platforming isn't The Cave's main attraction. Taking the controls into consideration, that's perhaps for the best. They are fine as they are, getting the job done without much fuss. I don't think they would have sufficed nearly as much however if the game had featured more demanding platform elements.

The puzzles mostly take their cue from the classic point and click adventures. Most revolve around using the right object with the correct hotspot while the rest concerns manipulating machinery and systems. The resultant gameplay is certainly enjoyable but unfortunately doesn't display much depth. The game loves to use levers, triggers, crates and gates and does so frequently. This can entail having one character holding a gate open by standing on a pressure pad so the rest can move on or having all three locate and pull levers to activate something. Another element that is used a lot, at least in the character specific areas, are the special abilities. The Monk for instance can use telekinesis to manipulate objects and most of his tasks are solved that way while the Scientist can get past most of her area's problems by using her computer skills. This is accentuated due to those abilities rarely if ever being used outside of the character specific areas.

To be fair, The Cave also offers a few genuinely clever puzzles. A good example is located in the Scientist's area where a code must be found by combining the information gleaned from several notice boards. The main objective on the island towards the end is also a fine one, involving getting a boat from one side to the other while getting rid of the resident hermit. Despite most of the solutions being glaringly obvious, they are satisfying to solve.

Related to the aforementioned shallowness is that playing through The Cave can feel a bit hollow. Each new segment makes a big deal of it's particular situation with the Cave foreshadowing a horrid outcome and some unfortunate victim making a fuss about something. For instance, at a certain point one of the trio is taken by large reptile who is in turn chased by a hunter. Naturally he or she must be freed. Everything feels fine while doing this quest but afterwards you have to wonder what it is you have actually done, which actions you have performed. In this case that comes down to preparing a specific item in three short steps and using it to obtain an other item to finish that area. All in all, that really isn't all that much work. Especially the character specific sections seem to display this phenomenon.

What also becomes noticeable is how much travelling is actually required. It isn't that each segment is very large, on the contrary, but they do tend to be rather winding, containing just a little too many platforms and ladders for comfort. There are enough instances where you encounter a hallway that could have been ten steps shorter or a climb that could have lost a platform or two. All this gives the impression that The Cave is too big for the amount of game it provides. Also don't forget that as the various puzzles usually require all three characters to solve, most areas must also be covered by all three, leading to quite a lot of backtracking.

Another problem concerns the game's structure. As mentioned, there are general levels and special ones and of the seven characters only three can be taken into the Cave itself. That means that if you want to see and experience all that the game has to offer you must play through it at least three times. That number applies to the amount of playthroughs of the general levels while two of the specific ones must be completed twice. Seeing the alternate endings entail finishing the game no less than five times. This is all simply too much work and it becomes understandably repetitive to do so.

On the upside, having to play The Cave several times does lengthen it's lifespan drastically. Expect that a single playthrough will last close to four hours with later sessions lasting somewhat shorter due to already knowing what to expect. The Cave will outstay it's welcome if your not careful. I didn't mind playing it the three times to see all the levels but I wouldn't blame you if you turned to the internet to look up the various endings.

The Cave is a curious game. At first glance it appears to be a platformer. After a while it becomes obvious that it really is an old fashioned point and click adventure, just without actual pointing and clicking. The puzzles will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with the genre. It's amusing to see how little the platforming actually adds to the proceedings. It literally replaces the genre's defining interface in the sense that a character isn't guided to a spot but instead controlled directly. On a stretch, the only thing that could be said to have been added are the more direct interactions like pulling a lever or pushing a crate but those could also be implemented in a mouse driven scheme.

Thus the puzzles form The Cave's main attraction so it's a good thing most of them are satisfying to solve. Having said that, these puzzles also tend to be quite simple and occasionally even repetitive. Another issue is that most areas contain just one ledge or ladder too many, unnecessarily padding out the game's overall length. Finally, the fact that the game must be completed several times to see all that it has to offer borders on the ridiculous. Yes, The Cave is certainly fun but will, for most people, be not fun enough to play through various areas three or even five times.

With gameplay that is somewhat disappointing despite being very enjoyable, it's fortunate that the presentation and humour compensate a great deal. The visuals are charming and lively while the plot possesses sensibilities that are grim yet pleasant. If only the game had more substance, then The Cave could have been a real classic.

Let's end this review with a side note. Reading the text above it strikes me how relatively negative the overall tone is. You see, when writing a review I usually come up with the game's mark after having first formulated what I think is right and wrong with that particular game. Sometimes however that works the other way around. In the case of The Cave I first figured out what mark to give while playing it. The point is that this grade doesn't correspond entirely with what I have written above but I can't bring myself to lowering it. Yes, The Cave has issues but the game has also enthralled me a great deal so judge that number below for what it is and let the review itself be your judge as to whether the game is for you or not.

OVERALL: an 7,5.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: The Cave (EU, 01/24/13)

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