Ron Gilbert's latest trek is a morbid, hilarious romp
Ron Gilbert, being responsible for classic LucasArts titles like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, is a legend in adventure game circles. His latest adventure, The Cave, feels a bit like a return to those roots but winds up being something altogether different. Unlike his other games, The Cave is not a singular tale. Instead, Gilbert and the team at Double Fine have composed seven darkly comic vignettes and enveloped them within a huge, singular stage that feels like a cross between a cheap, roadside attraction and The Twilight Zone.
The Cave is a sentient, talking cave and within its depths lay everyone's greatest desire, whether it be wealth, fame or glory. At the beginning of the game, players are introduced to The Cave and seven characters (technically eight; a pair of twins count as one character) who each seek something from it. In a brief introduction, the player can switch characters freely and become accustomed to the game's basic, 2D platform mechanics, but will be able to take only three of them along for the journey.
The Cave (PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Double Fine Games
Released: January 22, 2013
It should be made abundantly clear that The Cave is an adventure game that uses gameplay and design elements found in 2D platform games. It should not be viewed an action game by any stretch of the imagination, although the abundance of 2D action-platform games currently on the market might lead you to conclude otherwise. There are no chase sequences or tricky jumps and few puzzles where timing is a concern, so there's no practical need for pixel-perfect accuracy and timing.
Keeping this in mind, there's no denying that the controls are a bit gummy here. Basic movement is responsive but characters often seem to jump considerably later than prompted. The game compensates for this awkwardness by being rather forgiving on jump timing and a cliff hang which works almost too well. While characters will "die" from falling from too great a height, The Cave just warps them back to the last solid ground they occupied, so there's almost never a consequence for missing a jump. The control issues aren't really a detriment to the gameplay as much as they make the game feel unpolished.
While on the subject of polish, there are a few other things which bear mentioning. The Xbox 360 version we were given to play had a few instances where characters or objects would penetrate the environment, causing occasional issues with pushing sequences. Again, nothing terribly significant, but mild annoyances nonetheless.
Each of the characters has some kind of special ability which will be needed on their trip through The Cave. The Hillbilly can hold his breath indefinitely, while the Time Traveler can teleport through thin walls. The abilities of some other characters are not always as apparent from the start, but their primary function is to gain access to the portions of The Cave centered around a character's specific story and in the solving of puzzles within these zones. Outside of those areas, most of the abilities are never used, though a few can come in handy on rare occasions or in spots where their possible use feels shoehorned in.
This leaves the player to judge the characters on their individual stories and sections within The Cave which are, for the most part, entertaining and well-designed. Each region of the cave is distinct. As the player progresses down, The Cave nudges them in the right direction, indicating when the use of a specific character will be necessary to proceed and offering pithy observations on the journey. A character in its own right, The Cave is a morbid ham who would be right at home hosting midnight movie marathons; a wry delight, with excellent timing in delivery.
Every character (and, by extension, the player) performs ethically repugnant actions in service of their goals and The Cave's sense of humor. Sometimes their desires are of an implicitly sinister nature, such as the Twins who seek to kill their parents and be rid of their control. Others demonstrate more of a hapless disregard than deliberate malice, but the player isn't allowed to escape the awareness that they are directly responsible for every bad thing that happens.
Often, the game will even drag out the period of time between the realization of what task must be performed and its final execution, giving plenty of opportunity for the player to consider the implications while effectively powerless to avoid the outcome if they wish to proceed. Such instances are often comically absurd, which help counter some of the horror felt by actions players will perform, but if you can't laugh about death and mayhem, The Cave probably isn't going to be your cup of tea.
There is one outlier among the stories which doesn't quite seem to fit the theme as well as the rest. The Hillbilly's tale is downright sympathetic for most of its plot, which is itself something of a cold splash of water. The deceptions which he performs in the service of his objectives consist of cheating self-professed cheaters, making it difficult to view them as victims. Finally, the resolution is equally puzzling, as he doesn't actually seem to get what he wants at all, as opposed to every other character who explores The Cave and achieves their end, however briefly. Still, six for seven is a pretty good record.
The approach taken to puzzle design in The Cave is quite successful, introducing basic elements right from the start and building upon them as a foundation for later challenges. Puzzles mostly involve using objects with the environment, block pushing, switch pulling, and character switching in various quantities, though a few other, more creative concepts do occasionally appear. The knowledge necessary to solve nearly every puzzle in the game -- with the exclusion of those which necessitate the use of special abilities -- is provided in the first twenty minutes of play, but this is enough variety to sustain hours of additional gameplay as elements are combined and tweaked. There are some head-scratching moments, but the puzzles are predominately logical with clear solutions, provided the player has fully explored the environment and considered all their options.
About half of each playthrough is dedicated to the individual characters selected at the beginning, with the remaining half an exploration of other parts of The Cave and interacting with non-playable characters who are seeking their own desires. These sections are a part of every play and are every bit as enjoyable from a design standpoint, but they can also have something of a chilling effect on the inherent replay value of the game's three character limitation. While The Cave provides enough content that it will require at least three complete plays to see everything, the best way to enjoy it will be to play once and then set it aside for a while, returning when these recurring sections are no longer as fresh in the mind.
All told, The Cave is a morbid, humorous romp filled with life lessons which should be apparent already to all but the total sociopath. While there are some niggling issues with overall polish, it's a fun time for fans of adventure games that should set you to giggling and, hopefully, feeling just a little bit guilty about that glee.
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