A knight, a monk and a scientist all walk into a cave. It sounds like the premise for a cliche joke, but this is not unexpected when stepping into the mind of Ron Gilbert. The Cave is the latest indie adventure to be released by Double Fine Productions, who are also known for their creative works, Psychonauts & Brutal Legend. So, it is without further adieu that I introduce you to “The Cave”, the story of a sentient, magical, talking… well, cave!
This Cave is full of wonders to explore, secrets to discover, and it has been said that it can show a man for what he truly is. There are seven characters in total, each of which who come from a different moment in time, and have all been drawn to this place in the hopes of finding out more about themselves. However, each one of them harbours a dark secret, and it won’t take long until the player begins to uncover their hidden agendas.
The experience begins with a witty introduction from the narrator (The Cave), which is then proceeded by the player selecting three from seven available characters. Each character possesses one unique ability that can be used to traverse the environment, for example, the monk can move objects using telekinesis, whilst the Time Traveler can teleport small distances. They also have one unique scenario to explore whilst in The Cave, so it is wise to choose the characters you are most interested in first, instead of by their special ability. I’ll explain this further, soon.
Once you have entered The Cave, the player will gain control of all three characters at once, which can then be toggled between in an instant. This mechanic adds an element of team work to the puzzle solving, and makes for some particularly fascinating scenarios. However, be prepared to do a lot of backtracking. For as much as the mechanic makes the gameplay interesting, it hinders the pacing of the game and can quickly become tiresome.
The ingenuity of the level design is that each puzzle can be solved in different ways using the variety of character abilities available. This is also particularly fortunate as it will require several playthroughs to experience each character scenario, which means there are recurring levels that have to be repeated each time. The variation in gameplay helps to keep things entertaining, but it will ultimately be a detractor for players who are not interested in replayability.
The individual scenarios are all distinctly different and are bursting with charm, which is in part due to the delightfully dark humour of Double Fine. There is one particularly good example of this when controlling the chivalrous knight who is more interested in retrieving an amulet, than the safeguarding of his princess. Needless to say that things could get bloody, and it might be better run for it before anyone finds out what happened.
The gameplay is a definitive hybrid of point and click adventure and 2D platforming. It does play as you would expect a platformer too, but with a distinct focus on exploration and interaction with the environment. The combination of controlling each character and using their individual abilities to tackle obstacles can be quite rewarding. However, including some form of squad control could have avoided a lot of player frustration, and in particular a regroup order could have saved a lot of wasted time.
The puzzles can be quite clever at times, but ultimately come as a mixed bag. The difficulty balance shifts from straightforward to downright obnoxious as seen in the case of the Time Traveller. This particular scenario is certainly fascinating, but moving three separate characters across different time periods becomes a chore and takes away from the enjoyment. However, each scenario does well to explore the dark quirks of each character and in other cases to break the fourth by encouraging lazy players to visit a website for the answers in one situation.
The charming presentation of The Cave is by far the greatest quality of the experience, which is not uncommon when playing a Double Fine Adventure. It is clear that a lot of passion went into the design of every single character and game environment, so it’s hard not to be suckered into the visual appearance of the world. It is unfortunate that the framerate can suffer at times, which seems to be a common trend with caves in games. It is also surprising that this issue still exists when playing on a high powered PC, but it will only serve as an annoyance to some gamers and does not hurt the overall experience.
It is always fantastic when a writer can successfully break the fourth wall, and this is done particularly well by the self-narrating Cave. The dark humour which drives the narrative is particularly entertaining, but most of what you remember will come from the quirky nature of the characters and not the actual story. The experience will keep you entertained for a few hours, and whilst there are other character scenarios to explore on a second playthrough, it will entirely depend on whether you can stomach repeating some of the levels and doing all that backtracking again.
The Cave is a genuinely charming adventure that is hindered by some compelling design choices that meant well, but ultimately needed to be thought out a little further. The characters and environments are all expertly crafted, and the designers attempt to introduce new mechanics do well to set the experience apart as unique. However, without the ability to regroup, backtracking becomes essential, and if you want to experience all of the individual scenarios, be prepared to replay the game and repeat some of the levels. The experience is certainly worth your time as players will leave The Cave having been entertained, but it also might leave you questioning $20 entry fee.