Game: The Cave
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Steam on PC, Sega on consoles
Reviewed: 22 January 2013
Platform: PC & PS3
Genre: Adventure / Platform
The Cave isn’t a game that instantly grabs your attention. The title couldn’t get much more generic and a first glance at the screenshots makes it appear to be yet another of the countless indie platform games that are becoming so common that it’s hard for any of them to stand out from the crowd. For The Cave, the main thing that created interest is having the name Ron Gilbert attached to it. That’s Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame, a series still often regarded as a pinnacle of adventure gaming. Perhaps The Cave is worth a look after all.
For the most part, The Cave is a point and click adventure disguised as a platform game. It takes place in the sentient cave of the title, a wittily voiced character in its own right and one that narrates the game. This is vital, since none of the playable characters are voiced at all. The game follows seven characters (or rather eight, since they include a pair of twins controlled as one entity) as they hunt for what they most desire in the cave. In achieving their goals, the dark side of each of them is revealed.
The seven characters are nameless, known only by the stereotyped role they fill: The Adventurer, The Time Traveller, The Monk, The Knight, The Twins, The Scientist and The Hillbilly. At the start of the game you choose three of these characters to take though the game. Many of the puzzles during the game involve the characters working together to achieve otherwise unreachable goals to get through to the next area.
Each character has their own unique skill and a section of the cave to complete using it. These are generally the best and most varied of the areas and the most enjoyable to complete. They all fit the character in some way, and it’s where the bulk of the story is told. The Adventurer gets to explore a tomb avoiding traps using her hook to swing around, while The Monk proceeds by solving faux-Zen style riddles in a temple and uses his power of telekinesis. The Twins have a particularly dark plot, while the Knight has probably the funniest section of the game as he subverts a set of standard fairy tale tropes. Probably the best of them all is The Time Traveller, who utilises a time machine to travel between past, present and future versions of the same location, from a prehistoric version to a future museum filled with misunderstood items from the present. Changes made in an earlier time will affect the environment later, which is used to solve the puzzles. It’s like a simple version of the classic Day of the Tentacle. Even in these areas though, the characters special skill isn’t used as much as it should be and it often feels like for some characters the ability was added out of necessity to have something for everyone rather than it being needed. For example, the Hillbilly can form a bubble around his head that allows him to breathe underwater, because… umm… you’ve got me there. It’s only used a couple of times in his area, where they put an object at the other side of a long section of water that’s too far for the others to swim. If you can figure out what the point of this is, please let me know.
In between these segments are general areas which you’ll play no matter who you take with you. These areas have teamwork related puzzles still, but don’t make use of characters individual skills due to having to work with any combination. Sometimes the skills can be used to shortcut bits and occasionally skip a puzzle but otherwise it’s fairly general. These sections aren’t bad, but don’t have the focus of the character specific ones and often feature too much trekking backwards and forwards. Since you have to control all three characters individually, you’ll often have to gather them all together, when they may previously have been in different parts of the level. At some points the others do catch up to the character you’re controlling automatically, but mostly this is only when you’re moving on to a new section of the cave.
One of the main problems with this design is that to see the full game with all seven characters you’ll have to play the game at least three times. Every time, the connecting areas are going to be the same, and since the challenges are puzzle-based and you will already have solved them, this ends up as pointless busywork. Even worse, the number seven is a strange choice, since it means that by the third run through the game, two of the three character areas are going to be ones you’ve already solved too. This makes the last run especially tedious and is just bad design.
The puzzles themselves aren’t bad, though they very rarely offer much of a challenge. At first, the three character mechanics can take some getting used to, but once you start thinking in the way the game expects, it all becomes fairly straight forward. As mentioned before, the puzzles in the time travel section are enjoyable, as are several of the others in the game, but considering that this is a short game there does seem to be a bit too much padding. Often the puzzles don’t really relate to the events of the characters and just there as arbitrary obstacles. For example, one section contains three different shaped pieces of pipe that you can pick up, and three areas where the pipe on the wall as sections missing. So the result is crossing the level with one and putting it into place, then either going back or bringing another character all the way across to do the same. There’s no point to this. It’s obvious the piece of pipe goes in the hole where a pipe should be. It’s just trying to extend a very short game. And the Monk section even includes one of those water jug puzzles where you have to measure out the required amount. If your puzzle has been so overused that a version of it has even turned up in a Die Hard film, then let’s face it, you’ve run out of ideas and are padding out your game.
One thing that could have saved the game is the story, but unfortunately this is fairly limited too. All the characters have unpleasant self-centred goals in mind, but the lack of any dialogue from the lead characters keeps us from forming any sort of attachment to them. The back story for each of them is told by a small number of paintings that can be obtained by activating symbols on the walls of the cave, but that’s about as far as it goes other than the occasional bit of voice over from the titular cave. All that’s shown is stereotypical motives from generic characters that lack personality.
The comedy, while often quite good, is also a bit underused. Everything is too silly to be taken seriously, but there’s little that’s actually funny. There’s the odd visual joke here and there, and the other characters you meet occasionally in the cave are actually well voice acted, but it’s otherwise fairly sparse. It’s a long way from Monkey Island, despite a grog machine and the inclusion of a castaway that looks suspiciously like Herman Toothrot.
I think another key problem is that it doesn’t really feel like it needs to be a platform game. Jumping and climbing elements are never used as a challenge, just as a way of getting around. It makes it rather annoying to be constantly moving across the same areas to collect items to use back where you’ve just come from, especially as you can carry only one item per character. If some of the platforming was used as an additional gameplay element to add extra challenge to the puzzles then it could have worked. Alternatively, they could have dropped it entirely and created a Samorost / Machinarium style puzzle adventure, which the game feels suited to. They needed to go one way or the other with it. Here it’s just more pointless padding.
Another thing that needs to be mentioned is the fact that there are two possible endings for each character, a good one and a bad one. The reason it needs to be mentioned here is because the game certainly isn’t going to bother telling you. The only way to get a good ending is if at the very last moment in the game, instead of walking off with the object of your desire, you give it back again. There’s nothing to show you can do this, and it doesn’t work if you try it once because you have to actually try to give it back three times before he’ll accept it. In the sections where you obtain the object, there’s no option available in the game to simply not commit the evil deeds in the first place. The game’s message seems to be that it’s ok to murder someone in order to steal their stuff, as long as you feel bad about it afterwards and hand it into a man behind a gift shop counter.
The save system doesn’t help with the two possible endings. It seems to work well throughout the game, since it saves automatically as you go along, and whenever you quit and reload the game you’ll be exactly where you left off. Perfect, except for the fact that this means you can’t have different save slots to reload. You can’t just reload to see the other ending; you would have to play the whole game yet again for everyone to see the alternative. This means if you really want to see all the endings, you have to play the game at least five times the whole way through. It might not be very long, at around four hours from start to finish, but considering the lack of any challenge that is left once you’ve solved the puzzles, it’s just not worth it. Especially when you consider that the actual endings for the characters consist of just two still pictures.
It’s not all negative though. Graphically the game looks great in its own way, with each characters area looking suitably different. The animations are extremely smooth and every one of the characters moves and climbs in a different way, adding a small amount of character to what is otherwise a fairly blank slate. The controls also work very well. Something that did come from the repeated playthroughs is the fact that, having got it as one of the games from the Playstation+ service after already having bought it on PC, I was able to play it in two different formats. Both games are identical other than in terms of the default controls. On PC, it defaults to a keyboard and mouse setup, where items can be clicked on using the mouse to activate them while movement is controlled by the keyboard. The mouse can also be used for movement by default instead of the keyboard, but trying to control the game like that is virtually impossible. A controller can be plugged in too if you have one. The keyboard and mouse setup works perfectly well and I never had any problems with it, though it’s better with a controller and the PS3 probably has the best default controls. Either one works well though, so it’s down to what you prefer. Co-op is provided, though it’s only available on the same PC or console and not across the internet, making it of limited use. It is logical for the game, but it feels like it was added pretty much as an afterthought.
Apparently Ron Gilbert has had ideas for this game since he was still at LucasArts, and I’m left wondering what it would have been like if it was made back in that company’s heyday. The idea of the cave that’s been there for all time and which lures people in with promises of their greatest desire to reveal the dark side of their nature is an interesting one, but there’s just not enough done with it here. Made slightly differently it could have been a much better game, but with no voices to give the characters personality, platforming that is never really used and puzzles that just aren’t quite good enough to support the game, it ends up as an enjoyable enough but quickly forgettable experience that fails to make the most of the material it has.
Save System Review: Saves automatically as you go along, and does a good job of it, but you can’t save to separate slots which makes it hard to see the different endings.
Graphics: Good cartoon graphics and excellent animation.
Sound: The voice acting is good on the rare occasions it’s actually there, and all other sound works well.
Bugs: Very occasionally characters can get stuck in the ground somehow. I had particular trouble with the Knight in this regard. There’s a key to kill the character for when this happens thankfully. (When a character dies, they just respawn again a few feet back where they came from.)
Gameplay: Some interesting puzzles, some involving teamwork, but too much filler alongside them, and platforming that doesn’t go anywhere.
Storyline: A basic storyline for each of the characters that could potentially have been interesting, but with everyone being stereotypes and nothing to give personality to the antiheroes you’re controlling, there’s no real reason to care. Especially as they’re only told from the occasional still picture.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Project Eden, Day of the Tentacle, spelunking.
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