A sentient cave awaits those that seek to fulfill their greatest desires, which for the purposes of Ron Gilbert’s collaboration with Double Fine, attracts seven individuals for players to choose from. Actually one of those is two people, so I guess that would be eight, but anyway…
Stirring memories of 1987’s Maniac Mansion, players will assemble a party of three from the cast before embarking into the dark bowels of The Cave. But where that same choice in Maniac Mansion offered the potential for different endings, choosing your party here instead determines the areas players will encounter during their journey.
Each character has a specific area tied to their desire, and a special ability that allows them to enter that area and interact with the puzzles within. Healthy praise owes to the physical design of The Cave, which resists the modern urge to simply warp players to a location, instead constructing an elaborate map where you’ll sometimes see areas reserved for other cast members, and yet never find yourself getting lost, always guided to the next zone intended for your party.
Within this construction are a few areas breaking up the those character driven zones, fixed puzzle areas in-between the layers. The sandwich design means that on a second play though, you’ll encounter these exact same areas again, beginning and ending the game with the same area and encountering a crusty miner and a zoo in the middle of the story with each play through.
The game suffers some as a result on a second visit, and becomes more painful with a third. Encountering the miner and retrieving his three mine carts in order to progress is a fine distraction once, but repeated visits found me checking emails and text messages while trudging through the puzzles I had already come to know too well. While none of these sections are excessively long, the tedium is unavoidable and haunts the game’s long term value. Frankly, I just expect something more clever from Double Fine, even if they only made fun of the repetition while providing an option to skip it a second and third time through.
The character driven areas are terrific little puzzle boxes however, with the variety of the cast allowing the game to find plenty of outlets for its slightly dark humor, but also plenty of clever moments for puzzle solving – swapping through history with the time traveler to notice changes made in the past particularly stands out, perhaps because party members in other time zones show up as skeletons.
While each character area requires the specific skill of its star, like the scientist to operate computer terminals, each area also has points that will require cooperation between party members. Often times you’ll need them all to activate a switch, or using an item in sequence with another character elsewhere on the map – switching between them quick and smooth with the d-pad.
Characters are limited to carrying one item at a time, which will find you using all three more often, and also find you doing a lot of backtracking. The puzzle areas are small enough, but trudging from one end of an area to the other a few times while solving a puzzle also gets tedious quickly. The limited amount of items clears away plenty of the typical mist from puzzle solving problems, and at certain points a character’s special ability kills any potential need for solutions altogether. But every so often, the game discovers subtle ideas that shine with brilliance and renew faith in the reason so many of us eagerly assemble for the outing.
The one item limitation and small sized areas also shifts the emphasis away from items, which once shined as the stars of adventure games. Here items often have very specific and obvious one time uses – swap a fuse, lure a beast with a hotdog, or move an object in the past to affect change in the future.
Is it wrong that a long for the days where we contemplated placing hamsters in the microwave though?
At some point, item collecting and usage got in the way of stories, or risked slowing down the audience’s ability to move through the story. And while one could argue that the story is the focus, I can’t help feeling that we’ve turned our back on the idea that item interaction was a critical part of the story. What I did with items trumped wherever the narrative might have led, and The Cave shrugs off that legacy, to an extent.
On the other hand, The Cave doesn’t overwhelm you with items and leave you wandering around looking for the place that said items might best fit. Instead, The Cave places the emphasis on the actions players will take to gain items and achieve their goals, leaving players to do some very bad things toward that end – so many very bad things. The Cave becomes a more humorous and also cynical experience, with a cast that cheats, steals, and murders to achieve their allegedly noble ambitions.
While the immediate humor provides plenty of laughs, the punch lines for each character falls a little flat when colliding with a budget that sees each story ultimately summarized by static images. There’s never any real sense of the bad deeds being committed by players along the way, and the twisted outcomes arrive in a manner long detached from said actions.
The Cave struggles to offer something more than simply asking “hey kids, remember adventure games?” It absolutely deserves credit for that while still tapping some of the absurdist humor and energy of the genre’s earliest beginnings. There’s a great deal of joy to be had in spelunking for puzzles, but the longevity of the pursuit is questionable.
It’s a hard call given how enjoyable the first session with the game is versus the tedium of returning to familiar areas just to squeeze every bit of new exploration the game has to offer. In the end, I don’t think you’ll be long for coming back up for air and feeling little reason to return with the same nostalgia-wide eyes so many of us favor the Lucasarts adventure legacy with.
PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network), Xbox 360 (Xbox LIVE Arcade), Nintendo Wii U, Windows PC, Mac, Linux (Xbox LIVE Arcade Reviewed)
Singleplayer, Local Co-op
January 22, 2012 Nintendo Wii U, PlayStation Network
January 23, 2012 Xbox LIVE Arcade, Windows PC, Mac, Linux
$14.99, 1200 Microsoft Points
*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review