Many of us are children of the adventure game, fondly remembering the first time we learned the secret of Big Whoop, or crying ‘Look out, the British are coming’ when trying to deviously distract others. The minds of Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer were key parts of the golden age of Lucasarts adventures, and the reunion of these two greats meant we had high hopes for The Cave.
Part adventure game, part platformer, The Cave is a curious beast. It is designed around the journey of three protaganists through a sentient cave, an allegorical tale filled with hubris and a touch of whimsy. Unfortunately the interesting premise is marred by gameplay that is somewhat mundane, with occasional moments of wonder interrupted by some incredibly dull ‘light-platforming’.
To begin you choose your characters from a pool of seven. In our first playthrough this took the form of creepy evil twins, an overalls-clad, straw-chewing hillbilly and a blissful monk. You then take them on a journey through the titular cave, with the game itself forming a mix of character-specific areas and more generalised puzzles to solve.
Most of the puzzles make sense, requiring a modicum of lateral thinking, but none of the bizarre leaps of logic that marked the decline of the adventure genre. Each of the characters you can choose from has a special ability, which introduces a degree of flexibility in how you solve the puzzles, but we found that for our group of adventurers these abilities rarely came into play.
These puzzles form the core of the gameplay – the platforming aspect of the game is downplayed heavily, used more as a means of navigating the areas than as a challenge in its own right. Factor into this the ability for each character to only carry one item, and the vast majority of time in-game is spent running backwards and forwards around the same areas. One tends to explore an area, working out what items are available, and what challenges await, then begin the long process of shuffling items around to solve the puzzles. It is a process that can feel quite zen, but more than a few times we found ourselves downing the controller and walking away, not seeing too much fun in the shuffling through numerous screens that awaited us.
This backtracking isn’t so different from the adventure games of old, where a large amount of the gameplay involved moving between areas trying to work out puzzles. But the layering of the platforming mechanic makes navigation feel like needless busywork, and ultimately detracts from the good things hidden inside the Cave.
While the gameplay itself can get tedious, it is in part redeemed by the truly gorgeous graphical touches in the game. The visual style is at times striking, and the entire cave is lovingly rendered, right down to the use of shaders on water, and the cartoonish design. Each character’s area stands out in its own right, be it the bizzare carnival of cardboard cutouts that houses the Hillbilly’s storyline or the spooky house that houses the origin story for the glowy-eyed twins. We reviewed the game on PC, where the graphics options even include Super Sample Antialiasing, still a rarity in this day and age.
For the most enjoyable experience with The Cave, you’ll want to use a controller. Despite the fact that we reviewed the game on PC, the mouse and keyboard controls were near unworkable, with our characters having an annoying tendency to get caught on ropes and ladders while using them. Switching over to an Xbox controller made for a much, much smoother experience, and it really is the best way to experience the game.
Ultimately The Cave just doesn’t have enough of a hook to keep us coming back and trying out different mixes of characters. If you want a platformer with puzzles there are a myriad other titles out there like Deadlight, and for an old school adventure fix Telltale’s The Walking Dead is about as good as you can get. The Cave sits somewhere in between, and never quite manages to live up to the pedigree behind it. Even with a $20 pricetag, this is a mediocre experience at best.