Excited about exploring and seeing what was next, the scientist ran ahead, but fell too far from a high platform and died, turning into a magical puff of white smoke and re-materializing earlier in the level. The Cave, ever watchful and ready to quip, remarked, “There’s no dying in the Cave.” Except there is. There totally is. I died dozens of times in my first–and probably only–playthrough, mostly from falling, but also in a few other scenarios, one involving a hot dog. It’s not a crazy huge deal, but the contradiction exists, and it’s just one of several problems I found with The Cave despite appreciating the dark humor, quirky charm, and wonderfully realized character designs.
Right. So, The Cave. It’s the latest brain-baby from Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, a point and click adventure game in the skin of an action puzzle platformer. You start out by selecting three of the available seven characters, each with a unique ability, though you have to mostly figure this out for yourself. Unless you press pause and select “How to Play” like I did, which states each character’s special talent. That’s how I learned that the knight’s glowing ring of light meant invincibility an hour or so into the adventure. Anyways, I went with the scientist, the knight, and the monk. You begin exploring standard levels of the Cave as it berates you for your moral choices, and then you have to tackle specific ones designed for the characters you locked into. That means if you want to see the hillbilly’s level or the time-traveler’s level, you’ll have to replay The Cave, experiencing levels you’ve already puzzle-solved to see fresh ones. You could call that replayability, but it appears more tedious than rewarding, especially when you consider that you’d have to do it all again a third time, since there are seven characters in total, replaying two characters to see the last picked one’s level finally. And don’t even get me started on the element of good/bad endings–for all seven of ’em.
The puzzles are pretty old-school. At least that’s how they felt to me. On more than five occasions, I had to go to the Interwebz and look up a walkthrough after seemingly trying everything. Nothing is spelled out for the player in The Cave; there are no on-screen hints; no nudges from our verbose narrator if left standing still for too long. This was both refreshing and a bit frustrating, as there really is only so much our characters can do: they each can hold one single item, and they each have one special ability. It’s figuring out what to do with all that within the environment that proves tricky. And tedious. Since I was playing solo, that means I had to manually control all three characters, which is easy thanks to the touch of the d-pad, but boring, as it often meant a ton of back-tracking or just moving everybody to be together instead of spread apart. On occasion, when the story deems it so, the other two characters will magically appear near you, but that never happens when you really need them. I wish there had been a “call over” kind of command.
Another problem The Cave has is with its platforming elements, which make up just as much gameplay as the puzzles, since you’re always jumping up, jumping down, climbing ropes, climbing ladders, and moving about. There’s never any urgency, but once you begin to feel the back-tracking blues, you’ll just want to get to where you need to be, especially if you’ve figured out the puzzle, as fast as possible. However, The Cave makes that difficult because grappling ledges and moving up and down ladders is clunky and not 100% reliable. It’s easier to climb all the way down a ladder to the bottom then jumping from the three-fourths mark, as you’ll most likely end up jumping higher up on the ladder, defeating the purpose entirely. It’s a gaming habit you’ll have to learn to break, at least for your sanity’s sake.
Despite being a cave, the level design is quite varied, and I really liked the pristine vacation-esque appearance of the island near the end, as well as the castle level from the knight’s story. If anything, The Cave has a look. A stellar one, with kooky, but charming characters, and nice, multiple descriptions of fire. The voice acting, minimal as it is, does its job well, especially the musing Cave, who I believe is the same voice actor for Captain Quark and DeathSpank though toned down somewhat. He actually doesn’t say all that much throughout the game, and there’s quite a lot of long, quiet stretches throughout.
I don’t know. In the end, I explored The Cave, and all I was found was disappointment. You pick morally coruppted characters, see what makes them bad, and choose whether they continue being less-than-good or head to the light; the Cave comments along the way. There isn’t a whole lot to gain from this. Not going back for a second or third time.