Those familiar with the Golden Age of adventure games--a time when publishers like Sierra On-Line and LucasArts were the best acts in town--really don't need much explanation or incentive to pick up The Cave, the latest creation of Ron Gilbert. Many months ago, when word had surfaced that Gilbert had signed on to make a new type of adventure game at Double Fine Productions--the indie studio formed by one of Gilbert's long-time cohorts, Tim Schafer--the excitement was instantly palpable.
The game justifies much of the excitement it's generated since I first saw a live demo of it at last year's E3, despite a few quibbles.
The premise of The Cave is simple. The player selects a trio of characters from seven available options. Bolstered by the fact that the game is narrated by the sentient Cave itself, the disparities between the different characters are immediately humorous. The characters are all brimming with personality, and I agonized for several minutes over which three I'd take with me on my first adventure. In the end, I settled on the Knight, the Hillbilly, and the Time-Traveler, with the determination to return to experience what the Scientist, Adventurer, (evil) Twins, and Monk had to offer in subsequent playthroughs.
Each character is nearly the same from a functional perspective, but they each have their own special ability. The practical uses of these abilities are more or less relegated to each character's themed area, though they can be deployed at any time. The Hillbilly's ability, for example, allows him to hold his breath indefinitely. While his themed section of The Cave requires him to use that ability a couple of times, it really wasn't of much use throughout the rest of the game. The same could be said of the Knight and the Time-Traveler, who could make themselves invincible or teleport short distances, respectively. I personally would have liked to see these abilities put to better use throughout the course of the game, though I understand the nightmarish implications of designing puzzles that could be solved by unique abilities spread across multiple party compositions.
In each adventure, the player needs to use his motley crew to solve a multitude of puzzles in self-contained (yet somewhat sprawling) Metroidvania-style 2-D platforming levels. Each character has come to search The Cave's depths for the object of their greatest desires. The high-points of the level design are contained within special sections of The Cave that are themed around each of the characters. The Knight's themed area, for example, includes tropes that you might expect--a princess, a dragon, an amulet, and Excalibur, for example--but they rarely ever factor into the puzzles or storyline exactly as you'd expect. Though the Knight seeks a coveted sword of power, other character's desires are less straightforward. The Hillbilly, for example, is on a quest to find true love. In fact, it's pretty obvious that Gilbert had a pretty good time constructing the story to take typical expectations and flip them on their heads.
Giving players multiple characters to choose from is great, but it highlights a minor crack in the game's armor of fun. Since the player is only allowed to bring three characters with him on each adventure, seeing each of the characters' storylines requires three trips through the game, with at least one of those trips requiring character repetition. In a game where the true joy comes from the puzzle solving and exploring each character's unique content for the first time, it's a little disappointing that completionists are faced with the tedium of solving some of the same puzzles multiple times.
This problem is compounded by the fact that in addition to the special, character-themed sections of The Cave, there are also a number of transitional stages between them that also contain some puzzles. This means that even when playing through a second time with a completely fresh roster, certain parts of the game will play the same, regardless. Since replaying the game to experience all of the characters is one of the game's hooks, it's a shame that each playthrough couldn't have been diversified even more.
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Repetition and multiple-playthroughs aside, I was really charmed by my first party's adventure into The Cave. Even though I find myself blasting through repeated sections in my second playthrough, the first time through these puzzles was challenging and entertaining. The character animations, artwork, and the design of its levels and puzzles are quite good. The lion's share of the puzzling hinges on finding items in the world and combining them with other items and/or locations to move the story forward, and multiple characters are often required for their solutions. However, I also encountered a handful of puzzles that felt really fresh and innovative. I especially loved the Time-Traveler's themed area, for example, which required me to solve some interconnected puzzles in the past, present, and future, using all three of my heroes. Really clever stuff.
As one would expect from a game directed by Gilbert and published by Double Fine, the writing and personality in The Cave are some of the best in the genre, if not the medium. Humor in games is really tricky to pull off, and the fact that The Cave seems to do so with such seemingly effortless aplomb is impressive. It's been a while since I laughed out loud so much at a video game, and even longer since a developer intended that I do so.
The Cave is an excellent, fresh take on adventure games that makes a strong argument that adventure games don't need a cumbersome inventory system or dialog trees to be fun and rewarding. The game's focus on the "meat-and-potatoes" of the genre--namely the story, characters, and puzzles--is a wonderful design choice. For Gilbert fans, and fans of adventure gaming, in general, The Cave is a must-play. Just be aware that subsequent spelunks will involve some puzzle-repetition, so I'd advise you to start with the three characters you personally find most entertaining.
This review of The Cave is based on a digital retail PC copy, provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Wii U, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade.