‘The Cave’ is the latest brainchild from adventure game guru Ron Gilbert, the mind behind the superlative Maniac Mansion, the Secret of Monkey Island and most recently the Deathspank series of games, and sees Ron team up again with Tim Schafer, his former Lucasarts Colleague, over at Double Fine Productions.
The Cave sets you with the challenge of navigating the titular subturranea with a selection of eclectic and unique characters. From the outset, you are introduced to your new surroundings through the narrator who has 95% of the spoken lines in this title, and is also the sentient presence of The Cave itself. None of the playable characters utter a word, excluding the grunts or groans as they exert themselves or expire, but this in itself is not a detraction and many video game characters have succeeded as silent protagonists.
You open with all of the seven characters gathered around a fire for you perusal, and selecting each will result in the narrator giving you a base insight into the motivation that has brought each character to the cave. Already the deft touch of Ron Gilbert’s humour can be found, as skipping through the selection of characters will result in numerous different outbursts from the narrator scolding you for your impatience. Once you have selected your three spelunkers for this venture, you are properly underway.
The Cave in its entirety, is made up of eleven large puzzle areas; four generic zones that must be completed irregardless of your character choices and seven unique zones, each themed on the available characters in the game, which must be navigated to traverse the cave and reach the bottom.
The Puzzles in the game, are predominantly straight forward, nostalgically reminiscent of the adventure game heyday, using item A with item B to remove blockage C and much like its predecessors there is the occasional obscure resolution to some of the puzzles, so if you do not have the right (demented) mindset that is borne from playing so many adventure games in the 80′s and 90′s, you may find yourself scratching your head for an inordinate amount of time. The platforming sections taken for what they are, a means of navigating from one puzzle to the next, succeed in their function with only the occasional section causing some frustration trying to maneuver around. Once you understand their limitations these interruptions to the flow of the game become negligible and mostly manageable.
Each of the characters have a unique ability, such as the Time Traveler’s ability to teleport through solid objects, the Monk’s ability to manipulate objects with his mind, or the knights ability to become invulnerable. These skills will not only be required to access their specific zone, but in some cases will also allow you to maneuver around the other puzzles in varied ways. When completing the same puzzles for a second time, this can allow a small amount of replayability by making you approach the majority of puzzles differently.
Audio in this game is a minimalist, but extremely well refined affair. The background music plays a huge part in creating the expected ambience. It is a constant that is barely noticeable when coupled with the dialogue and sound effects. on closer examination though, by muting the SFX,the atmospheric tones blend in well with the graphical veneer to complete the experience. With a plethora of mute playable characters and only a handful of lines from the npc’s, the narrator finds himself in the position where the pace and depth of the game is resting solely on his commentary to your actions and the environment around you. To this end the narration is sufficient with few weak points in the dialogue, but counter to this there are few truly superlative moments although it is competent enough and carries enough gravitas to hold the experience together.
Graphically the game shines through. Although the visuals are dumbed down when compared to the PC version, the cartoon style and lavish environments are still enticingly beautiful. The character animation is fluid and give the feeling of presence within the world around them. It must be said though, that occasion frame rate issues did mar what is clearly a seminal artistic vision. Although these slow downs and stutters are not expected of any game in today’s market, they can be excused to some degree as the pace of the game and the activity therein is not truly impacted by these interruptions, unlike a game which would require precise movement and twitch gaming responses.
The individual stories and motivations of each of the characters is revealed through storyboards, unlocked by collecting the interacting with the cave art scattered throughout the game, and through the zone-specific puzzles for the characters. Although this is once again fairly minimalist, it successfully conveys the dark and insidious reasoning behind each of their tales when observed alongside the narration.
So far, I have mentioned Ron Gilbert’s unique comedic styling’s which clearly pepper The Cave’s dialogue, but there is far more bubbling beneath the surface should you choose to dig deeper. Obviously the play style of utilising multiple characters to interact in different areas to solve a puzzle is extremely reminiscent of Maniac Mansion, and the Time Traveler’s chronological based puzzles echo those seen in Day of the Tentacle, but in the background there are a few nods to his other games, such as the “New Grog” vending machines littered about the area, or the Hillbilly’s special ability; to hold his breath for a long time,(yes, he can hold his breath for exactly ten minutes and yes, I did sit timing myself while holding the button for the special ability). These are just a few of the references I picked up on in my playthroughs.
Replayability is one of the key features this game was sold upon, and for the most part it does indeed provide the means from the outset. With seven characters,(counting the twins as a single entity), yet only three spaces per playthrough, you have a minimum of three completions to see all of the environments contained within. Albeit, the generic puzzle sections do become tedious after the second playthrough, these can be completed relatively fast in comparison to your first attempt. With multiple endings for each character based on choices you make, you are looking at a minimum of six attempts before you have truly seen everything you can from The Cave. With my first game lasting approximately four hours, and each successive attempt reduced to two – three hours as I quickly traverse the known puzzles, there is at least fourteen hours of gameplay here for those willing to invest, and more if you are the obsessive sort who will go all out to get your achievements, such as surviving the cave without anyone dying or having everyone’s fortune told by Xavetar, which can only be done with the Hillbilly in the group. It is therefore just a shame that the repetition of the puzzles tends to weigh against the desire to repeat the game multiple times.
One of the niggles that add to this repetition is the requirement to navigate the same areas with each character for some of the puzzles. The game has areas where it will group your characters together which is on the most part extremely useful, and in one case frustrating as it pulls away characters already set up in preparation to complete a puzzle, but for the majority of the time you will find yourself retracing your steps with each character over and over again. Many times I had wished that their was a facility to summon your other characters to a point which would have been far more useful than the ability to hide the character selection HUD, and although there were no obstacles between the characters and the next puzzle, this was not to be, once again adding to the repetition and frustrations that detract from the impetus to complete the game further times.
Another frustration occurs depending on which characters you choose. During your first attempts you will undoubtedly encounter an area which will have you wandering about trying to figure out how to access it, only to eventually come to the conclusion that you don’t have the required character to do so. These areas are not obviously sign posted, only after playing with multiple characters do you realise that the thematics of the environment are related to a character you don’t possess. Only once this revelation is unveiled can you easily identify the zones and to whom they relate.
To sum up, The Cave is a competent platform puzzler with old school adventure game vibes that by no means excels in either genre, but remains eminently playable and enjoyable despite its flaws. This title will hold a dear place in my heart alongside other games that have evolved from those innovative minds that broke away from Lucasarts so many years ago.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Platform: Playstation3/Xbox360/PC/WiiU Release Date: 16/01/2013
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Disclosure: Derek ‘Digi’ McRoberts was provided a copy of The Cave for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of 5 days on an Xbox360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.