The Cave: review

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  • Format: PS3 (version reviewed), 360, Wii U, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Sega (PS3, 360, PC), Double Fine (Wii U)
  • Developer: Double Fine
  • Players: 1-3 (offline only)
  • Site: http://thecavegame.com/

On paper, it’s a formula that can only result in greatness. Double Fine (Psychonauts) + Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island) x “game I’ve wanted to make for a long time” = superb. Unfortunately, while Gilbert has shown his working out, the final result makes it clear he made a mistake somewhere along the way.

The Cave is not an adventure game; at least, not in the sense you may be expecting. It is in fact a puzzle platformer, one which asks you to choose a team of three characters from a line-up of seven before you do anything else. The idea is that each potential spelunker has a unique ability and backstory, making each trip different. The Adventurer has a grappling hook and seeks treasure, the Hillbilly can hold his breath underwater and seeks love, the Monk can perform telekinesis and seeks to become a Zen master, and so on. Story wise, the main hook is that people’s intentions aren’t as pure as they appear, and getting what they want may not end well for them (or for others).

Structurally, The Cave is rather odd. It’s split into (seamlessly joined) sections; some areas you play through regardless of who you bring, while each character also has an area unique to them and their story. The makeup of the cave therefore varies on each trip according to the team you put together – to an extent (more on this later). Controlling your trio is also unpredictable, in a different way. While co-op play will certainly speed things up, solo players switching between characters to control them one at a time will find that the experience is – usually – not nearly so awkward and frustrating as it could have been. What initially confused us was the LBP-style command to commit suicide (death results only in an instant respawn nearby). The confusion soon disappeared when a character became stuck in the scenery. Then again later. And again. And again…

No amount of Monkey Island nods can make the repeated use of the island section forgiveable.

Apart from trying to drop off a ladder often resulting in an irritating jump up to the nearest ledge, that at least is the full extent of The Cave’s technical troubles. Well, unless you count the difficulty that can be had telling the game which one of two items in close proximity you want to pick up. And that time the narrator was speaking two lines at once.

Said narrator is the cave itself, a sentient underground network that comments on the goings on within – when it feels like it. Each story is told largely through static pictures unlocked by interacting with cave paintings, with the narrator (and the occasional NPC) filling in some of the gaps and adding atmosphere. The disembodied voice of the cave will offer wry commentary seemingly at random however (though it’s actually strictly scripted for certain moments), often with large chunks of gameplay between each set of lines. Imagine playing Bastion with the narrator suffering from narcolepsy, and you’ll get the idea.

None of this is to say that The Cave is a bad game. It isn’t. Indeed, while the lack of an inventory (each character can carry one object at a time) combined with juggling three characters at once surely made creating coherent, enjoyable puzzles a real challenge, Gilbert & co. have done a sterling job in this regard. With the absolute minimum of signposting, you are required to carefully observe your surroundings, identify what prevents you from progressing, and use a pleasing combination of teamwork and lateral thinking to succeed. Your first journey through The Cave will only take 3-4 hours, but you’re encouraged to dive straight back in with a new combination of ne’er-do-wells. That’s where this game’s problems really start.

Your first thought here might not be “If only I had a gigantic sausage”, but it should be. For several reasons.

A second playthrough immediately reveals that, so far as the areas common to all characters are concerned, you’re expected to repeat exactly the same puzzles with exactly the same solutions (give or take a few seconds of variety) regardless of who you bring. And as the mathematical wizards amongst you will already have realised, a third playthrough with two characters you’ve already used is necessary in order to see everything the game has to offer. The result is a first journey undertaken with wide eyes and a joyous heart, a second journey that’s fun if repetitive, and a third journey that’s a trudge few will undertake, and fewer still will complete.

Matters are made worse when you take into account the amount of walking and jumping around necessary just to complete a puzzle you’ve done at least once before, and that large amounts of dialogue (which wasn’t that funny the first time around) is repeated each time you spelunk. Yes, the sad truth is that this game will often raise a smirk – but no more. You’ll never laugh out loud and, given the names attached to this project, that would not have been an unreasonable expectation.

Even the darker tones fail, with the half-told stories and incompletely painted characterisation not nearly enough to lend weight to the game’s vaguely moral and emotional leanings. Only the Hillbilly and Twins stages come close to attaining the slyly unsettling atmosphere this game so often seems to be reaching for.

The Cave tries to do too much with too little. Had the team concentrated on providing more of the puzzles – which really are excellently designed – then this could have been a much, much better game. The unfortunate determination to provide a susurrus of obfuscated meaning throughout, combined with a bafflingly high level of repetition, means that The Cave actually becomes less enjoyable the more you play it.

critical score 6

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you’ll find something he’s written in there.

Luke doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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