‘Fall of the Splunkers’.
Trying to pigeonhole The Cave into one genre isn’t at all easy. The new experience from the mind of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions is really one part platformer and two parts adventure game, albeit one without a complex inventory system or dialogue trees. Yet strangely this story-driven experience still harks back to Gilbert’s previous games, with all the inventive puzzle design and dark wit the developer has built his career on during the previous four decades.
Presented with seven entirely different characters at the start, players must choose three to take into the titular sentient, talking underground monolith, with each boasting different abilities and motivations. Take the ‘Time Traveller’ with you for instance and you’ll find she can phase through any bars blocking paths, while the ‘Hillbilly’ has the impressive ability of breathing underwater indefinitely, allowing effortless traversal in long waterways. Each character has their own story to tell and the game’s critical path warps itself to accommodate divergent paths, with special themed areas of the labyrinth dedicated to each specific character boasting their own seperate puzzles, environments, dialogue and atmosphere.
In true Castlevania style, players will occasionally come across areas of the map which are only accessible to certain characters but due to the lengths taken to make these interchangeable story slices seem unique, multiple playthroughs come across as worthwhile. This structure is certainly novel and a little bit quirky, but then this is a Double Fine game.
From both an art design and a humour stand point it’s hard to pin-point exactly where Ron Gilbert ends and Tim Schafer’s team begins as really it all seamlessly merges into one. The cheeky cave narrator regularly pokes fun at both the player and the unfortunate trio they’ve taken into The Cave, and there’s a sinister undertone to each character as well – with their mostly selfish motivations only becoming clear as you find portraits of their story lining cave walls. These are interesting collectibles to be sure, but we wish some characters were fleshed out a bit more.
Take that strange looking urchin, the ‘Hillbilly’. In his dedicated character area you don’t really learn much about him other than that he has attraction for buxom blond bombshells, whereas with the distinctly Indiana Jones-like ‘Adventurer’ you get to actually witness her betrayal of her fellow treasure hunters. The Time Traveller also has a fantastic level, with players tooling around in the past, present, and future seemingly simultaneously to right a wrong which has wrecked her future.
Aside from traversing around levels and seeing the sights, the vast majority of The Cave’s gameplay revolves around puzzle solving. Due to the lack of any kind of inventory management or dialogue system, every puzzle is based around characters carrying only one item at a time and using them to interact with the environment. That may sound a little reductive, but where it gets a little bit more complicated is that each character is directly controlled by the player on a one-by-one basis. This means that you literally have to move each character along in every level, which requires switching back and forth to get characters exactly where you need them to be. That may sound ardous, but this element is entirely necessary in the way The Cave’s puzzles are designed.
Many challenges require moment-to-moment precision, with one character say holding a lever down, while another pushes a boulder through a door the level operator has recently opened. Obviously the puzzles get much more obtuse in their design than that, but there is a logic to every challenge in The Cave. The vast majority of puzzles in the game can be tackled after a few minutes weighing up all the options, but occasionally there will be the puzzle or two which requires you to put the controller down, walk away from the screen and let the problem gnaw away at your psyche until suddenly all the pieces fall into place.
The control scheme and the lack of AI automation has definitely been designed with three-player co-op in mind rather than single-player convenience, but that isn’t to say playing The Cave on your lonesome is an issue. Inevitably there will be moments when you need to move each character just to keep them together, but we’d take that chore over AI henchmen screwing things over any day of the week.
Like Gilbert’s previous point-and-click adventurers, players can just take their time exploring the depths until puzzle solutions present themselves with the threat of character death completely absent. However due to the linear nature of the game, after you choose what characters come with you into the labyrinth, when you’re stuck, you’re really stuck. Undoubtedly it’s the pain linked with getting stuck that which makes solving these puzzles so rewarding, and being able to play The Cave without adhering even occasionally to a walkthrough is something we’d strongly recommend to even casual players. You’re just impacting your own enjoyment if you just look up a troublesome spot via YouTube or a FAQ, as those eureka moments when you solve a puzzle you’ve been stuck on for multiple minutes is really The Cave at its finest.
The lack of any combat or player-controlled dialogue choices means The Cave at first comes across as simple and almost bare of content at times, but as the puzzle design ramps up along with the size of levels you’re presented with, the game’s core design snaps into place. Music and dialogue only really kick in when the story necessitates, while most of the time player exploits are simply supported by ambient environmental sounds or characters just clunking around the levels. Oddly this makes The Cave seem uniquely atmospheric though and surprisingly tense at times as the mental gears are turning; “Right I’ve got ‘X’ and I’ve got ‘Y’, and that guy is over there, how do I get this to work?’
The talking cave narrator adds just enough context to the adventure to keep the story moving along and when the rare occurrence of player characters coming across talking NPCs actually happens it’s genuinely quite exciting. The Cave is very economical when it comes to story design, but the nuggets that are here come across as valuable and worthwhile.
In sheer number terms, this downloadable release takes at least a dozen hours to burn through, depending solely on your puzzle solving skills and length of multiple playthroughs, which for a budget game really represents good value.
There are still some problems which definitely deserve more attention however, like the checkpoint save system occasionally not keeping track of puzzle solving efforts right up until a solution is found, and there were some framerate issues associated with the Xbox 360 build. Our system even froze a couple of times during busier sections in the campaign, but in the grand scheme it wasn’t a massive problem.
Another issue is the multiplayer side of things. The Cave doesn’t have any option for online co-op, instead the game only supports local play on a single console or PC. Now the nature of the game’s detailed puzzle design would make teamwork over Wi-Fi rather difficult, but to not have the option at all seems very odd. That isn’t to say the implementation of local co-op isn’t without its faults either, with the camera automatically following the player which has most recently selected a character forcing others to merely tagalong. That is unless somebody chooses a characters themselves, prompting a tug of war for camera supremacy as each player hits the d-pad in anger. Employing a split-screen option would have solved this problem instantly, and again it’s another missing feature which may lead some players to scratch their heads.
Slight niggles aside, The Cave is a cheeky platformer/puzzler which boasts plenty of humour, charm and inventive story design which easily warrants the delightfully small asking price of £9.99/1200 MS Points.
If you’re looking for a unique experience to challenge your brain as well as your platforming prowess, then this is the game for you!
The Cave will be released for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 on Wednesday, 23rd January. Check out The Cave’s pre-order page via PreOrder-IQ.com to get the latest prices.
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