The Cave review: Intricate, rewarding puzzler, let down by repetition
22nd Jan 2013 | 11:00
Mysterious things, caves: deep, dark, dangerous structures filled with unknown entities. Horrors? Treasures? Traps? No wonder there's a subculture devoted to underground exploration: there's nothing quite as thrilling as venturing into the Earth's gut, seeing sights no other human has seen before. But
See, The Cave's cave is capable of whisking people away to fantastical realms where their wildest dreams can come true, explaining why seven excited spelunkers are huddled around a campfire by its entrance at the beginning of the game. The Adventurer, Monk, Twins, Scientist, Time Traveller, Knight, and Hillbilly are the explorers in question (to keep things simple we'll class the inseparable Twins as one character), and each is there to see if the cave can fulfil their most powerful, innermost desires.
The Knight seeks a sword of untold power and prestige; the Hillbilly is searching for his true love; and the Adventurer's on the trail of her lost companions and an unequalled ancient treasure. Then there's the Scientist, who's on the cusp of a great discovery for humankind; the Monk, who's after his master in order to reach enlightenment and, in turn, become the master; the Time Traveller, who's eager to right a wrong a million years in the making; and, finally, the Twins, who simply want to play.
These seven are the backbone of a 2D adventure from Monkey Island maestro Ron Gilbert and fan-favourite studio Double Fine. There are no enemies inside the cave and death is of little consequence outside the Achievement list thanks to an instant respawn mechanic. Puzzles, puzzles, and more puzzles are lurking in the cave's intestines, along with a few jokes and comedic observations for good value.
In a clear nod to Gilbert's own Maniac Mansion, only three of the seven protagonists can venture inside the cave at any one time (either in single-player, to be switched between with the D-Pad, or in co-op). And though a strict one-item-per-character carrying limit knocks any thoughts of inventory management on the head, every character does boast a unique power meaning your rabble's journey into the depths will be tailored specifically for that chosen trio.
STALAGMITE AND MAGIC
At first these abilities manifest themselves in the forms of small deviations to puzzle solutions. To pass through the cave's first locked gate you have to pull and hold two levers at once, leaving the third character free to pass beneath the now-raised gate and activate the permanent unlocking mechanism. Bring the Twins along, however, and their unique skill lets them create ghostly body doubles: one to keep one lever depressed, the other to skip through the gate. Alternatively, with the Time Traveller in your party you'll be able to use her short-range teleportation skill to zap straight through the gate, bypassing the levers altogether.
Unfortunately these types of variations are relatively minor. To ensure every trio can complete every puzzle, skill-based solutions all tend to be tweaks on the same core actions. To reach the bottom of a pit, one character might hop along rocky outcrops while the Knight can just jump off a ledge and activate his invincibility skill to float safely downwards. They're technically different paths, but as the difference amounts to shaving off a matter of seconds from the basic solution we wouldn't exactly label The Cave's puzzles as having multiple, distinct solutions.
After the first couple of areas the game's character choices start to make sense. The cave itself comprises not only a few shared caverns and rooms for everybody to access, but also seven large character-specific zones accessible only if the right person's in your party.
As the group ventures deeper and deeper it'll pass by whole sub-worlds unreachable until the next playthrough. The Hillbilly's carnival world, for instance, can only be reached by swimming through a long waterway using the Hillbilly's hold breath ability. These abilities, then, inform the cave's actual layout rather than the solutions within.
Once you reach these zones, all is not as innocent as first appears. The eponymous Cave also talks. Heck, it narrates, which is far more impressive than bog-standard talking, if you ask us. And as he explains from the off, the darkness of the cave's depths is no match for the darkness within the hearts of the seven potholers.
Meaning what exactly? Well, we don't want to ruin the surprise - or prematurely dash the humour - but let's just say that in order to fulfil those very desires that saw the starting seven venture into the cave in the first place, some selfish (some might say evil) decision-making is unavoidable. The characters' mini-worlds are where their individual tales play out to their unsettling and wonderfully amusing conclusions, all while Cave narrates their actions in compartmentalised stories that feel like new episodes of The Twilight Zone.
It's certainly a wickedly charming premise backed up with some interesting puzzle ideas (the Monk's zone is particularly notable, thanks to some cunning conundrums that break out of the staple 'use item A on object B mechanic'). But there's one disappointing dud: repeated areas.
Opening area aside, each pass through of
These zones can't simply be charged through at full pelt: there are puzzles that need completing first. And because unique character skills only lead to modifications on the main solutions rather than wholly new pathways and options, you'll have no choice but to repeat old motions many times over to fully complete the game. Why couldn't new 'general' areas have been unlocked for playthroughs two and three to replace the solved ones?
It's annoying, but this complaint shouldn't stop you from strapping on your boots and grabbing your torch. The Cave's built from the same bedrock as Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, after all, and the trademark Double Fine humour is here in abundance. If some repetition is the price to be paid for hours of clever conundrums and charming gags, it's a deal well worth striking; a few lumps of coal in a goldmine of entertainment.