Review: The Wit, Wonder, and Forgivable Flaws of The Cave
by Becky Chambers | 12:34 pm, January 25th, 2013
The Cave is a game about terrible people. Yes, the artwork is charming and inviting. Yes, the oddball humor is every bit what you’d expect from a Ron Gilbert game. But underneath the surface lies a dark morality tale, where the faintest glimmer of redemption is mired in an Edward Gorey-like atmosphere of playful doom. The Cave itself — both the narrator and your host — disapproves of the sordid lives of the seven (technically eight) characters, but it does so with great relish.
Could it be that the Cave is purgatory? Are we facing judgment? Is it all — as I strongly suspect — a whimsical riff on the seven deadly sins? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that despite its imperfections, The Cave is a place well worth diving into.
As billed, The Cave is an adventure game with an old-school heart and a light seasoning of platforming mechanics. The player chooses any three characters she likes, each of which has a special ability and a unique story. Only one character can be controlled at a time, but all three must be used in concert to solve puzzles. I was anticipating something akin to Trine, in which each character offers a signature skill set, but in The Cave, your choice of characters has no bearing on your chances of success. For much of the game, only the characters’ interchangeable base abilities are needed. For example, use two characters to stand on pressure plates in order to open a door, then have the third walk through to the other side. That sort of thing.
This is where the game delivers an interesting twist. As you fearlessly spelunk, you encounter areas that can only be accessed by specific characters. These areas are the climax of each character’s story, which you unravel in piecemeal fashion through discoverable snapshots (a la Psychonauts). In other words, the accessibility of the Cave is determined by who you take with you. There’s no way to see it all your first time through. I loved this element, though the game could’ve done a better job of making it clear. The first such area I came across was specific to the Knight, who I did not have in my party. I was confused as to why I could bypass that area entirely, and for a while, I was left with a nagging sense that I had missed something. But after I realized the trick, I was fully on board. Replayability is not a major priority of mine, but there’s something to be said for a game that makes you look forward to the discoveries you’ll make on your second playthrough while you’re barely halfway through your first.
While we’re on the subject of characters, let me give a big round of applause to the conniving ladies of The Cave: the Scientist, the Adventurer, and the Time Traveler. Gender balance was an intentional component in the character design (the seventh character is a pair of twins, a boy and a girl), and their stories and appearances reflect it well. After decades of being accustomed to only one or two female characters within a playable ensemble, the combo of an even split, badass professions, and a lack of sexualization was wonderfully refreshing. This is not the only way to get it right, but it sure did work.
If you grew up on early ‘90s adventure games, as I did, playing through The Cave is like biting into a candy bar you haven’t had since grade school. There are two ways that experience can go. You either reconnect with the joy and comfort of a long-absent favorite, or remember why you stopped eating them in the first place. I imagine that players of The Cave will feel a little of both, then come down firmly in one camp or the other once the journey is complete. For me, the good times won out. Critical thinking and puzzle solving is my ambrosia, and it took me no time to settle happily into the brain-bending comfort of using the hot dog to lure the monster, but only after finding a crank to fix the broken well. However, early on, I was reacquainted with the thing that always frustrated me most about adventure games: backtracking. The Cave does away with the complicated inventory system of its predecessors, instead allowing the characters to carry only one item at a time. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it spares you the agony of sifting through a cluttered mess of useless trinkets in order to find the necessary piece. But it also means that if you set something down, or if you realize much later why that bone at the end of the tunnel was important, you’ll have to run the whole way back. There was one annoying segment involving a bowl of fruit, which was at the bottom of the area, and its recipient, which was several levels up. Discovering that the recipient needed a specific piece of fruit meant a lot of back and forth, which, after doing plenty of that already, started to border on tediousness.
This common malady of the genre is somewhat alleviated by the platforming mechanics, which keep the player engaged and focused while retracing his or her steps. I thought this was a smart inclusion, especially since no great tests of reflexes or timing are required. These elements are the meat and potatoes of a true platformer, but in The Cave, where backtracking is inevitable, working your way through flame traps or shifting platforms again and again would’ve been infuriating. But even though I found the balance well designed (or at least intentioned), its effectiveness was hindered somewhat by the controls, which were a little less precise than I would’ve liked (I was playing on PC). Jumping felt a tad slippery, and I repeatedly encountered a small glitch in which the character would push a movable block a few steps forward, even though all I’d done was grab onto it (this became problematic when pressure plates were involved). Had movement been more efficient, working my way back across the map would likely have felt like less of a bother.
I’m sure there are some for whom these drawbacks will be a deal breaker, especially those who are accustomed to the fast pace and instant feedback so ubiquitous in today’s market. But for tried-and-true adventure game fans (and, I think, for puzzle-loving newcomers), The Cave is a delightful new toy. This is not a game for the ages, but rather a game for a rainy afternoon, best paired with jammies and your favorite snacks. Look, forget everything I said about imprecise controls and repetition. When have those things not been true of adventure games? The far more important thing is that this is a game with dinosaurs, time travel, ballistic missiles, desert islands, dynamite, treasure hunters, dangerous contraptions, ancient ruins, glowing mushrooms, swarms of bats, junk food, carnival stalls, over-the-top villainy, and gleefully bleak consequences. That was enough for me.
The Cave is available on just about everything: PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox, PS3, and Wii U.