The Cave is a puzzle-platformer that was developed by Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts) and directed by Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island). It is set in and narrated by a magical, vast and seemingly omnipotent cave filled with anachronistic places and events. The plot centres around seven characters from different walks of life and timelines who all seek something of personal gain from the cave. However, what they seek comes with a price.
From the men behind the classic adventure point-and-click game Monkey Island and the team who developed the 2005 platformer Psychonauts as well as Grim Fandango, you’d expect a clever adventure platformer filled with intricate and challenging puzzles set in a charming and unique world full of interesting and peculiar characters. Though the game does strive for all of that, it falls short of providing an experience worthy of the classic titles the makers are known for.
The player gets to choose three out of the seven available characters to explore the cave. It plays like the usual 2D puzzle platformer, though presented in 3D. The player is allowed to switch between the three chosen characters at any time to help out with various puzzles. All seven characters also have special abilities that can be used in areas that might be previously unreachable if different characters were chosen in the beginning. For example, the Scientist is able to hack into machinery that can make some blocked areas accessible.
The Cave is very similar to games like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango in the sense that exploration is vital as the puzzles are solved with items found scattered across the level. However, the puzzles themselves consist mostly of finding an item in some far off room, backtracking through the whole level and pulling some levers, etc. All relevant items are labeled and are somewhat comically larger so it’s hard not to spot them in a room.
As mentioned above, each character has their own special ability. However, these special abilities are hardly ever used. In a game where there is absolutely no combat, you are left running back and forth each level trying to activate new areas with each item you find. The worst thing about this is due to the fact that each character may only carry one item at a time and not all areas may be accessible by all three characters at the same time. Because of this, you spend majority of the time going back to wherever you left your bag of biscuits or frankfurter. This would be tolerable if the platforming was actually challenging and fun but it mostly consists of jumping on ledges, and climbing ladders and ropes ever so slowly. You also have three characters to control so if you just so happened to leave an important item all the way across the map where you are supposed to advance, you’ll have to do it over three times.
When a character advances too far, the other two automatically respawn behind you. However, with levels that are usually just as big horizontally as they are vertically, you’re usually always within reach of using another character but too far that you’ll have to suffer having to tediously run back. The one exception to this is the Time-Travellers stage which I highly enjoyed in terms of plot as well as puzzle mechanics. However, I’d leave that out for you to experience yourself.
The game offers a somewhat non-linear, though illusory, path that depends on which characters you choose. As some areas cannot be accessible in the first playthrough, the second playthrough with different characters will take you to new stages specific to an individual character’s plot. These stages prove way better than the four main levels in between each character specific level. They’re heavily narrated and also contain more glyphs that, when activated, reveal a character’s background through pictures. It will take more than one playthrough to see all seven character endings. However, as you can only choose only three characters at a time, that leaves one out for the third varied playthrough. Not only that but you are not allowed to skip the four main levels. You have to replay those four levels at least three times and have two of the same characters in your group for two playthroughs in order to fully complete the game.
The stories themselves are nothing special at all. The puzzle platformer aspect, with all its blandness, seems to be a minor focus in The Cave. With creative directors like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, I expected more of an epic tale and with seven characters from different times and different agendas in a mysterious talking cave, what could go wrong? Well, first of all, a great plot needs three-dimensional characters. What we have here are seven stereotypes with seemingly innocent agendas whose stories we’ve all already heard many times before. There’s the Adventurer who is seeks her long lost companions and a long lost treasure. There’s also the Monk who is on a spiritual quest to find his “master” in order to “become the master.” Of course, there are a few twists to these stories but they’re not at all groundbreaking. They’re all supposed to emphasize the suprising lack of morality when one is gets too focused on pursuing his or her ultimate goal no matter what it takes. However, what follows through is a series of events heavily imbued with cliches with a dash of dark humour to spice it up a bit. Just a bit, though.
The developers spared absolutely no expense in creating a very scenic atmosphere. The levels are very well-lit, offer ambient backdrops and have some charmingly constructed buildings. The cave contains strange things like a Victorian-style manor supposedly located in London or a deserted island surrounded by sharks. Despite these inapposite places, the Cave still maintains a gigantic presence engulfing what seems like a whole world.
It’s surprising how the lack of a soundtrack in a game can really affect you. In the case of The Cave, there isn’t really one, at least not a memorable one. Each character specific level does have unique music to step up the mood but there are less of these levels in one playthrough than the four main stages. So not only do you have to go back and forth each level over and over again but you also have to do it mostly in silence.
The Cave isn’t necessarily a bad game. It’s well-made in terms of basic puzzle mechanics, visuals and semi-linearity. The disappointment comes from how dull it is. It seems like the developers didn’t learn anything from all the successful puzzle platformers from the past couple of years such as Limbo, Mark of the Ninja or Trine. If this game came out a decade ago, I’m sure it would have been a hit but we’ve all seen this before with other, more well-executed games.