If the world’s most mysterious places lie within the depths of the deepest parts of the ocean, then the runner up of the great beyond is definitely the many unexplored caves on Earth. Game developer Ron Gilbert has always had a fascination with the mysteries that remain in the darkness of caves, and since before working on the classic point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion back in 1987, Gilbert has held onto the idea of making a game that allows players to unravel the mysteries of a specific cave, rather, The Cave.
In what appears to be a genre change from the typical adventure format that Gilbert has worked on in the past (The Secret of Monkey Island, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders), The Cave offers a more user friendly platformer design that encourages faster paced exploration with running and jumping to solve puzzles, and the adventure elements actually remain strong and ripe with nostalgia. The Cave is a story that follows seven completely unoriginal characters (a scientist, hillbilly, knight, monk, adventurer, a time traveler and a couple of twin orphans serving as one character), who are hoping to find the answers to their wildest dreams deep within a cave.
From the start of the game, it feels eerily familiar. You’re given seven characters standing outside of the cave’s entrance, and you must pick three before you can enter. It’s a throwback to the exact same way Gilbert’s classic graphic adventure Maniac Mansion begins. We’re also treated to a narrator (the cave itself speaks, actually) who occasionally breaks the fourth wall as he tells the game’s story while speaking directly to the characters and you, the player. In that aspect, the game feels a lot like LittleBigPlanet, even from the simple platformer gameplay to its similar art style.
However, I realized that the narrator actually reminded me more of the narrator from Sierra’s Space Quest series. Classic adventure games usually had a narrator who spoke in a witty and humorous manner as you made decisions in the game that were a bad idea or got you killed. Originally, narrators in games were on-screen text boxes, but with the advent of CDs, games like Space Quest IV had vocal narration. This adds to the game’s charm for sure.
Once the narrator sets you on your path, you must select your three characters and control each of them separately by switching with a button press and having each character enter the cave. You can only control one character at a time (with the exception of the orphaned twins who stick together), though this comes in handy when you need to spread out across a large area to work together to solve puzzles. If you are done with a certain area, the other characters automatically follow you to the next, so it’s not like you have to manually move each character all of the time. Also, two other players can join in locally (dropped the ball there with no online play) to control the other characters, but they’re limited to the same screen space, making backtracking a bit more of an issue for puzzle solving, forcing the second or third player to wait in one area. And any player can literally take control over the characters, which may cause some bickering. It is arguably more fun with friends though.
The puzzles can really challenge your brain, although the majority are just too simple. To get from one area to another, you’re pretty much left with a couple of hints and it’s up to you to explore and figure out what to do with certain items. One puzzle took me a long time to figure out, and once I solved it I felt like a big idiot, but I nearly gave up until I came back to it after a nap and a clear head. There is definitely a sense of accomplishment and the story is pretty humorous on how puzzles are solved. Many of the puzzles are catered to the storyline of each character, so if you don’t have that character in your party, you can’t access the area that requires them. This is due to certain abilities that characters have, allowing you access. The hillbilly can hold his breath indefinitely, so you can access his area through a deeper water path. The time traveler can teleport through doors and walls, a skill that often feels like cheating, but it’s needed to access her story-specific area. Each character has a skill, from the knight’s invincibility to the scientist’s hacking power, and they all come into use for solving puzzles.
The cave is set up like a labyrinth in a similar way to Castlevania or Metroid games, but the only way to truly see everything in the game is to play it more than once, using each character’s ability, with the levels designed around their stories. This increases the replay value, and since seven characters is an odd number, you will at least have to replay it three times, but there is enough value and a lesson to be learned that will leave you wanting to play through it a bit more than that. And if you die, you just respawn immediately nearby, with infinite lives to boot.
The visuals are wonderful and if you look at the screenshots you’ll see that the interiors of the cave are often not very cave-like at all. Character models aren’t too detailed, but they mold well with the artistic style. The animation for each character is unique and expected. For example, the hillbilly has a goofy walk and the time traveler has hover boots. The whir of her boots can get annoying, but the rest of the game’s sound is crisp, yet subtle for the most part. It is all about atmosphere and you might have to crank up the volume a bit more to really enjoy it. The knight clanks around in his armor and the narrator’s soothing voice is never out of place, yet actual music is rare during gameplay. When it plays, it sets the mood with its gloomy tones and melodies. I wished there was more of it, actually.
Unfortunately, other than seeing all of the areas and endings the game has to offer, there’s not much else in the realm of content. There are unlockable comic panels that can be located throughout the levels of the cave, which unfold to tell each character’s story in art. Plus, there are trophies/achievements to attain, even some that require doing things that you might have not known you could do on your first play through. Other than that, the $15 price tag it’s going for is a little hard to swallow. $10 might have been a better starting price. The game is scripted well and definitely fun to play, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a few years too late. If Gilbert had this game in mind for over 20 years, what took so long to see it through?
The classic adventure genre already evolved with the times and became one of last year’s greatest games in the form of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. There is a lot more brilliance and puzzle solving to be found in 2008′s Braid. Furthermore, LittleBigPlanet: Game of the Year Edition is selling for less than $15 right now, and it offers hours and hours of (actually, pretty much endless) gameplay with a very similar cooperative platformer play style. That said, The Cave is a welcome addition to the genre, and I absolutely recommend it to Wii U owners who are are dying for eShop content. If you have other platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or Steam, I’d say wait for a price drop unless you’re a big fan of these types of games and you’re looking for more. Had this game came out a few years ago, it would probably receive accolades for its originality and homage to the classic adventure. Nowadays, I see it being overshadowed by the likes of other similar games such as Trine and Limbo.
The Cave is a great game for what it is, which is a tribute to classic adventure games in the vein of Monkey Island. Ron Gilbert’s fans will no doubt love this game like I did, but it’s hard to recommend it with the seemingly better valued choices available. The comedy is hilarious if you’re familiar with Gilbert’s style, and while the gameplay can be a bit wonky at times, there is is a good sense of nostalgia that comes with playing it. The Cave is out now on the PlayStation Store and Wii U eShop. It arrives tomorrow for Xbox Live Arcade and Steam.
7.5 out of 10.
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