Amid all the talk of originality drying up and this being a generation of safety plays and wallets leading hearts and minds, it’s easy to forget just how many firsts we’ve seen in the last few years. This generation has given us the first real glimpse of what DLC can add to games, with brands like Borderlands and Fallout leading the charge; it’s given us gaming’s first profanely-named hero in Shadows Of The Damned’s Garcia Fucking Hotspur; it’s offered us our first glimpse of Satan’s digitised penis, courtesy of Dante’s Inferno; it’s even served up the first known example of riding a horse being a suspicious activity – take a bow, Assassin’s Creed, but be careful not to put your hands together or we won’t be able to see you. And now, to top it all off, Double Fine has come out with yet another first – a sentient cave. And they say originality is dead.
Our point? Well, as facetiously disguised as it may be, it’s that The Cave isn’t a particularly original game – it’s an extremely old-fashioned game dressed up as one. To all intents and purposes, it’s a point-and-click adventure although given that several of the original settlers of Monkey Island are behind it, that’s hardly surprising. But here, the old-school ‘use X on Y’ mechanics are spliced with evergreen puzzle-platformer gameplay to give the game that little extra kick, so it’s a little strange that so many of The Cave’s other fundamentals seem to be intentionally designed to take that edge off.
The first decision you make upon entering The Cave is who to take with you. Seven stereotypes fight for your attention – each with their own unique ability – but you can choose just three, the rest waiting patiently at the entrance to be picked on a subsequent playthrough. Having chosen your trio, the HUD takes shape – your trio can be switched between on the fly using the D-pad and most puzzles will usually call for most (if not all) to get involved. This teamwork aspect calls to mind Lost Vikings or more recently Trine, though both had better ways of dealing with an interchangeable threesome than The Cave – small maps and transmogrification respectively. But The Cave is deep and tendrilous and its explorers supremely lazy. They seldom move without direct instruction to do so and given the amount of spelunking and backtracking that needs to be done, you’ll quickly tire of guiding three separate characters across the same sections of the map.
That is to say that it feels like a cheap way of artificially extending the duration of the game, most likely because it is. The Cave’s puzzles are for the most part incredibly straightforward, any difficulty stemming not from what to do but from where to find Obvious Solution Item in that particular set of tunnels. Each area is a self-contained challenge, although an interesting twist does see the cavern’s layout change slightly depending on the heroes you pick. Granted, it only changes to force you through your three characters’ mandatory ‘story’ puzzles, though these are the clear highlights – we particularly enjoyed the Scientist’s grim mini-adventure and the Time-Traveller’s Day Of The Tentacle-inspired section, though different kinds of people are likely to derive their own highlights.
But for a game that is clearly designed to be played (at least) three times over, it’s a little strange that it should be so padded with stock puzzles and repeated dialogue. By your second play, the non-character-specific elements will be a breeze (especially when you start using the Monk’s telekinesis and the Knight’s invulnerability to perform sequence breaks) and it’s only the lack of a ‘follow’ button that prevents the game from being able to be completed in a matter of minutes.
Still, there’s much to shoot for on your repeat visits to The Cave. Achievements are cleverly used to reward imaginative and experimental play, plus there are abstract solutions to some seemingly obvious puzzles that can result in different outcomes, and it’s these that will have you scratching your head more than anything the game presents obviously. The talking cave is hardly hesitant in offering cryptic clues and eventually descends into thinly veiled quick and easy solutions, though you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to doing things ‘the right way’.
You’d have to stretch pretty far to take anything away from The Cave from a presentation standpoint, though. A few minor visual niggles aside, it’s artistically sublime and from individual character animations to environments, you’ll never wish for anything more than a bigger TV. Music is used sparingly but to great effect, while even voice work doesn’t let the side down – the script sits a little uncomfortably between the point-and-click old guard and the incendiary rising stars of the indie scene but all the same, the actors deliver what they’re handed brilliantly.
It’s hard to work out what exactly The Cave is. If it’s meant to be a point-and-click adventure then there are already way better examples in the back catalogues of the guys responsible. If it’s supposed to fuse those ideals with more traditional videogame concepts then you need look no further than Zack & Wiki – a game which, sadly, has more names in its title than appear on the list of people who actually bought it – to find a better example. And if it’s trying to do anything on a moral level then we just hope it picked up an umbrella, because The Walking Dead is in the process of pissing all over it.
At once entertaining, frustrating, beautiful and fleeting, The Cave is way better in concept than execution. And as much as it has going for it, some poor design decisions mean that frustration and boredom will quickly get rid of players that would otherwise have lapped this up.