The first adventure game ever to be released was a text title created by computer programmer and caver enthusiast, William Crowther. It's fitting, then, that Double Fine’s latest bid to revive the forgotten genre is also set in a cave. But this is not Crowther’s 1976 exploration game – it's a modern experience, complete with Ron Gilbert at the helm.
The luminary's signature is woven throughout The Cave for all to see, with his humour, puzzles, and story prowess providing the biggest attractions to any gamer willing to don a hard hat and venture into the side-scrolling unknown. But who would expect any different from one of the founding fathers of the Monkey Island series? In fact, the whole premise of The Cave is taken from one of Gilbert’s earlier titles, Maniac Mansion, of which veterans will be familiar with the character selection mechanic at the opening of the game.
Before clambering into the unknown, three characters must be chosen from a roster of seven – but choose wisely because these trio of would-be adventurers will be with you until the end. Each character has a different ability that will help with specific puzzle elements, while they all seek a unique item from the cave. Some of the more enticing back stories include the Time-traveller, who wishes to right a wrong one million years in the making, and the Scientist, whose discovery sees 100 million lives hanging in the balance. Each explorer – be it the Monk, Hillbilly, Knight, Time-traveller, Scientist, Adventurer, or Twins – has a rich story that acts a catalyst for their arrival at the cave. This story is unravelled through a mixture of comic book style postcards, and conventional narration performed by the cave itself.
Yes, the cave is alive. From the moment you first step into the pit, it will be blatantly obvious that this is no ordinary hole in the ground. This cavern is home to a gift shop and a variety of whimsical tenants – the very idea of which is downright fantastical, if a little bizarre. But that is because the cave is somewhat of a tourist attraction, designed to rid beings of their inner desires which are holding them back in life. To explain any more of this story would be to ruin its mystery, but rest assured, each of the seven adventurers will find what they most long for inside the enchanting grotto. What they do with their newfound treasure will be the choice that defines their morality – and the story progression.
Each spelunker boasts a unique power and an exclusive locale that will be visited during their time in the abyss. Powers range from invincibility to telekinesis, and they are fully utilised when an explorer reaches their personal puzzle section. The connotations of the title, The Cave, infer that the game will be very similar in setting from beginning to end, but this is in stark contrast to the real variety of scenes on offer. The knight will happen upon a castle, the hillbilly will find a carnival, and the monk will brave a mountain in order to reach a remote temple.
Each individual area is complemented by a strong visual style, with smooth, chunky edges, and a cartoon-like charm around every corner. It’s a joy to explore. Matching the spectacular art direction are some hilarious animations. Simple things, like watching the Hillbilly waddle around a carnival, arms gangling by his side, will find you smiling from ear to ear. It's worth adding here, however, that this is a linear game. The story, and the route that you take, is crafted by your selection of characters at the beginning. From then on, as much as it might not seem the case, it’s a very direct journey.
And therein lies one of the problems. Replaying The Cave is absolutely encouraged in order to discover each of the seven characters’ stories and locations, but in-between these sections are some puzzle segments that you will have to play three times if you want to experience everything. This might not have been quite as annoying had the characters’ unique abilities made the solutions to these puzzles any different – but they do not. On top of that, completing the game a third time in order to use the seventh character will require you to use two protagonists twice.
Perhaps the biggest quandary, though, is the platforming mechanic. The Cave is, first and foremost, a puzzle game. It's a platformer by necessity, in that the running and jumping is only there to replace the pointing and clicking of yesteryear. Unfortunately, the system isn’t quite perfect, and climbing ladders and ropes can be tedious. This becomes noticeable as you search the environment for items or secrets, but also for some puzzles, as you move your three characters into their required positions. A large part of this problem stems from the fact that controlling three characters individually is an inherently mundane thing to do. A simple button to group them all together would have led to a far more enjoyable platforming experience.
Three player local co-op offers a chance to solve puzzles side-by-side, but, unfortunately, it doesn't provide a solution to the platforming hitches by failing to allow players to split up, meaning that, just like in single player, you'll find yourself climbing the same ladders and ropes over and over again. Thankfully, platforming isn’t the reason that The Cave is worth visiting, and its problems only serve, at worst, as a slight distraction from what is great.
Puzzles, as you might expect, are expertly integrated into every locale, with none being overly difficult, but all of them requiring a satisfying amount of thought to complete. One of the most ‘old-school’ areas features a creepy mansion and the task of using rat poison to kill the twisted twins' parents. Obviously killing your parents, or indeed anyone, with rat poison isn’t usually considered a fulfilling experience, but after a 30 minute brain-bender, it’s quite the gratifying outcome.
The Cave may not be enough to restore adventure games to their former glory, but its clever storytelling, even smarter puzzles, and enchanting art style make it an escapade absolutely worth taking. Despite the occasionally tedious platforming, this is a satisfying experience – and one that you won't forget in a hurry.