The gaming community is buzzing with discussion about The Cave, the new puzzle-based platformer from Tim Schafer (Secret of Monkey Island) and Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts). This intriguing (and just a little bit bizarre) game sees seven different explorers, each with their own mysterious backstory and dark secrets, adventure into the depths of a sentient cave that forces them to come face to face with their true nature. Is The Cave a diamond in the rough, or is it a secret better left uncovered?
The Cave is a puzzle game at heart. There are seven characters to choose from – each with their own unique ability – and players assume control of three of these characters for each playthrough. Using these three characters, you progress deeper and deeper into the cave, solving puzzles by utilizing items found in the game world and making use of your special abilities.
Your three characters are mapped onto the controller’s D-pad, allowing you to switch between them with ease. The Wii U version adds in the ability to switch characters via the GamePad’s touch screen, but this is the only way the game makes use of the GamePad.
The game is largely linear, with the cave being divided into distinct sections. These sections alternate between themed areas that are based on the three characters you chose and more generic areas that are present regardless of your team. Once you’ve entered a new section of the cave, you can’t return the way you came or progress any further until you’ve solved all the puzzles in the new area. These sections themselves are usually fairly open, but they are played in a specific, linear order, and the puzzle-solving generally has some structure to it, although the puzzles are not always entirely linear.
The puzzles are challenging and entertaining at their best, making you think outside the box and work as a team. Unfortunately, these bright spots are bogged down by a lot of simplistic, repetitive puzzles. More often than I’d like the solution to a puzzle is fairly obvious, and the only “challenge” involved is searching extensively until you find the necessary item. This leads to an unnecessary amount of backtracking at times, which can be pretty tedious.
The generic sections are designed to be played by any combination of the seven playable characters, so they never require the use of any special abilities, but they do occasionally allow for them. The individually themed sections require the use of the special ability of the character after which they are themed.
Some of the themed sections do a good job of making you think creatively about how to utilize both your special abilities and your team as a whole, but others fall short. Take the Time Traveler’s section, for instance. The Time Traveler’s special ability is that she can phase through some walls and doors, but this ability is only useful once in her section. Her section involves manipulating time to solve puzzles. Early on she can phase through an obstacle in a past time period and stop a water drip from occurring. Upon returning to the present time, her actions in the past cause a cluster of stalactites and stalagmites to disappear from the present, allowing the rest of her team to progress. This ability is not used again in her section, and it rarely comes into play in any major way in the generic sections. All that said, her section arguably involves the most (and best) teamwork in the game.
Other themed sections can be almost entirely completed only using their specific character, cutting out the team-based elements of the game. In the case of The Twins, it’s actually impossible to bring any of the other members of your team into the equation until the area is nearly finished.
The overall gameplay of The Cave is pretty simple in nature, but there are moments of brilliance that make it shine. A little more creativity in the level design (particularly regarding the utilization of special abilities) could have made The Cave really stand out in its genre, but it’s still enjoyable as is.
The story follows seven different characters from various backgrounds. The game’s introduction gives you a vague backstory for each, with the full story fleshing itself out as you explore the cave. The characters, and their backstories (as narrated by the cave itself) are as follows:
- The Monk: He seeks his master so he can become the master. It’s a journey filled with peace and enlightenment… AND MURDER hahahaha. Oops, sorry.
- The Adventurer: She is hot on the trail of her lost companions, and an unequaled ancient treasure….But not necessarily in that order.
- The Hillbilly: On this fine night he searches for his true love, but does this desire burn too brightly in his heart?
- The Scientist: She is on the cusp of a great discovery for all of humankind, and a hundred million lives hang in the balance.
- The Twins: They just want to go outside and play. What could be more innocent than that?
- The Knight: He is on a quest for a sword of unequaled power and prestige, but will he find it before anyone else gets hurt?
- The Time Traveler: She is here to right a wrong, a million years in the making. Fortunately for her, yesterday is a new day.
The full story behind each character becomes more and more apparent as you adventure deeper into the cave. Two different methods of storytelling are employed, working in tandem to give you all the dark details.
The first method The Cave uses to convey the plot to the players is the use of cave paintings. Hidden throughout the game are symbols correlating to the seven characters in the game. Activating these symbols reveals cave paintings that detail the full stories of each character bit by bit, explaining more thoroughly what it is that they seek, and what misdeeds they committed in their attempt to acquire that which they crave.
The second method of storytelling is tied into the gameplay itself. Each of the themed sections involves puzzles based on the characters’ stories. In solving a themed section, you effectively “act out” the story of that character’s dark secrets.
The game does a good job of perpetuating a twisted and mysterious atmosphere early on, but as you progress, these two storytelling methods undermine each other. Because the cave paintings are spread evenly throughout the game from start to finish, they become somewhat redundant to each character once they’ve conquered their specific section. The details of the cave paintings and the themed areas aren’t always completely identical, but once you’ve cleared a section, you have a pretty good grasp on what you can expect from future cave paintings.
Finally, there’s the ending. The game technically has two endings for each character – one good and one bad – but this doesn’t function the way you’d think. The outcome of the game isn’t based on any sort of complex formula derived from the way you solved puzzles or anything of that nature. Instead, a single, non-obvious action is required to access the alternate ending for each character. For the sake of those avoiding spoilers I won’t reveal what that action is, but for those who are curious, the trick to unlocking the alternate ending is mentioned in the Zero Punctuation review of the game. Be advised that his review of the game contains a high amount of strong language.
Audio and Visual Quality
I was genuinely pleased by The Cave‘s overall high level of quality when it comes to both the visual and audio aspects. I found the art direction enjoyable, and everything is crisp and clear. It won’t blow you away with a sense of realism – the game has more a of a toon look to it – but everything from the character models to the cave paintings are visually pleasing, and they all seem to gel well with the game’s overall atmosphere. Even the subtle character animations brought a smile to my face.
The music and sound effects all seem very fitting, and the audio is excellent in surround sound. Even the voice acting (which can often make or break a game) is solid overall. A few voices and one-liners made me groan a little, but the general quality is above average. The only real complaint I have with the sound is that the whirring noise made at all times by the Time Traveler grows pretty grating on the nerves after awhile.
The highlight of the dialog is the cave itself. Narrating your entire journey, the cave uses a mixture of sarcasm, foreshadowing, and a twisted sense of humor to guide your journey.
Replay value is a mixed bag in The Cave. The obvious advantage that the game has is the fact that there are seven playable characters, prompting multiple playthroughs. The fact that the game is played three characters at a time also provides a disadvantage though: after two playthroughs of the game, you’re left with one lone “new” character to play as, making the game’s third playthrough quite repetitive.
It’s not just the third playthrough that has too much repetition; the generic sections of the game put a serious damper on the replay experience. Each time you play through the game you have to play the same exact generic areas. Having different abilities at your disposal can slightly alter the way you complete them, but they are largely the same each time through. For most games this wouldn’t be a problem, but given that The Cave is entirely puzzle based, the generic sections can get old fast. Once you’ve figured out how to solve a section, there’s nothing new under the sun for it on replays. By your third playthrough of the game you’re playing the exact same sections for the third time, and two of the themed sections are repeats as well.
It would have taken a lot more effort on the part of the developers, but the game’s replay value would be drastically improved if the generic sections took into account your entire team, and puzzles were generated that made use of the three abilities you have at your disposal at any given time.
The game generally runs pretty smoothly, but I did experience a few issues. There are occasional frame rate drops when moving from one area to the next, but these are short-lived. Characters occasionally get “stuck” on objects, causing them to look like they’re having an epileptic seizure. This problem is reminiscent of a lot of old 2D sidescrolling games, but the problems are never as severe as those games of old. Even in a worst case scenario, the player can commit suicide by hitting both shoulder buttons at the same time, causing them to re-spawn a few steps back from where they were.
The only major glitch I encountered was early on in the game, and judging by what I’ve seen in browsing the Miiverse discussion on the game, it doesn’t appear to be common. After falling down a long drop into a pool of water, I found a solid wall that I could swim right through. After I did so, the game began to treat some of the water like a solid object, while other areas still functioned with normal swimming mechanics. Resetting the game fixed this instantly, and I never encountered it again.
One minor annoyance is that there are some instances where the game may stump you for the wrong reasons. At times, the game can require pretty specific input, and any deviation won’t work. Players may find themselves tempted to look up what they’re doing wrong in a walkthrough, only to find out that they were trying the right thing all along, but didn’t do it exactly the way the game was expecting. These instances are fairly few in number, but they can be frustrating nonetheless.