The Cave Review, XBLA – Chris Leggett
“Chris Leggett “our man in Seattle”, tries his hand at some Doublefine spelunking in The Cave.”
Point-and-click adventure games have fallen from favour somewhat, largely owing to their reliance on a seemingly archaic control interface. One of adventure-gaming’s great minds, Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion), has attempted to apply a more modern framework to the genre’s trademark puzzle-laden foundations in The Cave.
Set in a talking cave that also – bizarrely and humorously – serves as the game’s narrator, The Cave tells the tale of seven adventurers from different walks of life and even different periods in history. These interesting and varied characters (from which the player must select three) seek the cave’s secrets to learn about themselves and who they will become. What’s particularly amusing is that the player also learns a great deal about each of them as their stories progress. There’s a certain dark humour at play, and things are almost never as they first appear…
The same could be said for The Cave itself. At first glance, it might look like a particularly beautiful 2D platformer, but make no mistake; The Cave is very much a point-and-click adventure at its core, minus the pointing and the clicking. Gilbert’s intention with The Cave was to reduce the tedium of the genre’s historical “necessary evil”: backtracking. There’s no twitch-reflex jumping over precarious platforms to be found here. But the simple act of running, jumping and climbing through The Cave’s environments certainly makes navigation more enjoyable, especially when players are forced to revisit much of it.
This design approach is perhaps also the double-edged sword of The Cave; appearances might give a false impression of the game’s nature, and those unable to divorce the platform-game association from their experience may encounter frustration. Players will spend a fair amount of time in the same area, figuring out relatively abstract puzzles, sometimes sequentially, to allow them to move to the next area. Mistakenly approach The Cave as a traditional, action-heavy platformer, and you’ll likely resign yourself to a slow and tedious experience by those metrics.
But seasoned adventure gamers appreciate and understand that it’s all about the puzzles and the story, and in that sense, The Cave is an overwhelming success. The puzzles are simple in nature and yet, oftentimes, fiendishly perplexing. Essentially, they boil down to how one object or item in the environment interacts with another, which will grant players access to areas they previously couldn’t reach. Others require the use of the unique abilities of each of the characters, and many require the involvement of up to three characters performing specific actions simultaneously. For the most part, the puzzles are well-pitched; none are so abstract that the player must rely on exhaustive trial-and-error, and success elicits a genuinely rewarding sensation.
The Cave’s story is delivered with the clever wit that Gilbert’s previous adventure works are known for. As such, the hilarious antics resulting from your actions provide the perfect incentive to keep solving those puzzles. And it’s all complemented by narrative, delivered by the cave itself, that’s genuinely funny, sometimes contextual and consistently amusing. The Cave’s visuals are beautiful and crisp, and its environments are delightfully varied (with theme parks and medieval castles providing but two of the backdrops inside this mysterious underground cave). It all comes together in an incredibly charming package that defies any adventure-game fans to wipe the constant grins from their faces.
One of the true strengths of The Cave – and it’s an important, often overlooked one for this genre – is its replay factor. Because of the game’s seven-character, multiple-ending design, there’s enough reason to run through The Cave at least three times (or a minimum of five if you truly wish to see everything). Not only does each character have both good and bad endings, but they also have a unique, character-specific level inside the cave itself. Each of these is entertaining, perplexing in its own way, and advances the story of that particular character in amusing fashion. It’s well worth return trips to The Cave to experience them all, and it provides enough variety to make the first two replays interesting, at the very least.
Your approach to The Cave and your expectations of it will largely dictate your experience. For adventure-game veterans, it’s a logical and innovative evolution of the beloved genre that does much to restore its relevance in this modern era. In that sense, it’s also quite possibly an ideal starting point for those new to the genre – so long as they bring the required patience levels with them. But The Cave admirably breathes new life into the adventure genre, addressing many of the problems that may have seen the style continue to fade from view.