Throughout this console generation we’ve seen a lot of melding of genres; for example, just about every game has some sort of RPG element now. The point and click adventure game is a genre that hasn’t really been involved in this mass melding. We’ve seen Telltale Games change it up a little with The Walking Dead, but now adventure game master Ron Gilbert and Double Fine have decided to try their hand at it. The result is The Cave, an adventure game platformer in which you control a selection of seven characters (though really there’s eight as one “character” is a set of twins) as they enter a sentient cave seeking their heart’s true desire.
After the titular and immensely charming Cave introduces the game, you are presented with a choice. You must select three of the seven playable characters to take on your journey. Each has their own special ability: invincibility for the Knight, telekinesis for the Monk, hacking for the Scientist and so on. These abilities allow each character to enter their own unique region of The Cave, it’s in these themed areas that you will be challenged with helping the characters gain their heart’s desire, for some that means love for others a wondrous treasure. There are also several shared areas that can (and will) be accessed no matter the make up of your party. As you won’t be able to see all seven character’s stories in one run, you will have to repeat these non-specific sections multiple times.
Repetition is the bane of The Cave. If it’s not the entire sections you’ll play multiple times, it’s the frustrating amount of backtracking within each and every section. The ability to skip or streamline these areas in some way would have been welcome. Backtracking is exacerbated by the sub-par platforming and need to constantly switch between characters. As there’s no way to get a character you aren’t directly controlling to follow you, they’ll just have to stand and wait while you move the active character to where they need to be, at which point you have to switch characters and slavishly move to the next spot. In theory co-op might alleviate this issue slightly, but that’s hampered by a single screen camera that is inconsistent in who it focuses on. Platforming just ends up getting in the way of the adventure game aspects. Often you will know exactly what you need to do to complete a puzzle, usually because you’ve done it before, but thanks to the poor platforming it’ll take you far longer than you’d like to execute the solution.
Taking the puzzle solving of an adventure game and replacing the cursor with an avatar you directly control is definitely a smart idea. Heck, platformers have had light puzzle elements almost since their inception. Unfortunately, The Cave slips up on a fundamental part of this: the platforming is bad. Though not the worst platforming ever in a game, it’s clunky, slow and often hard to control. When the core gameplay and navigation mechanic isn’t enjoyable–oftentimes quite the opposite, in fact–you’ve messed up. There’s really no excuse for bad 2D platforming in 2013; Super Mario Bros 3 perfected that stuff well over 20 years ago.
All these shortcomings are made all the more disappointing by the fact it’s immensely charming and well written. As mentioned earlier, The Cave itself (himself?) is great, narrating events with a wonderfully dry, dark wit which sets the tone and atmosphere perfectly. The few other voiced characters you come across are also all very funny, well acted and just generally a lot of fun. Puzzles are also clever and challenging; there are only a few stumpers here and there but you’re certainly likely to stop and scratch your head for a bit at some point. I found myself amused by the cartoon logic many of the puzzles use. Have a battery with no charge? Obviously this pool of water with Electric Eels swimming around in it is exactly what you need.
The Cave is a lovely little world to get lost in, with a beautiful soundtrack, a wonderful art style and writing that’ll constantly make you smile. Unfortunately, playing the game just isn’t fun, simply because it breaks too many fundamental rules. A game should never waste the player’s time, but here we have a game that almost feels designed to do just that, hoping you won’t notice because it made a joke about hot dogs.
The Cave was developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Sega. An Xbox 360 copy of the game was purchased by the editor to review the title.