We've been anticipating The Cave here at Nintendo Life Towers ever since it was announced. After all, it's a collaboration between two genuine legends of the industry. Firstly there's Ron Gilbert, whose work includes classics such as Maniac Mansion, the first two Secret of Monkey Island games, and 2010's repetitive but hilarious DeathSpank. Then there's Tim Schafer, the mind behind Grim Fandango, Psychonauts and Costume Quest, among many other great games, serving as creative director.
That's a pretty meaty sampling of titles that are often held up as the very best the graphical adventure game genre has to offer, and having both Gilbert and Schafer under the same roof for Double Fine's The Cave is an adventure junky's dream come true. Unfortunately the final product does fall a bit short of the sum of its parts, but that's not to say it's a bad game; it's simply a flawed experience.
The game is indeed the story of a cave — or, rather, The Cave — which serves the triple purpose of being our plot device, our setting and our narrator. Talk about efficiency. When the game begins there are seven characters (technically eight, but the twins play as a single character) gathered around a campfire outside of The Cave. Each has come for his or her own private reason, and they each seek something very different, but if any of them are to find what they're looking for they will need to work together.
It's here that the lifeblood of Maniac Mansion seeps into the game, and that's a good thing. Gilbert's early adventure masterpiece saw the player selecting three characters to guide through the humorously gory and surprisingly dark depths of the Edison mansion, uncovering mysteries and solving tricky inventory puzzles along the way. That's essentially the same approach taken with The Cave: the first three characters you guide into the mouth of our sentient — and cruel — cave constitute your team. Each of them have different abilities that can be used to circumvent trickier solutions, but it's possible to complete the game with any combination of characters.
For instance, the adventurer can make use of hooks scattered throughout The Cave to find shortcuts, the scientist can hack terminals to open new passageways, and the hillbilly can hold his breath long enough to explore more deeply underwater. But it's not just special abilities that these characters bring with them — they each have their own flavour of psychological baggage as well, and The Cave itself is determined to tap into each of them individually, providing every character with an exclusive area: their own personal Twilight Zone.
Unsurprisingly, the writing is where The Cave really shines. Gilbert hasn't lost his ability to turn everything into a joke so perfect you can't believe nobody's told it before, but oftentimes the humour here is subtle, or even cruel. It's more Grim Fandango than DeathSpank in that regard, and we're not complaining. The Cave is a dark (dark, dark) game, and that's part of its appeal. As you guide these characters through the twists and turns of their tormented histories, it's impossible not to reflect upon the choices they make. You're put through the ethical paces right along with them.
Overall, this sounds great. However, we've only actually discussed the concept of the game; the actual execution is a lot more problematic.
Nearly every puzzle is solved with inventory items, yet there is no inventory screen. Instead, each of your three characters can hold a single item at a time. That would make it difficult enough to get through the game even if you knew exactly how to solve everything the first time, but more than likely you'll need to experiment. That means you'll be moving each character all around the map, picking up an item, running to the obstacle you're attempting to overcome, then dropping the item and running elsewhere to find something different. Trial and error is nothing new when it comes to adventure games, but such copious and unavoidable backtracking certainly is.
You also can't tell other characters to follow you, which means that when you need all three characters in the same room to throw switches, you have to guide each of them individually and tediously to the same place. There's really no excuse for not including the ability to move as a group.
The Cave has been described as a "puzzle platformer", and that's a fair description, but the platforming elements are usually just ways to pad out the game and make the backtracking even more tedious. You'll be shimmying up the same ropes and climbing down the same ladders so many times as you shuttle items around the map that it gets quite dull and frustrating quickly. What's more, there's no death in The Cave — the game gets some admittedly great comic mileage out of this conceit — so failing at a platforming challenge is meaningless; you simply respawn a short distance away, which makes you wonder why they bothered to include death pits at all.
As in any adventure game, the puzzle solutions are often sorely confusing, but this wouldn't be a problem if not for the backtracking. In the classic days of graphical adventures it might have seemed tedious to try out every item in your inventory on an obstacle in the hopes that something would eventually work. Here it's even worse, as you need to bring every one of those items individually to the obstacle, and that's nothing but padding.
The Cave shouldn't need padding. With each character facing exclusive rooms, puzzles and solutions, it already requires at least three playthroughs to even experience all of the puzzles, let alone to find alternate solutions and hidden cave paintings that further reveal the backstory of each character. It's already equipped to be a lengthy enough experience on its own, so the backtracking and item juggling really just makes additional playthroughs sound like less enticing a prospect. It's a case of The Cave stepping on its own intentions, and we're very sorry for that, because it's otherwise a quite effective experience.
At least the game looks great, with environments reflecting the tormented psyche of each character and being given just enough of a twist to make everything seem either threatening or foreboding. The music is also a perfect fit, with tracks tailored to each individual set piece. The voice acting, while there's comparatively little of it, is also top-notch. In terms of presentation, the game gets absolutely everything right, and it's safe to say that there's no other experience quite like it in the eShop yet, nor is there likely to be.
But The Cave trips over its own good intentions. It may want to create for these characters a vision of their own most dreaded eternal torments, but with the amount of backtracking, trial and error, item juggling and character shuttling it includes, it almost feels like it intends to punish gamers as well. And that's a level of meta-awareness we're not as comfortable with.
Ultimately, The Cave represents a flawed attempt at a brilliant concept. The backtracking and item juggling can make the game's more esoteric puzzle solutions a chore to figure out, but the foreboding atmosphere, layered backstories and branching paths are all solid marks in its favour. The visuals and soundtrack are also great, as is the writing — but presentation isn't everything, and we wish it was actually more fun to play.