I really, really wanted to like The Cave. Ron Gilbert is one of the best game designers of all time, Double Fine have released some of my favourite games and it was an excuse to turn on my Wii U. What could go wrong? Turns out; a lot. There’s the nugget of a great game here, let down by possibly one of the most utterly infuriating and obnoxious design flaws that I’ve ever played.
The Cave has, for all of its flaws, a pretty fascinating narrative. The Cave is a place where people can explore the darkest aspects of their personalities to find their ‘heart’s desire.’ The Cave may offer redemption, or simply allow these broken people to revel in their own depravity. The player picks three characters from a cast of seven, and these three go through the cave, each encountering obstacles and challenges unique to them and relating to an event in their past.
The Cave, who talks to you throughout the adventure (don’t question it), is a great setting. The different settings for each of the characters are quite atmospheric and distinct, from the medieval castle for the ‘Knight’ to the futuristic museum of the ‘Time Traveller’ .
The concept of a cave which throws up the darkest secrets of a person’s past is an incredible one, so it’s a just a huge shame that the actual game doesn’t live up to this potential. The stories about each character are fascinating; ‘The Twins’ have a truly dark tale to tell, with the ‘Knight’ falling into the category of grimly hilarious. The sinister, yet charming and witty, voice of The Cave helps to move the subtle story along well. There’s something of a Grimm’s fairytale in to The Cave, with a twisted and dark moral message paired with comedy.
The Cave is an adventure game (it is Ron Gilbert after all), but one in a style which I haven’t really seen before. At the opening of the game, the player chooses three characters from a pool of seven; the Knight, the Hillbilly, the Adventurer, the Twins, the Scientist, the Time-Traveller and the Monk. The game all takes place in 2D environments, and there’s a platforming element in the traversal of the cave. The player solves puzzles, used by collecting items, manipulating objects, often needing to use all three characters in your party at once. The puzzles are often very clever, although there is something of an overabundance of ‘adventure game logic’, puzzles which are oblique rather than clever.
The Cave tries some new and interesting things, but perhaps there’s a reason that this sort of game hasn’t been made before; it just doesn’t quite work. The platforming is cumbersome, irritating and pointless rather than engaging, and the lack of an inventory means a frankly ridiculous amount of ferrying items back and forth. Still, I could forgive these flaws, as I’ll forgive anything ambitious and shows a willingness to try something new, and The Cave certainly does. What I cannot forgive is the incredibly obnoxious requirement to play the game three times to see every character’s individual story. These are the main draw of the game, and there’s several hours of replayed content required to see them all. I gave up half way through my second playthrough; my first had been fun enough, but I wasn’t willing to waste that much time trudging through puzzles that I had just completed before. A major question is ‘why seven characters?’ Six would require two playthroughs, which wouldn’t be nearly so bad, but to experience the whole thing you have to play the game three times, the last with only one new character. Now, I’m sure this was intentional; Gilbert is a canny enough designer to not make these kind of mistakes by accident. That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom what that intention was, and it weakens the game a huge amount as a result.
Overall, this is a nice looking game. The characters all have a style which made me nostalgically reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventure games, as well as Double Fine’s more recent offerings. The voice acting is fun, with the clear highlight being the voice of The Cave itself, charming yet filled with menace. Other characters are voiced in an over the top hammy fashion which is the trademark of Double Fine games, and that’s just fine with me. This game is laugh out loud funny, as any good Double Fine game should be.
Still, it’s not enough, and The Cave stands as a bitterly disappointing experience, crippled by some baffling design flaws. There could have been a great game here, and there certainly are glimpses of something brilliant. This is a rare misstep for Gilbert and Double Fine; despite that, I still have full faith in both. I can’t wait to see where Gilbert goes next, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to Broken Age, Double Fine’s Kickstarted adventure game.