The Cave, Double Fine’s latest, isn’t a bad game. It’s also not a particularly good game. And thanks to the high expectations I had (Multiple player characters! Replayability! A new adventure by Ron Gilbert! Darkly humorous! Moral tales!) this means that, in a lot of ways, I can’t help but find it monstrously disappointing. So maybe I’m just down on it because it didn’t live up to my mental expectations. I mean, it’s not bad, but… oh, I’m so confused.
Let’s start from the basics and see if we can work out why I don’t like it too much. The Cave has you pick three characters from a line-up of seven, and these three descend into the titular cave: a sentient, talking location that’s probably also a metaphor. This cave seems to have the ability to grant people their strongest desires – but you need to be careful what you wish for, and that’s one of the primary moral lessons of this particular aesop.
Each of the seven characters wants something, and each of them is willing to do some very dark things to get it. The Edward Gorey-inspired Twins, for instance, want freedom and are willing to murder their parents to get it. The Scientist wants greater wealth, and is willing to compromise her morals in exchange. The Adventurer is after fame and renown, and her colleagues get in the way of her hogging the limelight. Etc.
As you spelunk your way along, you get to see little bits and pieces of these characters’ lives through lovingly-drawn cave paintings, which show the build up to their current moral predicament. Whichever three you’ve picked also have their own individual area inside the cave, in which you become complicit in whatever crime they’re tempted to commit. So yes, you get to murder the parents of the Twins.
Each of the characters also has an individual power, the idea being that return journeys through the cave will be a little different. The Monk can pick up distant items through telekinesis, which helps negate a few puzzles which ask you to figure out how to grab a particular item, while the Time Traveller can phase through barred gates instead of finding a switch. Etcetera.
That aside, half of the map is comprised of areas which every playthrough involves. Everything starts the same way and ends the same way – the only differences are in the character-specific side areas you encounter along your trek. And all of this is tied together with Double Fine’s typically great writing and sense of humour, which is always nice to see.
So you’ve got replayability, some strong character archetypes, an intriguing set of moral stories, and Double Fine’s writing. And it’s a new adventure game by Ron Gilbert! It has to be great, right?
First things first: genres are slippery things at the best of times, but this is not an adventure game. If anything, it’s a puzzle-platformer. While there are a few adventure game-like puzzles scattered throughout, you’ll spend a lot more time either solving puzzles so obvious they can’t really be called puzzles (there’s a cave-in up ahead with a lit torch next to it and I have a stick of dynamite; what do I do?) or, occasionally, pushing blocks around to make footholds and dealing with simple physics puzzles, which are generally pretty rubbish and aren’t much more exciting here. The game actually goes so far as to include a variation on the “get a certain amount of water from jugs of two different sizes” that you might remember fromor early maths classes, although – hilariously – it does link you to a walkthrough at the same time, so that’s entirely forgiveable.
So there are a few item-based puzzles, plus some logic puzzles and a lot of the sort of thing we used to see in the puzzle sections in old-school platformers, and the latter two are a bit rubbish. Which is a shame, because a few of the item-based puzzles are actually pretty good, although the limited number of items available at any given times means that it’s pretty hard to get stuck.
But even these aren’t without problems. Each of your three characters can only hold one item at a time, and each area tends to be pretty big and pretty dull. So you wander around, explore, find items and problems, and then backtrack to find the relevant item again.
Which is where we get onto the other big problem The Cave has: the platforming. It’s clunky as hell, frankly, but I could live with that if it weren’t for a number of other annoyances. For one thing, most of the areas are massive but empty, meaning that you’ll be traversing a sprawling landscape a lot and it simply isn’t much fun to actually explore. For another, climbing ladders and ropes is slower than you’d reasonably expect – and most of the areas use a lot of ladders and ropes. For a third, dropping from too high a height kills the character.
This adds up, essentially, to mean that you’re going to be climbing around the areas very slowly, again and again. To put this in context: remember the dynamite “puzzle” I mentioned above? Well, there are three cave-ins you need to clear. And the dynamite’s at the bottom of a chasm. Which means you need to repeatedly climb down it (because jumping down will kill you), pick up another stick, and climb back up. You could have each character pick a stick up the first time you’re there, but as the others rarely automatically follow you, you’d still have to manually take each of them down and back up again. The lack of a “call characters here” button is mind-blowing. Oh: and you need more from down there than just the dynamite, so you’re heading down again anyway. The platforming lacks any real feeling of challenge, so this smacks of annoying filler.
Which means that The Cave is a puzzle-platformer with largely uninspired puzzles, and platforming and exploration that isn’t really any good. Unsurprisingly (and thankfully) a number of Double Fine touches mean that it’s a bit more than the sum of its parts, but even the writing and humour can’t quite make this an easy recommendation.
But let’s be kind, to start: the writing’s good. Throughout the game, the cave itself is sardonically commenting on what’s happening, and it’s both well-written and well-voiced. You’ll occasionally bump into other characters, most of whom have some agenda and personality quirk of their own, and – while the game is rarely laugh-out-loud funny – most raise a wry smile.
The problem really comes down to the playable seven, few of whom really have much character. None of them speak, at all, ever. Everything you learn about them comes from the cave paintings, their own level, and individual quirks in their (excellent) animation. Worse is that the vaunted abilities, which change your experience and let you solve puzzles in different ways, have very little impact on the “common” areas that every character visits. You might be able to skip one puzzle by picking up a distant item with the Monk, yes, but you’ll probably be missing out on a cave painting if you do that anyway, so what’s the point?
This lack of character also means that the moral tales really don’t have much of an impact. These aren’t characters I grew to adore, like literally everyone from Psychonauts. These are well-animated little models that I’m directing around a very repetitive environment, who climb ladders and ropes far too slowly and who get called all sorts of pejoratives whenever they fall an inch too far and vanish in a puff of death smoke. I don’t really care how most of the stories work out, and a few of them don’t function as moral tales all that well anyway.
And did I mention that to see all the character areas you’ll need to finish the game three times – redoing at least two characters along the way – or a staggering five times to see all the endings? The platforming doesn’t offer enough amusement or challenge to make this particularly worthwhile, and as with most games, once you know the solution to the puzzles they’re really just time-consuming rather than brain-teasing. After finishing it a second time, I have absolutely no desire to go through it again to see the one area I missed.
But my incessant complaining, it’s like I said before – The Cave isn’t bad. The platforming is an irritant, but it’s a mostly tolerable one; some of the puzzles are decent enough; and there’s certainly enough in the shape of the writing and the basic feel to make it worth at least one go-around. But, nonetheless, it’s disappointing. It’s… okay. It’s fine. But it’s certainly not Double Fine.