What Your Heart’s Desire?
What was the last multi-character 2D adventure puzzle platformer that you can remember? The Lost Vikings? It’s not exactly a genre that has seen a lot of mileage over the years.
Regardless, Double Fine and Ron Gilbert have attempted to bring the genre back with The Cave, and they’ve largely succeed. The Cave brings back a sort of brain-twisting puzzle logic that we haven’t seen in years, and despite a couple technical problems and a level of difficulty not often seen in modern day adventure games, it manages to carve its own little niche as the definitive puzzle platforming experience of our time.
The Cave is all about, appropriately enough, The Cave, a sentient talking labyrinth with the ability to grant adventurers their deepest desires. Few have ever returned from The Cave, but that doesn’t stop seven strange and cartoony stereotypes from trying their luck at exploring its depths. Throughout the game, The Cave itself narrates your adventure with a soothing story-time voice. Not only does this provide some dark (at times) back story for our cartoony protagonists, but it also serves as a makeshift hint system that prevents you from getting stuck along the way.
While you have seven characters to choose from, you can only actually choose from three in any given playthrough. Each character has its own unique special ability: The knight can turn himself invisible, the hillbilly can swim, the time-traveler can teleport, the twins can phase through objects, the adventurer has a whip that functions as a grappling hook, the scientist can do sciency stuff (like interact with machines), and the monk has psychic monk powers. You get to control all seven only for a very short amount of time at the beginning of the game, but shortly after that, whichever three that you select will be trapped in the Cave for the rest of your journey.
Most of the puzzles in the game don’t really require the use of each character’s unique powers, which makes sense considering how many different parties you can go through the game with. Instead, many of the game’s puzzles are simple variations on “bring item A to location B.” Of course, anyone who has played a 2D puzzler before knows that this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Several roadblocks will be put in your way, and you will have to use your brain to overcome them. Doors need to be opened through complex mechanisms operated by several characters. Traps need to be disabled by one character in order to let another go further. Every single puzzle in the game revolves around teamwork between all three of your characters, which you can switch between at any point.
Every puzzle can be solved in multiple ways, and this is where the unique character abilities really shine. Is your passageway blocked by a hungry beast? Sure, you can distract it with the food you found elsewhere in the stage, but you can also simply let it thwack away at the knight as he uses his invincibility power, or teleport to the other side of it using the time-traveler. The game really rewards imagination and innovative thinking.
The only time character powers become absolutely necessary is during a few character-specific stages, designed for the unique party that you have chosen. The knight, for example, has to traverse a fantasy-themed castle, while the scientist runs through a laboratory. You’ll only get to see these specific character-themed levels by bringing the character along at the very beginning of the game, and this does significantly increase the game’s replay value. You’ll have to play through at least three times to see all The Cave has to offer.
Perhaps the coolest feature of The Cave is its multiplayer capability. In single-player mode, you simply switch back and forth between the characters you want to control. However, in multiplayer mode, each player controls a different character. This makes the game a natural fit for multiplayer gameplay, as all of the puzzles are built around cooperation in the first place. Multiplayer is, by far, the superior way to experience the game. As they say, two (or three) heads are better than one.
The game does have some flaws worth mentioning, though. For one, there is slowdown all over the place. The game slows down when the screen scrolls, when there are a lot of objects on screen, when there are multiple characters on screen, and more. I’m not entirely sure what architecture they programmed the game for, but I’ve noticed slowdown in both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game.
Another “issue” with the game is its difficulty, though I use the word issue lightly. The puzzles in the game are not always obvious, and the game doesn’t really hold your hand. Yes, at times The Cave itself, acting as the narrator, will give you a hint or two, but even then a lot of the puzzles are real brain-benders. More than once I was forced to put the game down and take a break to regain my mental stamina. I’m also guilty of having to consult a FAQ more than once. In a way, The Cave treats its players the way old school puzzle games did, in a very hands-off manner. It expects you to come up with the solutions to its puzzles all on your own, so expect to get stuck repeatedly, maybe even as early as the first few levels!
The game has a quirky story, reminiscent of Double Fine games of the past, though there isn’t a whole lot of plot here. You’ll play through multiple puzzles at a time before the narrator comes back, and the characters don’t really talk at all. The back stories of the characters are mostly told through the puzzles you complete and the scenarios you are put in, but even then the game barely flirts with narrative. It’s very unlike Double Fine or Ron Gilbert’s other works, which are absolutely saturated with story. On the contrary, The Cave seems to be primarily about the gameplay.
Finally, as I said before, this is a puzzle platformer, which means there is platforming involved. Unfortunately, the jumping controls aren’t the best. Characters control loosely and their jumps are very floaty. In addition, they latch on to ledges as soon as they come anywhere near them—likely intended as an assistance mechanic—but to me this just feels awkward. You’ll struggle against the controls a lot in this game, and while you’ll eventually get used to it, it can be frustrating when you are trying to figure out whichever puzzle has just been put before you.
Despite its flaws, The Cave is a unique experience that explores a genre that few other games on the market dare to touch. Its cartoony atmosphere and characters mesh perfectly with the somewhat dark humor of the admittedly sparse story. The ability to choose completely different characters with completely different abilities for each playthrough compels you to play multiple times, regardless of the frustrating difficulty. The “Aha!” feeling you get when solving a puzzle easily offsets any amount of frustration you feel in the platforming itself.
Overall, The Cave is a great example of its genre and a good game in its own right. I highly recommend it for any fans of 2D games, puzzles games, or adventure games, or anyone simply looking to have another Double Fine laugh.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
The cartoony graphics and character models fit the tone of the game’s sparse narrative. 3.4 Control
Unfortunately, the jumping controls are a little too loose. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The narration is well done and is the most memorable part of the game’s sound design. 3.9 Play Value
Though difficult, you’ll want to play this more than once. 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|