A knight, a hillbilly, a scientist, a monk, an adventurer, a time traveler, and a pair of twin children walk into a talking cave…
This isn’t the beginning of a bad joke, but a fine dark comedy adventure created by Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame. Like his previous work, The Cave presents players with a signature style unlike the majority of contemporary offerings, and the full experience leaves an impression greater than its brief duration might suggest.
The Cave features a total of seven playable characters, but only three can make the journey at once. Revealing each character’s reasons for entering the cave is rewarding, and although these short tales aren’t very deep or intricate, there’s an intrigue surrounding each of the seven antiheroes and their secrets. The minimalist approach to storytelling and the mysteriously comedic narration by the sentient cave combine to strengthen the metaphor employed by Gilbert. The Cave is dark, and it begs exploration.
Underlying the game’s puzzle-platformer facade are core design sensibilities that retain the feel of the point-and-click adventures Gilbert is known for, while updating the interface for greater accessibility. Players navigate colorful environments via light, imprecise jumping and climbing mechanics, but the primary focus is on collecting, implementing, and occasionally combining an interesting array of items in order to accomplish the characters’ goals and progress through the cave and its anthological narrative.
Puzzle-solving in The Cave is fairly simple, and will rarely leave one scratching his or her head like the adventures of old. With no inventory – only single items in the characters’ hands – the necessity to first figure out which item to use is all but eliminated, leaving where and how as the remaining variables. The characters’ unique abilities also come into play, both for accessing each one’s themed stage, and for solving a portion of the puzzles within each of those areas. Still, during my first playthrough, the longest delay came at a point when I knew exactly how to proceed, but the game wouldn’t recognize the interaction of my character’s equipped item with the object on which I attempted to use it, leading me to fruitlessly try other things until I returned to my initial plan. Puzzling and platforming may not be terribly challenging in The Cave, but clever narrative integration makes working out the solutions highly entertaining despite that fact.
The most puzzling aspects of The Cave are actually a couple of design decisions that make subsequent playthroughs less enjoyable than the initial journey. Each time one plays the cave, three character-specific levels are supplemented by three (-and-a-half) standard ones. This means that in order to see the remaining characters’ areas and storylines, these must be replayed. Furthermore, because there are seven characters instead of six or nine, a third trip through the cave will feature about 85% repeated content. These aren’t terrible tragedies, as the common areas can be completed quickly, but the experience would most certainly be improved if the setup was slightly altered.
For something different, clever, interesting, and stylish, The Cave is a sure bet. The draw of the old-school adventure remains, minus much of the tedium that might have kept the average gamer away, and although there is room for improvement in its design, the dark narrative arouses curiosity enough to draw players into the experience, even for return visits.