Developer: Double Fine Productions / Publisher: SEGA / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Teen [Fantasy Violence, Blood]
With some tasks in life, figuring out how to do it is way more fun than actually doing it. Say you want to form a band — the best part is coming up with a name (I’m still waiting to use “Sex Trigger”). Practicing scales for hours is far less appealing.
This is especially true in puzzle games. Finding the solution is 95% of the fun, but The Cave makes executing on those ideas way more mundane and time consuming than it should be. If Portal is the band equivalent of coming up with an awesome name like “Anal Annihilation,” then The Cave is loading an ‘89 econoline van with heavy thrift store instruments.
The premise for The Cave is steeped in novelty at least, as you could expect from Maniac Mansion creator Ron Gilbert. You choose three characters from a cast of seven to navigate a massive underground cave, and each character has a specific ability that will allow you to shortcut certain puzzles. With the cave itself acting as narrator (yeah I know… just roll with it), the characters you choose uncover themed sections of the cave that force them to confront dark truths about themselves.
And when I say dark, I mean dark. If you can somehow combine the brutality of original Brothers Grimm fairy tales with Ron Gilbert’s unique nudge-you-in-the-ribs humor, you might have some idea of where this game goes. The cartoony appearance of the characters and their jerky, exaggerated expressions are awfully disarming. The cave itself exudes innocuous mystery as well. Bright colors and blocky geometry give this subterranean setting a storybook style, not to mention the buried UFOs, satellites, and skeletons you can see in the cutaway section of Earth surrounding the play area. It reminds me of billboards you see in the deserted stretches of interstate. The Cave, 22 mi. ahead.
Whether accidental or intentional misdirection, the game’s styling makes the dark slant underneath more disturbing and interesting. None of these characters are good people, a fact made clear as you uncover more about their past through still images revealing their pasts and help them navigate their personalized dungeons. Furthermore much of the game’s detail clicks into place as you learn more about these characters as well. The Knight’s cowardly shivering and the Adventurer’s contemptuous looks gain new depth when you understand what these people did before they come to the cave and what they do to get out.
In fact, those moments of revulsion are so strong that it’d be worth playing for that alone if they were easier to experience. It isn’t a question of difficulty but of sheer drudgery. Almost every puzzle requires an astounding amount of backtracking and traversal, even when the puzzle’s solution has already been demonstrated by the player.
I don’t want to provide too many specific examples for the sake of spoilers, but here’s one that summarizes what I mean. At the beginning of the Monk-themed dungeon, you have to climb up a large mountain with ledge-mantling animations that are just on the annoying side of long. You get all the way to the top, listen to some lines from a wizened master, then he gives you an item that you have to take all the way back to the entrance just to open a door. The game even acknowledges how silly this is when the narrator says, without a note of self-awareness, “That was quite a climb to grab a feather and turn right back around.” Touché, narrator.
That by itself doesn’t sound so bad, but there isn’t a single puzzle that forsakes drudgery for the sake of experimentation or exploration. Performing a step out of order means you have to backtrack to re-collect an item or move a character across the entire map. Shortcuts are never opened, and you’ll have dropped the hot dog / box of crackers / whatever on the far end of the map when you need it on the other side. Basically, you spend a huge amount of time in The Cave knowing exactly what to do but grinding against the game’s friction to do it.
That’s only on the first playthrough, too. If you want to see the entire casts’ excursion through the cave, you’ll have to do multiple playthroughs. With each run bookended by an identical puzzle sequence, you probably won’t have the patience to go through the motions. And, as you might’ve guessed, there’s no way to shortcut the process if you already know the solutions to the puzzles involved.
To make matters worse, while there are a few different ways to solve puzzles, there’s no different outcomes to reward your ingenuity. For example, the Knight’s puzzle involves retrieving a dragon’s treasure to win the heart of a maiden. Normally you’d have to unlock the dragon’s cage to get it, but I found a way to sneak the treasure out without unlocking the cage at all. However, the dragon still escapes to screams of “Who left the cage open?!” It’s the classic video game illusion of choice: you can get the key by doing A or B, but you still have to get the key.
Still, don’t get the impression this game is without merit. Quite the contrary, in fact; the first time your stomach drops because you realize you have committed terrible acts is an amazing experience. I just can’t guarantee that you’ll tolerate the routine annoyances that separate them.
If you’re the type of gamer that likes talking about games as much as playing them, The Cave will give you plenty to talk about. Otherwise, if you’re just after a fun and well-crafted experience, there’s too much chaff in this package.
+ Memorable cast of characters
+ Wonderfully dark story tone
- Way too much backtracking
6.5 / 10