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Review: THE CAVE – Plenty of Wit and Backtracking

I awaited Ron Gilbert’s The Cave with childlike glee. Adventure games have never really been my thing, but they were a staple in my adolescent gaming. That genre use to be everywhere and thanks to people like Ron Gilbert and friends at Double Fine (though Gilbert was not always with them), we had quality, humorous games coming down the pipe for many years. That’s still the case, but in a different manner these days. Double Fine’s recent titles are looked at like something to be revered rather than pioneers in the gaming industry. They are now the grandfathers of gaming who continue to put out quality products year after year. Sure, they are smaller now, but there is something truly special about the company.

The Cave is a Double Fine game created by Ron Gilbert. Gilbert is the man behind such games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. Most people assume that Tim Schafer is behind every Double Fine game, but this time it’s all Ron Gilbert. He has said that this was an idea he had thirty years ago, which adds a certain level of expectation when coming into this game. Taking out the point-and-click mechanics, Gilbert combined the use of puzzle solving with characters who interacted directly with the environment.

Gameplay

The Cave opens with you pressing “start” and The Cave, who is a character in the game, narrates the opening. The camera pans down to seven characters who all have different back stories. You are required to pick three characters, and each has unique special power. Your choices of characters are: the monk, adventurer, hillbilly, scientist, time traveler, knight, and the twins. After you have picked the characters you want, you make your way through the ever-changing cave as it adapts to those who you have picked. There are about six big puzzles to solve and three of those depend on who is in your party. Each character has a story to tell about their morals and how far they will go in order to fulfill their selfish wishes.

The puzzles require you to find items in the area and either put them in the right place again, or you have to combine them with elements in the level. The more interesting puzzles occur when you have to use all three characters at once in order to get past a certain part. They sometimes remind me of those co-op parts in LittleBigPlanet but on a much harder scale. The problems I had with the game come down to the puzzles, but I will get to that later.

Graphics

The game is a joy to look at. Every level is different than the last and it looks like some demented cartoon that I feel I would watch as a kid (or now, even). The levels that are designed specifically for a character are seamlessly intertwined with the rest of the game. The backgrounds are filled with spooky images of mountaintops or something related to the aesthetic of the current level. Each section is a joy to look at and the clever writing makes it all the more enjoyable with its witty, comic sense of style.

Sound

A large portion of the game is narrated by The Cave. This voice is a guide through the cave’s ever changing layout. He (it sounds like a “he” even if you can’t verify it) utilizes these three characters to tell his own version of morality. The Cave is a funny individual and every time his voice surfaces, it always made me smile if not laugh. Other than The Cave talking your ear off, the characters who you interact within the levels are just as wonderfully written. There is a miner who had me busting a gut every time I had to go near him. Nothing stands out in terms of ambiance or music with the game. Anything that had to do with sound was leaning mostly on those characters lines.

Issues

The biggest gripe, or maybe the only gripe I had with the game, is that the puzzles lose their steam about an hour in. The Cave is not a long experience. You can play through it in about 3-4 hours. This is because you are supposed to replay it with different characters in order to see the other scenarios and stories. The problem is the puzzles fall in the same mode of: go across the level, find out that you need an item, get the item, bring it back, and then realize that you have to bring it back to the area where you found it. So much time was spent backtracking and not enjoying the design of the levels. I was exhausted at numerous points because the game kept making me tread through the same motions over and over again. It feels as if the level design was made so that you had to go out of your way every time you needed to get something done. This is a shame because the levels that are designed around the characters have some great writing in them. Take for instance the Twins – you spend the time in their house (or the one The Cave created) trying to kill their parents. It’s disturbing but extremely funny how you go about doing it. It's quite the bummer that you spend all that time going to the top of the house and then back to the bottom of the house over and over again.

All of this backtracking doesn’t let the rest of the game shine. The Cave is a twisted story of morality and how far people will go in order to be “happy.” This is surrounded with some dark humor that sold me from the start. The levels that cater to specific character utilize their special powers really well, and they each tell an interesting story. I just don’t think this is Gilbert’s best, but his worst is still pretty damn fun.

Overall : 3/5

The Cave contains clever writing and some interesting puzzle scenarios. Unfortunately the game is weighed down by backtracking. What could’ve been a perfect experience is ruined by a sense of exhaustion for the player. The puzzles are clever enough for a playthrough, but I don’t see the need to revisit this one any time soon.

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