What is The Cave you ask? Perhaps it is an adventure game. The common tropes of the genre are there: find and collect items then solve puzzles to progress the story, yet there is no inventory or dialogue to speak of. Perhaps it is a two dimensional platform game. Certainly you run, jump and climb (and climb, forever climbing) over platforms, yet there are no real enemies or dextrous challenges to sweat over. What is The Cave? Perhaps even developers Double Fine are uncertain, and this may be the game’s greatest dilemma.
Selecting three of the seven available cast members you plunge headfirst into the titular cave, which can morph its shape to suit its occupants, in search of truth, wisdom, enlightenment, and in the process discovering the oft unsavoury backstories of your team. The humour and character realisation is one of the strongest assets of the game. Taking the surreal and slightly melancholic humour that dwells in Double Fine’s previous works (particularly Psychonauts and Stacking) the game produces several genuinely laugh out loud moments and the darkly tinged narrative provided by The (strangely vocal for an inanimate object) Cave is a constant source of amusement. Yet these characters lack the presence of the previously mentioned works mainly due to the game’s brevity and their status as silent protagonists.
The bulk of the game is taken up with trudging linear platforming and solving basic puzzles, utilising all three of your characters, carrying items and pulling switches as required. Imagine classic puzzle platforming series The Lost Vikings minus their special abilities. Actually that may be a little unfair since each character in The Cave has a unique power (grappling hooks, teleportation, telekinesis... each left to the player to discover), the issue is that the game is designed to be completed with any combination of characters. The result being that these abilities are rarely required and never have to be combined to solve any puzzle. Again, there is a feeling that Double Fine are as confused as we are about what the game is trying to be.
In fact the only time it is even necessary to use these talents is within each character's own story section. These areas are the most enjoyable parts of the game, where the humour often takes a wicked turn and the art style has a chance to snap the earthly shackles of The Cave and break out into wonderful and vibrant locations such as a castle complete with slumbering dragon or a museum of the future, filled with amusingly misinterpreted trinkets from present day. Here you will discover those quirky clever backstories that shine like bright beams of sunlight through cracks in the otherwise dreary, dark cavernous ceiling.
But those shafts of bright light quickly vanish as the troglodyte conditions return. While The Cave certainly suffers from a lack of direction, the game’s greatest issue is the ponderous platforming. Your team plod around at a dull pace and when they encounter any form of climbing they clamber so slowly that it is worth taking a nap while you wait for them to reach the bottom. And there are sodding ropes everywhere. You could try and jump down to speed things up, but the arbitrary death from falling limit is set frustratingly low (fortunately death merely respawns the character a few steps back and is never permanent).
Perhaps this could be understandable if you only had to traipse through each area once, but considering there are three characters to individually control, each having to spelunk their way around The Cave, often you are left falling into a comatose state before all team members have reached their destination. Multiplayer may speed up this process marginally, as up to three players can control a character. However with no split screen available, the team must remain on screen with the selected character to be able to follow their own movements, essentially making a mockery of the whole process.
And just in case you manage to survive that threat of somnolence, let us now remind you that your characters can only carry one item at a time and sadly you have left that one item you needed behind you. That’s right, you’re going to have to go there and back again to retrieve it. You must have known that crowbar would be useful again! Somewhere out there Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer are laughing at you.
Moving not-so-swiftly onwards, the hallmarks of Ron and Tim, two stalwarts of gaming lore, are lovingly smeared all over The Cave with clear references to some of their earlier works, almost as if The Cave were a museum of gaming history. The idea of being able select multiple characters to play the game in different ways: Maniac Mansion. Skewed yet somehow still logical puzzles: Monkey Island. There is even a section of time travelling along with the inevitable cause and effect problems á la Day of the Tentacle. Given this pedigree of solid adventure games one has to wonder why The Cave ended up as a mongrel puzzle-platformer.
In the end The Cave is more a disappointing rocky hole than a glorious crystal cavern. Admittedly, there are times when you glimpse shining nuggets of brilliance. Some puzzles such as the previously mentioned time travelling section are genuinely clever, some stories such as the twins’ nefarious plottings are wonderfully executed and the humour of the narrator consistently amusing. Yet none of this carries the game out of the tedium created by the inconsistency of challenges, pointless platforming and idiotic multiplayer. Furthermore with a playthrough time of no more than a few hours it is disappointingly short even for a budget release. Sure there is a certain amount of replayability with other characters and discovering their sections, but this still involves having to repeat large swathes of the game, dampening the fun. The Cave feels like it is trying to tunnel between too many genres and ends up digging its own hole.