What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of comedy? Light-hearted jibes? Socially aware critique? Straight up slapstick? That one guy who smashes watermelons all over middle-aged women for some reason? For me it is murder. Stone cold, heinous murder, and the more disturbing, the better.
Did I just say murder?
...ok, maybe not. My mind isnít quite that sinister. But there is no denying the appeal of a dark comedy, and The Cave, the latest game from Double Fine Productionsí famed Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, etc.) is most certainly that.
The only thing missing is a clown...
The Cave lets you choose three characters out of seven playable (eight if you count the fact that one of those is a set of twins), and explore the depths of, well, a cave. The characters are an eclectic bunch, including a monk, a scientist, a hillbilly and more, and each of them has their own unique ability, as well as their own dark secret which you will explore in some depth if you choose to take them into the cave. Of course, this isnít just any cave, it is a self-aware, talking cave, which in addition to being a large, explorable environment, serves as the main source of dialog (none of the playable characters speak) through brief monologues. What will your characters find inside the cave? The cave itself answers this; they will obtain their heartís desire. The cave also makes clear that getting your heartís desire rarely works out the way that you think it will, a fact which the cave finds very amusing. All of this is just entertainment for the cave. Even the murders. Especially the murders.
The Cave may look like a bit like a 2D platformer, but the actual platforming is pretty negligible. At its heart, much like the games that made Ron Gilbert famous, The Cave is an adventure / puzzle game. Many of the puzzles should be familiar to gamers; The Cave will have you pushing crates on switches, flipping levers to open doors, finding keys to open locks, etc. You will also be required to switch back and forth between your characters to solve many of the puzzles. For instance, you may need to distract someone with one character and sneak behind them with another, or use two to pull back levers that open a gate for the third to go through. The quality of the puzzles can range from been there done that to truly inspired, and I found them to be generally satisfying. There are, however, a few puzzles that are a bit too obtuse, including one in the time travelerís section that I was stuck on for close to an hour before I finally gave in and looked up the solution online; it turned out that I had gotten the solution right, but was not executing it in the precise, finicky way that the game demanded. Apparently this happened to Guillaume as well on the same exact puzzle, so itís not just me.
I wonder what the monk is praying for up there. More crate pushing puzzles?
There is no inventory system in The Cave to manage items, and instead, each character can hold just one item at a time. This often leads to a lot of dropping items and backtracking to where you dropped them when you need them again. A larger annoyance, however, is when you know precisely what you need, but forget where you dropped it, and have to run around the entire area looking for it. Perhaps an even larger annoyance is when you completely forget that a certain item exists because you left it in some obscure corner of your current area. I should note that my short-term memory is notoriously bad; you may not suffer from this issue.
There are two basic area types that you will find inside the cave. The first type are the general areas that you will have to solve each time you play through the game, regardless of the characters that you have chosen to bring into the cave with you. These areas do not depend on your characterís unique powers whatsoever, although there are certain minor puzzles that can be bypassed with certain characters. The second type are the character- specific areas, where you play through the dark secrets of your charactersí pasts, and each character has exactly one of these areas to explore, which makes three for each playthrough. I found these areas to be the most satisfying part of the game, as they generally contain the most interesting environments and puzzles, and exploring the secrets of these mysterious figures is a genuinely rewarding process, if a bit disturbing. However, there seems to me to be a bit of a missed opportunity here, as The Cave never really makes you, as the player, question your own role in some of these gruesome happenings, despite having you control the characters who are executing them. But I digress. On your first playthrough, you will probably divide your time about 50 / 50 between the general areas and the character-specific areas, although you should be able to get through the general areas faster on subsequent playthroughs, as you will know the solutions to the puzzles.
Yes, all of this exists inside of a cave. No one said that it was a normal cave.
This is where one of my issues with The Cave arises. The game is set up in a way that demands three playthroughs in order to fully experience the stories and unique areas of each of the seven playable characters. However, you cannot skip the general areas, nor do they change in any way; you simply have to go through them again, doing the exact same things that you did to get through them before, only this time knowing the solution in advance, which leads to an awful lot of going through the motions. This is especially tedious since on your third playthrough where not only are the general areas are repeats, but two of the three character-specific areas are as well. There must have been a better way for The Cave to achieve its gameplay goals without so much repetition; unfortunately the developers did not find it.
The Cave controls are pretty standard for a 2D game, although at times I found myself wishing for a bit more accuracy in the jumping. I also didnít really like that I was forced to use the analog stick to control my characters, as I prefer digital controls in 2D games. In fact, I kept accidentally switching between my characters because Iíd naturally move my fingers to the digital pad. However, for the most part the controls are acceptable, and as the game is not really demanding in the platforming arena, the jumping issue is a minor gripe.
Graphically, The Cave generally gets the job done, although the graphics pale a bit in comparison to eShop standouts like Trine 2 or Little Inferno, and everything feels just a little bit darker and more subdued than it has to be. In part this may be attributed to the fact that a substantial part of the game takes place within a cave, and caves are not exactly known for being the most well lit or interesting of the video game staple environments, but there are plenty of segments within the cave that are essentially outdoors environments as well. The art style isnít bad though, and adds to the humour a bit. Where The Cave really suffers though is in the framerate. It is instantly and noticeably bad, and it even gave me mild motion sickness at times. I got used to it eventually, to the point where it was no longer a major issue for me, but it cannot be completely ignored. I have only played the Wii U version, but apparently this is an issue on other versions as well. Perhaps this can be fixed with a patch?
Someone should probably tell them that boats are meant for water.
The soundtrack of The Cave is pretty low key, and the game instead focuses on the feeling of being inside of a cave. In this respect it succeeds pretty well. Droning white noise, the eerie echoes of your footsteps, the sound of distant waterfalls, the clinks and clanks of the items that you use; all of these work together to create an overall excellent atmosphere. I generally prefer a more melodic soundtrack in my games, but sometimes subtlety really does hit the spot.
If you are wondering about what advantages the Wii U version of The Cave offers over the others, there arenít many. Unfortunately, there is no off-tv, GamePad play in The Cave. In fact, the only thing that the GamePad is used for is a quick way to switch between your characters, but this can just as easily be done using the digital pad. There is also Miiverse support, of course, which is always a nice thing. But thatís about it for the Wii U difference.
In the end, The Cave is a mixed bag with some real issues that hold it back from being a truly excellent game. On the plus side, there is an interesting cast of characters with secret pasts that are compelling to explore, a great overall tone to the game, a decent sense of humour, and generally satisfying puzzles. On the minus side, you have a terrible framerate, obtuseness in some of the puzzles, a bit too much backtracking, and an issue in the core design that makes you replay way too many segments in order to see everything, especially if you go for that third playthrough. I genuinely enjoyed my time inside of the cave within The Cave, and the dark humour made it stand out a bit next to other platformer / puzzle games that I have played. However, much like delving into the depths of the human psyche, traversing The Cave can be a conflicting experience, and you may or may not like what you find.
Just your average pair of creepy twins. Iím sure there is nothing malevolent about them...
Maybe I'm insensitive to it, having skipped the HD generation before now, but I didn't notice a lot of frame rate issues personally. Except when changing areas and the game auto-saves and loads. I prefer skipped frames to ye ol' Loading Screen from the PS1 days. I'm finishing up my third play through now, and have enjoyed the game quite a lot.