The Cave is the latest game from legendary director Ron Gilbert. Its genre, if it could be assigned one at all, is a cross between platformer and point-and-click adventure game, with an unreliable narrator channeling the omniscient black comedy of Portal’s sympathetic, homicidal AI, GLaDOS. It’s an absolutely delicious amalgam of subject, setting and narrative that works in spite of the game’s many nagging flaws.
I can’t say that I’ve had too much experience with adventure games. Other than some random Cartoon Network-sponsored stuff back in the early 2000s, a few Tim Schaefer games and The Walking Dead, I’m pretty new to all this. If you’re a big fan of the genre, I’d recommend taking my review with a dose of salt.
There are seven characters, each with a different special ability and their own special section of the eponymous cave to explore. These sections will take their respective targets on a tour through the darkest pieces of their past, often loosely corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins. Clips of exposition are peppered throughout via cave paintings. They only include a picture and a title, but they are vital for supplementing the history of the seven spelunkers.
Together, the individual levels and the paintings create self-contained stories that draw their power from the universal and cyclical nature of the human experience. Ultimately, the individual characters don’t matter as much as the cautionary tale of their hubris and impetuousness.
In many ways, The Cave follows Spec Ops’ lead in that it shows the destructive path of the seven sinners without allowing any real direct intervention by the player. The Cave, which is to say the narrator, then uses these demonstrations as an excuse to break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The game comes off as kinder, in a way, because of it. Instead of trying to make the player feel bad for taking part in something awful, the Cave assumes that you are actually pretty good, or at least not outwardly evil.
It’s all very engaging and contains some well-founded criticisms of human nature, contained in a ludicrously clever package. The humor is based in a drier wit than most, and while I can’t ever say it pulled more than a chuckle, it’s amusing enough that the omnipresent monologue and pithy one-liners don’t veer into the realm of annoyance.
Adventure game-style puzzles are littered around with all of the bizarre, impenetrable application of logic that that implies (charging a battery by using electric eels, for example), but it’s all endearing and it gives a cute flavor to the otherwise ominous tone.
Most aren’t terribly challenging and shouldn’t delay progress for more than a few minutes. That is with one notable exception. One puzzle is inexplicably hard. Not helped by a few pieces of the environment which can cause the character to become stuck, requiring a game reset. I know most other reviewers had a lot of trouble with it as well, and I think there’s no shame in checking a FAQ for the solution. If you’ve read this review and decided to buy the game, when the time comes Google “time traveler oil”. It’s okay. I did it too.
No game is perfect, however, and The Cave isn’t an exception. Each time you start a new game, you’ll be asked to select three characters which will make up a sort of team with which you run through the Cave. You only control one at any given time, and some of the puzzles will require meticulous placement of all three across the current map.
While I must admit there are really inventive applications of that mechanic, it’s not usually worth the frustration that comes with it. Corralling all of the disparate characters isn’t as easy as it could or should be, and far too often a simple mistake will be punished with a good two or three minutes of backtracking.
Worse still is the fact that you are required to play through the game a minimum of three times (two and a half if you’re clever) to play every level. As I mentioned before, there are seven characters to choose from and you can only take three per run. I could see this being a lot less annoying if you don’t try to play the entire game in one sitting like I did, but it’s still a bit lazy on the part of the developers. I don’t think anyone really needs to play through the intro sequence three separate times.
There are a few interesting changes with each new game+, but they are slight and only affect how you might choose to interpret all of the little clues and messages. Ultimately though, there is a bit of missed potential in terms of including a meta-game ending tying all of the characters together in a more cohesive manner.
The Cave is a genuinely creative game with only a few blemishes. Good definitely outweighs the bad, but I couldn’t help but feel like the game deserved more. It lacks a clincher, something transcendent. I worry that despite its brilliant presentation that the game will be lost in time, gradually forgotten in the sea of games that come out every year.
Dan Starkey is the latest addition to the ScrewAttack Reviews Team. Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Internet, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist. You can follow him on Twitter, or add him on Facebook.
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