The Cave Review: Guilty of the Deadly Sin of Being Boring
Inspiring boredom through its gameplay and design is The Cave’s chief offense. It’s an adventure game at its core, which means you need to solve puzzles (consisting almost always of finding the way to unlock the next door) by bringing the right objects to the right places in the right order. Each character can only carry one item at a time, so you need to switch between and utilize all three of your characters in order to get through. That the characters have special abilities rarely factors into the majority of the game — in each specific character’s level, that character’s abilities are well-utilized, but outside of those contexts, they primarily only let you shortcut a puzzle that would take one or two more steps to solve. Since all the characters run up against all the same puzzles, the moments when a special ability comes into play are pretty much meaningless.
Most of the game is spent trucking back and forth to various rooms, bringing objects where they’re required (or seeing if they’re required). But here’s where The Cave’s design flaws are shown in starkest relief. Movement is slow and going vertical by climbing ladders and ledges is frustrating, and there’s no way to utilize all three characters at the same time (unless you’re playing co-op). You’ll spend plenty of time trying to figure out where an object is needed, and much more time realizing that you need to bring a second or third character (and item) from across the level to a certain location. That means covering the same ground, over and over again, simply to have someone stand on a pressure plate or throw a switch. It’s a massive oversight that Double Fine didn’t include some means of drawing all characters together automatically, because there’s nothing fun or challenging about regrouping.
It all amounts to a lot of wasted time as you fight with the game’s puzzles. Most are pretty simple and easily solved, although there are moments when The Cave’s design works against it. In one puzzle, for example, you need to distract a character so you can poison some soup she’s making. The solution to the puzzle is to use one character to distract a dog outside, which makes it bark, which makes the character with the soup turn away from the soup, giving you an opening to do the poisoning. But the distance from the dog to the soup is such that if you’re trying to solve the puzzle by interacting with the dog, you’ll have no idea the character at the soup is turning away. It seems like a solution you’d only stumble on if you happened to switch characters at precisely the right moment.
On PC, I found The Cave’s controls to feel unnecessarily screwy. It combines adventure game conventions with those of platforming — so you can jump with spacebar and move with WASD, but clicking will also send your character to a location or cause them to jump. Try using both at once (or accidentally click the wrong place) and your character seems to suddenly disregard all the buttons you’re pushing in favor of executing an order from your mouse. And then there’s a two-second delay between when your character arrives at their destination and you can control him or her again. It’s a minor squabble, until it combines with other irritations like the really slow climbing pace: again, time wasted.
The Cave isn’t all bad, of course. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s a fun game. The Knight’s level is particularly smart and funny, and the Cave itself has some solid dialog throughout. But it’s not raucously funny by any extent, nor is any part of the game extremely fun. So when you compare the things that are cool about The Cave, like its series of morality tales that are almost always about murder, accidental or otherwise, with the things that make it irritating, the irritations win out. The story is just not nearly good enough to warrant three playthroughs (more if you want to get both the “good” and “bad” endings; also, the fact that there are good endings is really not obvious when you’re playing) and putting up with all the same dialog, puzzles and areas.
Stripped of the excitement of finding new places and exploring them on those second and third runs through, The Cave is just an exercise in repositioning slow-moving characters. It has its high points, like a beautiful art direction and some smart dialog moments, but they’re not enough to offset so much spelunking tedium.
- Beautiful, fun art direction
- Often funny, with interesting (dark) stories told for each of the characters
- When the multi-character mechanic is working well, some fun puzzles are involved
- Mix-and-match levels leave you with more to discover on a second playthrough
- The Double Fine feel comes through well, with each area having a slightly different design and atmosphere
- You control three characters, but most of your time will be spent moving them around the level because there’s no way to do so automatically
- Movement feels a bit buggy
- Getting around the cave is slow and tedious
- Most of the character backstories are told in postcard-like cave drawings that really weaken the overall effect
- To get the whole story, you have to play through three times. Six times if you want all the endings. And that’s boring.
Final Score: 65/100