Tim's Take: The Cave

My love for adventure games runs deep. For this I have two people in particular to thank: Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, crafters of classics such as Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Unfortunately, the genre laid dormant for years until Telltale’s The Walking Dead made unprecedented waves in 2012. Now, the Gilbert/Schafer dynamic duo has reunited under Schafer’s development house Double Fine Productions to make The Cave. Is there still some magic left from their LucasArts days or is has that cavern run dry?

Let me start off by saying that I went into The Cave with very clear expectations: smart puzzles with multiple moving and intertwined parts, memorable characters who spew zany charm, and a story that taps into the childish wonder of the player. In other words, I wanted a recreation of the thrill I felt when playing through the LucasArt classics in my youth. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect my cynical, older self to experience equal escapism, but nostalgia is a hard thing to forego sometimes.

Before I go into how these expectations panned out, let me set up the game’s premise. From the outset, you choose three of seven characters to send on a journey through the titular cave. While spelunking, you’ll run across two kinds of puzzles: those that you encounter regardless of character choice, and those that can only be accessed with a specific character. Because of this, you’ll need to play through the game a total of three times to experience all of the content.

I’m all for game mechanics that encourage you to replay a game, but it can become tedious in The Cave when you realize there isn’t an option to skip to unexplored areas. Regardless of quality, it’s a drag to re-enact a solution when the core mechanics that make a puzzle work, namely discovery and logic, have been stripped away. Once you reach your third playthrough where the only new segment of the cave you see is that of the seventh character, this oversight causes the game to lose a lot of charm, although strong puzzle design ultimately redeems it.

Puzzles in The Cave are based around genre tropes, such as pushing blocks, pulling levers and using objects. Additionally, each character has a special ability, although these are underused outside of initially accessing their level. However, what makes The Cave stand out is that it requires you to use all three characters in tandem. Despite a fairly lenient difficulty curve, figuring out the quirks of this co-op mechanic really gets those endorphins pumping.

I would have liked to see more thought put into managing your characters. A “grouping” or “follow” option would have went a long way in cutting down the fluff spent moving multiple characters from point A to point B separately. Like the inability to skip solved puzzles, this tedious activity isn’t a game breaker but fails to respect the player’s time.

Puzzles are only one half of an adventure game, and in the eyes of many play second fiddle to the story. If you’re of this mindset, The Cave might not be for you. There’s not much of an overarching plot, with the writers opting for isolated vignettes. These can be hit-or-miss, but at their best they exude Double Fine’s trademark twisted humor. For example, the Time Traveler’s story involves moving between time periods to wipe your rival museum employee’s lineage from existence, while the Knight must cover up his mistake of unleashing a dragon on the castle of his princess. It’s charmingly dark in a way that will stick in your head. Just don’t expect an epic journey, character development, or ending of any real sort.

Nagging design oversights aside, The Cave provides great fun for $15 so long as you temper your expectations. This may not rival the story of Guybrush Threepwood, but it’s a strong outing in its own right and a tantalizing snack while we wait for Double Fine’s Kickstarter-backed adventure game.

The Cave is available for $14.99 on PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U, with an OUYA release TBA.