Mankind has a bit of a complex relationship with caves. Go back far enough and we were comfortable enough living in them, but since we’ve moved into slightly flasher digs, they’ve become synonymous with the primal and the ominous, and now serve as handy metaphors. Get in there and find your spirit animal.
It’s these mysterious, metaphysical concepts of a cave that Double Fine’s latest offering The Cave taps into, deftly weaving some big questions about the potentially dark nature of desire into an enjoyable puzzle-platformer that offers plenty of designer Ron Gilbert’s trademark humour - which in this case is most fittingly set to “pitch black”.
First, players must select three of the seven characters to descend into the depths below. Narration provided by the ancient, sardonic and sentient presence of The Cave itself - which continues throughout the game – provides a brief introduction to the Knight, Twins, Adventurer, Hillbilly, Scientist, Time Traveller, and Monk; each rendered in an appealing cartoon art style, and all of whom are desperately seeking something different in the depths of the cave. But their true pasts, the natures of their quests, and their characters only become apparent as the game progresses.
With a trio of characters selected, the player guides the chosen team in turns deeper into the cave. To progress along the signposted “Cave Tour” route and reach each character’s goal, the player’s three spelunkers must work together to solve puzzles throughout both shared cave areas and the large zones specific to each playable character in the cave’s depths. Each character’s special power provides access to their specific area, so playing through more than once is necessary to uncover all of what the cave holds - which is a lot.
Beyond just the varied and colourful playable areas, there are plenty of visual easter eggs around the cave to enjoy, and a number of gorgeous vistas of the seemingly infinite cave stretching away to further depths in the distance. All the while, The Cave himself comments on the action, keeping up a steady flow of sharp one-liners. The Cave’s puzzles will be familiar to those who have played any games of the classic adventure game era - cascade-style affairs of a Rube Goldbergian nature. Mostly these are set in motion by the spelunkers taking an item and repurposing it in combination with something else, or taking the right thing to the right place and inserting it for desired effect. Each character can only carry one item at a time, and relevant items / things of interest are clearly labelled, so there’s no real need to worry about inventory or red herrings. This makes for typically simple puzzles, but ones that nevertheless occasionally manage to produce a head-scratcher.
The player can switch between characters instantly using the pad, so some areas require correct positioning of the characters around the cave to press the right sequence of buttons or hold gates open for their fellow spelunkers. The cave holds perils aplenty, but informs players that it doesn't suit him to let the spelunkers die (because of what it would do to his insurance premiums), so should any of them fall on spikes, drown, or have a dragon light them on fire, the cave simply brings them back to life a short distance away.
The mechanics of moving the spelunkers around and operating the puzzle items and mechanisms are certainly functional enough, but a hardcore platformer this isn’t, with no real twitch skills required. There’s also a certain amount of backtracking required to progress – often several items need to be ferried to one location, or the active character might find a certain chamber that needs all three characters to stand on a pressure plate.
Some of this legwork can start to get a bit tedious. Thankfully there's an auto-catch-up that assembles all three characters when moving into a new section of the cave, but it might have been nice to also have this function mapped to a button. Because there's no tricky platforming to deal with though, at least there's no need to negotiate the same tricky jump sequence over and over again.
As the characters journey through the cave, they unlock fantastic comic style “cave paintings” that vividly unfold the stories of their past and what each of them is seeking in the cave – as do each of their specific puzzle areas. As the player uncovers the history and goals of each character – and as the narrating cave itself continues to provide amusing and sonorous commentary – it becomes apparent that the characters are collectively quite the bunch of miscreants, cowards, rotters, and psychotics, and the exact nature of their journey into the cave becomes darker and more mysterious (although the ever-present sense of morbid glee in the game prevents it from ever veering wholeheartedly into the “But what does it all mean?” territory of a game like Limbo).
The first replay of the game offers a further little twist with a fascinating insight. Beyond that, there's also high value in a replay as players uncover the areas and stories of the characters they didn't use in their first run, and might even solve the same puzzles in slightly different ways by using the special abilities of different characters.
The Cave doesn’t offer anything drastically new, but does succeed admirably in combining old-school adventure game puzzle-solving with light platforming and then wrapping it all up in a darkly humorous package, with a splash of depth just for good measure. Definitely one for puzzle game fans, it’s also worth a look for anyone who likes to get a good laugh out of their gaming.