Adventure games may have fallen out of favor among mainstream gamers, but a dedicated group of vocal fans and independent developer Double Fine ensured that the genre never quite disappeared. After successfully funding one adventure game via Kickstarter earlier this year, Double Fine and SEGA announced that the company had a second adventure title in the works. We got our first look at The Cave at E3 2012, and we were intrigued. After sitting down to play through a full level at a demo event in San Francisco yesterday, we walked away impressed.
The story behind The Cave is something of a metaphysical mystery. There is a cave. It is magical. It can grant your greatest desires, but it's dangerous and deadly. It can talk, and it has a wicked sense of humor. Hey, doesn't everyone find people falling in lava as something that's worth a chuckle?
Adventuring into The Cave are seven completely different people. You've got the adventurer, the hillbilly, the knight, the monk, the scientist, the time traveler and the twins (they count as one). They're all searching for something. If they can survive the trials and tribulations of The Cave, they just might get what they're looking for — even if they don't know exactly what that "it" is just yet.
One aspect of The Cave that really stands out is how the game handles co-op. There is no online play, so everything is local. Co-op supports up to three players, yet it doesn't lock you into controlling a specific character for a session. Once the game has begun, players can take control of any of the three active characters at any given time. This includes taking control of a character that one of your co-op buddies is currently using. While it does setup the potential for couch griefing (one of the developers who was running the demo commented that a punch to your friend's shoulder keeps the annoying stuff to a minimum), the open-switching mechanic means everything you do truly is collaborative. Basically, playing co-op is much like playing the game as a solo player. The main difference is that you have an additional pair (or two) of hands to help out in real time.
The level we got to play at the event was part of the hillbilly character's story. Playing with another writer, the two of us started out in typical co-op mode. We each took one of the three characters (in addition to the hillbilly, we also had the monk and the adventurer) and started playing. When we both died while swimming underwater, the developer suggested we use the hillbilly's special power; he can hold his breath longer than others. At that point, we both tried to use the same character and realized the game was passing control back and forth. As soon as that happened, our method of thinking about the game changed. No longer was this a series of small tasks for each of us to solve. Rather, it was one big puzzle, and we needed to work together to figure out how to best use the three characters we had on hand.
It's a subtle mental shift, but it's an absolutely brilliant way of thinking about a co-op game. When playing, the two of us were seamlessly shifting between characters as we constantly discussed possible solutions to each puzzle. The specific character under control became irrelevant. There were no individual scores or custom goals that pushed us in opposite directions. We were two complete strangers, and we were playing as one integrated team because that's how the design of the game encouraged us to play.
This type of gameplay setup should also prove to be quite appealing in homes with a mix of younger and older players. If you hit a point where one person is stuck, another in the group can take control and get past the problem point. Then you can swap control back. It's simple and effective.
Unlike many older adventure games, The Cave isn't point-and-click. Instead, characters are controlled in real time. This introduces some basic platforming elements to the gameplay, but based on the demo level, The Cave is still an adventure game at heart. Most importantly, it hasn't lost the "juggle inventory to get past crazy obstacles" that is the core of any good adventure title.
Before entering The Cave, you have to select three of the seven adventurers. Any of the adventurers can be used to explore the generic areas, but entering the character-specific themed areas requires having the corresponding character in your party. For example, the carnival level we played through was part of the hillbilly's story. In order to enter this level, you need him. Near the edge of the carnival area, we could sneak a peek of the castle, but because the knight was not in our group, we weren't getting in. Playing through the entirety of The Cave will require at least three separate playthroughs.
Because each character has a special power, who you select also determines which solutions are available to you. While every puzzle can be solved by a group of three characters, some extra solutions open up if the correct characters are on hand. We saw this in the carnival when we needed to acquire a sledgehammer. Located behind a group of carnies, one solution involved activating an attraction that advertised exotically clothed lady folk. This would distract the carnies and let us pass. Another, more elegant solution, involved using the monk's telekinesis to grab the sledgehammer and float it over the heads of the group.
Even though it was a single element of a larger puzzle, the sledgehammer was still a rather simple challenge. Puzzles in The Cave can get somewhat Rube Goldberg-esque, such as winning the color wheel challenge. Doing this involved climbing up a Ferris wheel, shutting down power to a generator, stealing a fuse, using that to power up a robotic fortune teller, having him predict the next color, then quickly choosing that color and spinning the wheel to win.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we took away from the demo was the simple joy of playing what felt like an old-school adventure game. While it shouldn't be a complete surprise, given where Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer cut their teeth, playing The Cave feels a lot like diving into one of the classic LucasArts adventure titles. It's not something that's easy to quantify, as there's no single thing that stands out. Taken together, however — the art, the interaction of the characters, the pacing — it feels perfectly in line with the style of games that came out of LucasArts in the late '80s and early '90s. Whether you're an adventure game aficionado or a newbie to the genre, it looks like there will be plenty to like in The Cave.
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