Though Ron Gilbert wasn't solely responsible for starting the point-and-click adventure genre, he gave it a boost with a LucasArts project called Maniac Mansion. After writing a few more games in the genre, including the first two Monkey Island games, he formed his own company and solidified his status. He's now employed at Double Fine Games, which is headed up by another LucasArts alumnus, Tim Schafer, who worked on the Maniac Mansion sequel, Day of the Tentacle. With a brain trust like that and Sega as a publishing partner, they've unleashed their latest adventure game, The Cave, during the annual game drought period. While it may not reach the lofty status of their previous games, The Cave is a very solid adventure title that's worthy of the pedigree.
One thing you expect from an adventure game is a deep narrative, but that doesn't really happen here. You're introduced to seven characters, all wildly different in appearance and motive. The one thing they have in common is the desire to venture into a talking cave to achieve their goals. Your job is to help these adventurers do that, no matter the consequences, before leaving the Fantasy Island-like area.
The tale may not be cohesive, but what's here is rather amusing as long as you don't mind inflicting misery upon others. Despite their appearances, each adventurer harbors a dark side that drives them to visit the mysterious cave. The Time Traveler, for example, wants to get revenge on a co-worker while the Adventurer wants others to help her find some treasure. Their actions and subsequent consequences fuel the story, and the expected conclusions to each story are completely dependent on your actions. All the while, the cave is chronicling their actions, narrating things similarly to the narrator from Bastion, albeit with a bit more humor and snark.
The Cave is a side-scrolling adventure that plays out like a mix of Gilbert's Maniac Mansion and Blizzard's classic The Lost Vikings. You pick three adventurers from the seven available and take the trio from the cave entrance to the very bottom. Depending on who you take, you'll have certain abilities that help you solve some of the puzzles but determine how you get to the cave bottom. The Knight, for example, survives very long falls while the Scientist hacks into mechanical locks and other machinery, and the Monk activates switches within a reasonable distance.
Each character is controlled one at a time, with the option to switch control from one player to another at any time, a task that's essential to solving just about every puzzle. No matter who you pick, you'll go through a few common areas that every trio passes as well as ones that can only be traversed and solved by a specific character in your party. These character-specific sections are where that character's story begins; combined with the cave paintings and the cave's narration, this gives the player a good sense of who they're controlling.
For the most part, the game does a good job of feeding into the desires of veteran and new adventure fans alike. The puzzles run the gamut between very easy and deceptively difficult, but all of them emphasize the use of teamwork. Very few will make you tear your hair out in frustration, but most of the puzzles, no matter the difficulty, make some sense — something that can't be said for logic-defying puzzles in other games. There are still a few items that are completely useless, but most items have a purpose. While the game helps you by highlighting usable items and background objects, it throws in the restriction that each adventurer can only carry one item at a time. You can control one person at a time, and managing each character's location is essential for puzzle-solving. The game helps by making sure that players who were holding something continue to do so when you relinquish control, and those players automatically follow you to a new section. To that end, backtracking is kept to a minimum, as all of the puzzles you'll find in one section are restricted to that section alone; it's a plus when you realize that some sections of the cave are quite sizeable.
The three-character restriction also brings with it a few advantages. By only letting you play as three characters at a time, the game gives you a specific path to the bottom of the cave and ensures you'll never get lost since there's no way to accidentally stumble upon an area and trigger its events unless you have the proper character. This also ensures that you won't get stuck somewhere because you don't have a particular character. You will be teased by the sight of inaccessible areas, so there's some motivation for you to go back and play the game with a different trio, artificially making the game longer but giving you different stories to experience as well.
Then again, that three-character restriction does open up a few issues. With the ability to take three characters with you but only seven to choose from, this means that your final playthrough will have two repeating stories. It also doesn't help that the stories for each character play out in exactly the same way the second time around. The solutions are also the same for both the character-specific and general sections, so you're not given an extra sense of challenge by using a different combination of characters. Thankfully, the game doesn't suffer from any load screens, and death means an instant respawn without having to repeat puzzles, making the somewhat short journeys more bearable. These shortcomings mean that your time with the title will be more finite than you'd like it to be.
Unlike most adventure games, the sound is quite sparse in The Cave. Music is there, but it only plays during specific moments, such as the discovery of a new section. Even then, the score only plays for a bit before fading away. The effects, as a result, get a chance to shine more, especially with the constant echo effect provided by your ever-changing environment. The voices are the real highlight of the audio side. Though none of the adventurers say anything, the incidental characters more than make up for it. They may have something important to say or try to motivate you, but the end result is always humorous — until they start to repeat some lines. The cave narrator tends to spout the most humorous lines with almost pitch-perfect delivery, especially when he starts talking about events that move the story forward. All in all, you'll want to leave the volume on for this title.
Graphically, the game is mostly good. The slightly odd character designs, a trademark of most Double Fine games, look and animate well and boast a good amount of detail despite their diminutive sizes in some stages. Backgrounds are similarly well done and detailed, with some humorous elements for observant gamers. The constantly changing environments that reflect each character's adventure gives the game some variety and emphasizes the cave's power. The graphics don't look like they would stress out the system too much, so the stuttering is surprising. The game doesn't have too many sections where precise platforming is a must, so the hitches don't interfere with completing the game, but their constant presence mars the experience for those expecting it to run smoothly.
The Cave is a solid adventure game. The puzzles strike a good balance between tricky and easy, and the different character abilities ensure some variety in the gameplay. The stories are good and the humor, a hallmark of the developer, hits just the right marks. The replay value seems good until you realize that the tales don't deviate much, and the brevity of the game means you can finish most of it in one sitting, provided you only want to see the conclusion of three of the tales. The Cave is still an enjoyable game that is well worth the price of admission ($15 or 1,200 Microsoft points).
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