I really wanted to like The Cave.
The premise caught me immediately. Start out by assembling a team of three from a rogue’s gallery of characters ranging from a perpetually flourescent time traveler, a knight in shining armour, and a pair of twins who look like they fell out of a Tim Burton movie. After making your pick, drop down into a mysterious cave and delve into the dark backstories of your party.
Oh, and did I mention the cave is alive and narrates the game?
It’s an eccentric title, but that’s to be expected from Rob Gilbert. Also to be expected is that puzzle solving takes a forefront in the adventure. Only this time, the game trades the point-and-click mechanics of classic titles like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island for more contemporary puzzle platforming mechanics.
You’ll spend the majority of the game picking up items, carrying them somewhere else, or flipping switches. The subterranean environments – replete with ropes, pitfalls, and spiked pits – naturally lend themselves to their fair share of jumping, climbing, and running as well.
Perhaps a little too much. One of the biggest obstacles to my enjoyment of the game is the large amount of legwork demanded of the player. Each section of the cave is sprawling. While this does contribute to the disorienting tone of the game, it’s also a huge time sink. Running to one side of a map to pick up an item then running all the way back to put it in a socket or on a pedestal quickly becomes a chore. By about halfway through the adventure, I found myself recklessly jumping down ladders and off ledges to speed up the pace.
However, what really makes or breaks a puzzle game of any stripe is the puzzles themselves. Sadly, the ones offered in The Cave are a mixed bag. There were one or two I thoroughly enjoyed. The rocket launch puzzle entangled with the scientist character’s backstory felt very tight, largely owing to the compact and well designed backdrop it was set against.
Many others felt slow or needlessly convoluted. It seems that, after two decades, Ron Gilbert is still adhering to arcane 1990s adventure game logic. Expect to guess the wrong solution three or four times then – after sighing to yourself “that couldn’t possibly be the answer” – figuring it out.
Everything else in the game is passable. The graphics are good enough, the narration is engaging, and the play time clocks in at a healthy five hours. It’s also worth mentioning that the game can be replayed again with the characters you didn’t use in your first run, allowing you to take alternate paths through the dungeon thanks to to their unique abilities. Mechanics such as the time traveler’s ability to phase through locked gates add a particularly satisfying feeling of sequence breaking to The Cave.
However, puzzles are the heart of and soul of The Cave, and it’s a shame that they are so average. Every once and a while a shimmer of that old LucasArts magic shines through, but the game as a whole is too uneven for me to recommend.
If you’re hankering for an adventure game, titles like Deponia and Gemini Rue offer a much more satisfying fix.