Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/the_cave/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Buried in the depths of The Cave are seven stories waiting to be discovered, a story each for seven protagonists all contained within this giant talking metaphor given shape. This Cave, millions of years old, sentient and mocking, collects people who are looking for something and leads them on an adventure of self-discovery through its winding, labyrinthine tunnels. What they discover may not be what they thought they were looking for, but what do you expect – it's a freaking talking cave.
Welcome to the mind of Ron Gilbert, who claims The Cave is a project that has been rolling around in his head for over 30 years. Along the way he has collected an assortment of adventure game experience, from Maniac Mansion to Deathspank, but despite the obvious influence of his previous works, The Cave is a beast of a different nature. At its core it's still that straightforward, lighthearted Ron Gilbert romp, but there's also a surprising seriousness to The Cave.
Don't let the new 2D platforming traversal or three-character swapping mechanic intimidate; The Cave has simply become an adventure game designed for easy consumption. As one would expect, while there's a comfort in the simple playing of an adventure game, and it all comes down to the details, the darker corners of the The Cave, where its greatness shines brightest. Oddly ridiculous, yet oh so fitting. I played The Cave expecting a certain experience and found a depth quite mature and endearing.
What The Cave sold me on initially was Ron Gilbert's sense of humor and the past dialogue of his various games. The man has a talent for bad jokes and terrible puns, which belies his attention to detail and subtle cleverness. As expected The Cave meets and exceeds all expectations in this regard. Where one could play through The Cave and simply appreciate the narration in all its glorious absurdity, at any given moment there might be a dozen other oddities, references or other hidden funniness on-screen at the corner of your periphery. And all of it pervasive with a morbidity that gives The Cave its very disturbing charm.
As mentioned earlier, The Cave is a place sought out by people of various backgrounds who are looking for something. The Cave itself is more than happy to oblige, given the understanding that each character may not exactly understand what they're looking for. While I wouldn't say each character's story and the secrets of The Cave approach anything profound, there’s a sympathy created that's rather unique in the industry. It's rather difficult to explain, but by the end of The Cave I felt like I had reached an understanding with each character. Each story was finite, succinct, and while I was fine with where I left each character I did hunger for other stories. What, there's only seven? DLC, please.
While I can't argue that the impact was significant, I did have a problem with parts of the game's conveyance of the story. Each character is provided a portion of The Cave that's thematically specific to them, where the events that unfold hold weight to them. These portions of the game were very well executed and immersive, but there was a second method of storytelling that was less so.
A character's backstory is revealed through ten “cave paintings” found spread throughout the entirety of The Cave. Each one is an image, a single page in a ten-page book, and while the content therein is surprisingly rich, when compared to the in-game experience the pages felt very out of place. It was almost as if a whole chapter of in-game content was cut and turned into these paintings instead. While certainly not a deal breaker, the cave paintings did tend to take me out of the experience. If only they were in-engine dream sequences instead!
Actually playing The Cave is in itself a rather unique experience. After all, this is Ron Gilbert's solution to modernizing the adventure game. Gone away is the inventory system of yore, as each character can only hold one single item apiece. Newly introduced is 2D platforming for traversing the casual Metroidvania-esque tunnels. And why have a single character when three is more, allowing players to either switch between characters or play cooperatively with friends. Just the feel of playing The Cave is entirely different from your typical adventure game, and I'm not sure if that's better or worse.
It's certainly faster, at least in some respects. No longer is there a need to search every setting for usable items. Everything notable in The Cave will pop up a tooltip when a character moves over it. As a result, puzzles are more about figuring out which piece goes where as opposed to whether all the pieces are together or not.
Still, while the pacing for puzzles is nice, The Cave isn't a platformer and the engine is rather creaky. Climbing ladders can be tedious and haphazard; I got the Knight character trapped in the environment on no less than three occasions, and God help you if you want to jump a specific distance at a specific height. I felt like I was playing QWOP trying to jump on top of a box at one point. If this is the style of gameplay Double Fine wants to use going forward, I'd implore them to improve the platforming, even if that's not the focus of the experience.
The new style of gameplay also feels awkward from an artistic point of view. In adventure games past I often found myself perusing environments just because I knew they'd been hand crafted and were meant to be ogled. With The Cave everything not meant to be interactive felt irrelevant. With the camera placed back and centered on the character to ease exploration, one of my favorite adventure game pastimes was ruined, despite the obvious detail that went into each setting.
Otherwise, the gameplay felt... fine. It felt like a simple and effective way to experience everything else The Cave had to offer. Still, I can't help but feel like Ron Gilbert was a bit too heavy handed with what he didn't like about old adventure games versus what gave them their identity and should have been retained. For instance, feeding a monster a hot dog and then grabbing him with a crane looked great and felt rewarding, but having to climb up and down a ladder to power a crane on and then use it was aggravating.
Even with the hurdles presented through updated gameplay, it only slightly diminishes everything else that The Cave accomplishes. As with a majority of adventure games and everything Ron Gilbert has touched in the past 20 years, The Cave has a uniqueness and personality that's impossible to reproduce. There's a taste of Monkey Island, a hint of Limbo, some Nightmare before Christmas, and heaps of Maniac Mansion for the gloried few who recall the details of that game. At times it feels a bit slapdash, but also comfortable, or should I say purposefully uncomfortable.
The Cave is a worthwhile experience purely for the Ron Gilbert humor, dialogue, and endless references, but hidden in the depths, much like a person's soul, are secrets to be discovered. Here's to seven very unique characters, seven dark and mysterious stories, and the hope that there's plenty more to come from Ron Gilbert and The Cave.
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