Illustrious game designer Ron Gilbert has fascinated audiences with classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. He’s really the father of adventure games, and has been kicking around the idea for The Cave for a while now. However, frustrating design decisions and a myriad of technical bugs mars The Cave’s attempts to elicit old-school adventure game humor and style.
All seven characters in The Cave are after their one true desire and will do any number of things to obtain it. The character personalities are dictated by their design, while the cave itself – a ubiquitous narrator doing his best Rod Serling impression – defines them. The characters represent the bulk of what The Cave hopes to achieve: A morality tale about terrible people doing terrible things, and hopefully learning from their mistakes. But the story never attempts to analyze its characters, and doesn’t develop past a surface-level understanding of its core themes. This insistence on forcing the player deeper into the cave but never allowing the story to develop squanders any potential thematic insight.
The same goes for the humor. The Cave is actually pretty funny, but I never laughed. It never takes anything past a shallow understanding of humor and maintains an inoffensive, light-hearted tone throughout. The most the game ever elicited out of me was a hearty chuckle over a few of the narrator’s puns. The Cave is funny in that Double Fine cute way, but never takes on the biting edge most of their games have.
Each character has a unique story level to grant them their true desires. In one playthrough you’ll see three characters’ areas and, in between those, three generic puzzle areas. The character specific areas are full of charm and whimsy, matching whomever that area is for. You may find yourself phasing through time, or at a run-down carnival, or even at a nuclear facility. These distinctly different areas match the character they represent. But the three generic puzzles areas are tedious, and repeated for every playthrough and character.
All of the characters have a special ability used to solve the game’s specific character puzzles. However, these abilities are rarely used outside the character-focused area. The Scientist has the ability to hack computer consoles, and in her area of the cave she uses this skill numerous times; but in the three areas that all playthroughs navigate, this skill is next to useless.
The Cave is also incredibly buggy. Multiple times I found myself getting hung up on objects in the world. Unresponsive controls make climbing ladders and ropes arduous tasks. I even had one puzzle completely break late in the game. I needed a bone from a pirate skeleton to make a dog bark for a parrot (adventure games, man), and the bone was nowhere to be found. After restarting the game, the puzzle reset and I was able to complete it, but bugs like this shouldn’t be commonplace.
Adventure games are known for being complex logic puzzles and The Cave is no different. One puzzle had me fix a radio to record a podcast, so I could get a hot dog to feed a monster. Another puzzle had me initiate several stages of a missile launch. Most of the puzzles can be solved by thinking outside the box, you know, in that adventure game way where the rubber chicken has to have a pulley in the middle, but some are just downright monotonous.
That monotony comes about with all of the backtracking in The Cave. Since you have three characters to control, players have to switch back-and-forth between them, but they don’t move independent of your control. Thus, if you get up a certain section and realize you need a second character to complete the puzzle, you’ll have to take control and climb up that section a second time. Or you need all three characters to take objects to the same location. This requires you to take individual control of each and direct them through the exact same path three separate times. The Cave does support couch co-op, where each player is controlling one of the characters, but the camera never allows for much exploration.
The Cave is about half of a good game. The art design, characterization, writing, and presentation are all excellent. But half of the puzzles are boring, the story never attempts to do anything special, and the insistence on completing the same sections time and again are baffling. It becomes this tug-of-war with itself and comes off feeling disjointed. For every good thing about The Cave, there is a bad thing. And the bad things just end up outweighing the good.