Speclunky - The Cave (PC)

The Cave

Monkey Island? Day of the Tentacle? Ron Gilbert's new game The Cave predates them both by premise. The result of 25 years of slow mental gestation, this set of seven unlikely (well, one likely) explorers pursuing their greatest desires within a talking cavern was an idea that came to the former Lucasarts maestro long before Guybrush Threepwood.

This game could have been special. It has an intriguing setup in making most levels dioramas unique to the characters selected by the player, and there's genuine originality within these levels when they act, almost, as gradually developed dramas revealing the sinister motives our silent protagonists don't want to talk about. Unfortunately, The Cave serves as a sad example of a weakly executed premise prone to sabotaging individually excellent parts.

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We know Double Fine can write. As always, the only complaint with their extravagantly humorous dialogue is that there isn't enough of it. Every sentence is laced with witty self-awareness of its own tropes and affectations, to the point where avid Let's Players may feel uncomfortably redundant. For once the desire for more sharp dialogue really is a genuine complaint, though, as the main cast remains silent, leaving the gregarious cave itself to become the central character. Except he only infrequently barges in. This restraint far too often turns The Cave into an eerily subdued experience.

We also know Double Fine can create bold, visually distinctive worlds and characters on a whim. The blend of styles featured in this game are all capably refitted in characteristically bold fashion. Hidden in The Cave's depths are a surprisingly broad range of settings, including an Egyptian pyramid's bright, lethal interior, a moody Victorian home and a metallic nuclear silo. Plain, unremarkable rock faces may predominate, but variations in detail prevent the monotony that samey backgrounds could create. And when, on occasion, the mystical cave's confines expand to reveal vast, vivid backgrounds, these yawning vistas impress without overwhelming the crafty details dotted around the closer surroundings.

And of course we know Double Fine, with Ron Gilbert at the helm, can create intelligent, intelligible puzzles. All of them convey their specific demands well enough. Whenever I failed to notice something, it was my failure to observe, not the game's failure to communicate. Not every puzzle is especially inventive, the multi-character puzzles in particular degenerating into exercises in lever pulling and crate pushing, but they avoid the the off-kilter illogic of other adventure titles.

So, what's the issue that dismantles everything good in this game? The platforming. Specifically, this kind of shoddy platforming forced on an adventure game. Few straight lines will be found in The Cave. Instead, paths constantly bisect, elevating, descending and looping to form an intermittently contiguous cluster of routes. To reach any puzzle you must you must first jump, climb, swim and fall along various convoluted, erratically interconnected routes. You may often sight locations the width of a wall away while following one branching path, when the actual path leading to it is in another direction entirely. Once the area has been scoped, and the scenery admired, the unintuitive map layout becomes an irritant.

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It's a joy to watch your characters in motion, every step made with a deceptively smooth fluidity, but actually controlling them is horribly awkward. Even if the game never demands extreme precision, unresponsive movement robs the platforming of any of its fundamental satisfaction, quickly turning it into a chore. As the necessary ritual between every novel setting and hilarious set piece, this lousy, misconceived platforming is utterly inexcusable, especially when across the industry, less experienced studios routinely master something as pivotal as 2D platformer controls.

The multicharacter system, too, only erratically fulfils its promise. While the impact your party composition has on the structure of the game is interesting, beyond its broad influence over the sequence of levels in the game the idea rarely results in interesting or unexpected puzzle solutions. Most scenarios that exploit multiple characters are obvious, dull affairs of levers, switches, pressure plates and crates. Lots of crates. Occasionally, a multicharacter solution will imaginatively take advantage of a character's unique ability; more frequently, they'll be matters of interchangeable character placement, easily identified but tiresome to execute. Sometimes, a specific character in your group can use their ability to bypass a puzzle entirely, but these opportunities are rare - and worse, uninteresting - ways to circumvent puzzles in a single convenient step.

In design and controls The Cave seems to invite that unwelcome spectre of tedium we expect games to banish. In a game with three characters available at almost all times, the absence of tools available to manage them does nothing but multiply the tedium by three. Often, once a character passes an invisible threshold, the rest are instantly transported to the new location. And sometimes not. With no indirect commands to move characters simultaneously, no option is available except to manually move each character, one at a time, to the required position.

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Ron Gilbert's brainstorming sessions

All these issues might be tied to The Cave's unique and charming premise, but they spoil whatever enjoyment that could be had from the original intentions. There's pieces of a great game in here, but substandard mechanics make searching for them unpleasant. The Cave fails to meet either Double Fine's high standard for humor, or even their own inconsistent standards for gameplay. Perhaps a more traditional adventure game would have worked better. Whatever happened to those?

Want to read more like this? Visit your nearest medical professional. Alternately, visit Haywire Magazine, an online videogames magazine produced by members of the Escapist community.

 

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