Review: Years of creative vision have chiseled The Cave crystal-fine

The Cave main

All that knowledge and experience is summed up in The Cave, which released first on Jan. 22 and is available for a wide variety of platforms: PlayStation 3 (the version we reviewed), Xbox 360, Steam (PC, Mac, Linux), and the Wii U eShop. It’s a platform-adventure game where you (or you and one or two other people) choose three of seven playable characters, each either adhering to existing tropes or breaking them completely. The Adventurer, a classic representation of the genre, is an ambitious blonde woman, and the armor-suited Knight is timid and cowardly. But the Monk is predictably quiet and disciplined, and the young Twins are ghoulish and creepy as if plucked from a horror movie. You can mix and match any three, but the ones you choose shape the key moments of your adventure. I picked the Adventurer, Knight, and Monk and found treasure, dragons, and zen meditation in my quest.

The titular cave is more than a stage for your adventure. It’s alive, and it speaks to the player, commenting on the heroes’ situation and occasionally dropping helpful hints. Its voice is never boring or intrusive, and it considers the player with intelligence. You won’t hear it pointing out the obvious or butting in when it’s not wanted. You’ll love it even more for its dark humor and playfulness, but the dialogue from the other characters is just as sharp-witted and entertaining. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a spot in the story that doesn’t ooze cleverness and charm.

The Cave crystal monster

Developer Double Fine Productions applied the same creativity to the environments and atmosphere of The Cave as well. The underground world — painted in a gorgeous, richly colored, smoky palette — is part earthy and mysterious (admire glowing mushrooms, swarms of bats, clear crystal pools of water, mossy roots, and openings in the rocky tunnels that reveal the depths beyond) and part tourist trap. As you pass by souvenir shops and vending machines, traveling from cavern to lava pit to island, you feel like you’re watching characters in a play whose drama unfolds on one continuously transforming set. In a way, you are — the cave is a trial, and you’re here to see whether they pass.

The Cave is more than a series of tests although the best sections are those tailor-fit for each character. It’s a streamlined adventure game — the kind that should please genre fans and appeal to a more casual audience. That kind of “light” medium, which remains consistent in its superb quality, is a holy grail of adventure games. A single playthrough is short (about 6-7 hours long), but the renewed sense of discovery you experience from selecting a different trio adds worth. Broken down into separate but interconnected areas, the cave is manageable and forward-moving in every aspect of its design. Points of interaction, like items and environmental objects, that you could never see or had to click three times on in other, tedious adventure games are marked here in big white letters you can’t miss. You learn how to use each character’s unique power as you go along — you’re not handed a set of instructions or forced to wade through a tutorial of any kind. You experiment, just like in the best adventure games.

The Cave princess knight

Characters can only hold one item at a time, and you can switch between your party members with a tap of the D-pad. This comes in handy since you do a lot of back-and-forth within a given area, but it’s never too much to ground to cover, and you shouldn't feel lost. The Cave’s visual direction is excellent, and the layout is made to be easily navigable. It’s not taxing on your memory.
Its puzzles are intuitive enough to keep you moving around and trying new ideas, but many do require a bit of thinking. They’re not so strenuous, though, that you can’t work through them in a reasonable amount of time. Needing to cheat would almost be unfair to the game — virtually every element works and reacts how it should, and those “subtle” environmental cues that adventure games love throwing in are apparent as long as you bother to look and listen.

The characters know when to follow and when to stay, and they hang on to the items you give them. You don’t need to worry about leaving them behind or favoring one character over another. The game maintains a good balance of how often you play with all three.

Co-op takes place on a single screen, with the transparent indicator on the bottom left showing which player is controlling whom at any given time. You can “steal” characters from another player or seize the camera to focus on a specific hero, so in ways the multiplayer is a little trying unless your friends appreciate the meaning of the word “cooperative.” The parts where one character must travel from one length of the cave to another do seem slower, so one player might be sitting there watching as another climbs ropes and ladders to reach an objective. All three characters must often work together to solve puzzles, so that can mean splitting them off in different directions.

The Cave pyramid

The Cave controls well, but the characters are a little grabbier (of ledges, ropes, etc.) than you might like. The only glitch I encountered was a potentially nasty one, where a character confused picking up an item with viewing a wall glyph (each reveals a new picture that tells a fraction of a bigger story for the character it pertains to) or interacting with another highlighted object. You can circumvent the problem by using the Monk’s telekinesis (which obviously doesn’t help everyone) or by jumping and then quickly following with the “use/pick up” button. This might warrant some fixing from Double Fine since I ran into a few situations where I had trouble progressing because of this problem.

The ending is somewhat anticlimactic, especially considering how much the personified cave emphasizes the lessons and trials these characters endure. But it doesn’t matter much. The Cave is still a gameplay-driven download title that’s fun and full of humor and smart design. It could be the adventure game you’ve been wanting all this time — even if it took 25 years to get here.

[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]

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