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The Cave

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By Mokman22-04-2013
Bobfish (editor)
Bis18marck70 (editor)
The Cave

The Defence

Developer:
Double Fine
Publisher:
SEGA
Genre:
Puzzle, Platformer
Release Date:
23-01-2013

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz
AMD Athlon 64 2.2 GHz
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 220
AMD Radeon HD 4550
RAM:
1 GB
HDD:
1.5 GB
DirectX:

The Case

 

Imagine spelunking through a talking dungeon, a sardonic narrator judging your every move, weighing in on your feeble attempts at solving the puzzles it offers. Now add to that mix a cast of vastly differing but incredibly interesting characters, ranging from a disturbed knight to a worried time-traveller, to a pair of morbid, macabre twin children. Sounds good? Now put the narrative talent that spawned gems such as Psychonauts and the Monkey Island series behind the entire project, and you can see why The Cave garnered high expectations throughout the gaming community. Having just hit the stores last week, I’ve spent the weekend and most of the week making my way through the game, finishing one and a half playthroughs, and I’ve discovered something. Somewhere along the line, it all went terribly wrong.

The Trial

 

The premise behind The Cave is nothing especially new, although it has a couple of interesting elements that managed to excite the industry at large. Set in a mysterious talking cave that spans a wide variety of locales, some of which are tailored to the various characters, others just satirical parodies of fantasy and genre tropes. It features a cast of six characters, from which you may choose three to venture forth with. With these three characters, each of whom would have a certain special ability, one then proceeds to solve a series of intricate puzzles as they progress deeper into the cave, working the three characters together and unlocking the secret of their stories as they descend.

Yes, that is indeed a time traveller holding a giant wiener.

Yes, that is indeed a time traveller holding a giant wiener.

Each character seeks to attain their heart’s deepest desires through exploring The Cave, but each is forced to face their past and realize the wrongs within him or her self - resulting in a surprisingly morbid and dark story that unfolds, much akin to the surprising psychological darkness within a game such as Psychonauts. The whole journey would then be narrated and commented on by an omniscient narrator, The Cave, akin to the narrator in the indie hack-and-slash Bastion, (minus the lovely dulcet tones of Logan Cunningham, sadly). Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? I know I was, when it first came out, believing it to be a sure-fire success. And yet, it fell short - and here’s why.

First off, I’ll be brutally frank. For a game of this pedigree and invested talent, the gameplay is unforgivably bland at best, atrociously bad at worst. The distance between puzzles is vast, forcing players to spend insane amounts of time slowly trekking through the Cave, going from locale to locale. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the puzzles suffer from the incredibly stupid design flaw of sporting large amounts of back-tracking. The puzzles themselves are nothing special, hitting you over the head with the answer at times, and unreasonably obtuse at others. No special flair is present, but rather its mostly a case of pick x up, move to the last location, use x with y, slowly make your way back to where you picked x up, use the new item with something here, and then make your way back to y to use it again, repeated over and over again like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill.

One of the sections was blatant in this repetition, involving saving a couple of minecarts for a crazed, dynamite throwing miner. it involved taking a bucket, slowly trekking to a puddle of water three floors up, slowly trekking back down to catch the dynamite in the bucket, and then slowly bringing it back up to the fire and then lighting it, before finally blowing apart the rubble to ONE minecart. Out of three. This is compounded by the fact that character movement is mind-numbingly slow, animations excruciatingly prolonged and strangely disconnected with the actual button-presses. Each character’s special ability is nothing really that special either, mostly serving as an obvious cheating method to bypassing a puzzle rather than something that rewards innovation and results in emergent gameplay. See a grate? Then just use the Time-Traveller’s space-shifting. See gouts of flame? Use the Knight’s invincibility. See a hook in the ceiling? Use the adventurer’s whip to leap across. This brainlessness was the last thing I expected of the Cave, yet is something it delivers in surprisingly large amounts. Perhaps the addition of combat would have saved it, at least staving off the boredom somewhat and drawing the focus away from the bland puzzles, or maybe even allowing players to use their three special abilities in interesting ways to combat monsters. Instead, as it stands now, it is a redundant part of the game only serving to differentiate the characters not just in their writing but also their coding.

Backstories are fleshed out in beautifully hand-drawn artworks.

Backstories are fleshed out in beautifully hand-drawn artworks.

But let’s face it, you aren’t here for the gameplay, otherwise you would have headed for a more fast-paced, action-oriented platformer. You’re here for the deliciously intricate story, the Monkey Island levels of hilarious writing and the deep characterization one expects from Double Fine Productions. And yes, The Cave delivers on all of these, doling out genuinely funny laugh-out-loud moments, surprising character development, and absorbing plot twists. Unfortunately, it doles it out like aid packages to a starving disaster zone, sparsely and in between long periods of suffering. One fine example would be the narrator, The Cave itself. Expecting something like the narration from Bastion, it pleased me when The Cave refused to shut up in the first five minutes, cracking jokes and insulting its occupants - and yet as my intrepid trio progressed deeper into its depths, I began to sense something missing. The Cave spoke less and less, its dialogue facing a sharp drop in variation and quality, resulting in the same old asides about the same old characters again and again. There was something great there, but it wasn’t enough, and I came away feeling as if Ron Gilbert had thought up a few great lines, and filled in the rest with padding just so he could deliver the few that actually were worthwhile. Character development follows the same graph, starting out strong yet as the story progresses, becoming so blindingly obvious in its path that one is no longer surprised by the ‘revelations’ one receives about the character.

There’s no real hard-hitting moment, not like in Psychonauts, which the game attempts to ape with its psychological undertones, but instead it just showcases a bunch of characters who are emotionally flawed, beats you over the head with various references and asides, and then leaves it at that. It suffers from the problem of telling rather than showing, and it doesn’t even manage to handle the telling well. But the worst sin of all is the forced replayability of the game, where certain portions of the Cave are locked out due to not having the necessary characters, resulting in one having to go through at least two playthroughs to see all the Cave has to offer. As if once wasn’t bad enough, now I have to retrace my steps once again with a slightly different trio, forced to do half of the same puzzles over and over again? No thanks.

You meet...and inevitably ruin...a myriad cast of characters along the way.

You meet...and inevitably ruin...a myriad cast of characters along the way.

Graphics-wise, it must be said that The Cave is a looker, the art direction and detail behind the environments is astoundingly varied. It brings to mind the Trine series, both being 2D platformers showcasing beautiful environments, where one can really get the impression that the team put their soul into creating the setting. Animations are also very well done, although that resulted in a double-edged sword as the detailed but also excruciatingly slow animations tore apart the pacing of the game. I swear, after playing The Cave, I never want to see a ladder again in my entire life.

The Verdict

 

Ultimately, it is a game of incredible promise, backed by a talented team that should have created a masterpiece, but instead gave us an unforgivably bland, emotionless platformer, consisting of a few hard-to-find gems that are too few and far-between to have any impact on my overall impression of the game. Had it either brushed up its gameplay, putting more thought and complexity behind the puzzles, increasing the pacing and maybe even adding combat, or had it put more soul into the story and characters, maybe it would not have been such a huge let-down. But as it stands, I daresay this is my personal disappointment of the year.

Case Review

  • A Beautiful Cave: The environments are quite well done, with good details that add a nice touch of humour and darkness.
  • Striking Gold...: There are gems to be found, precious few moments that are genuinely funny or provide some depth.
  • ...and Getting Robbed: The effort required to reach these gems is too much, consisting of bland platforming and boring trekking.
  • Seen This Before: Unimaginative, uninspired. Dull.
  • You Were Meant To Be The Chosen One!: With the premise, the talent and the hype behind it, it could have been so much more.
3.5
Score: 3.5/5
It felt as if Ron Gilbert had thought up a few great lines, and filled in the rest with padding just so he could deliver the few that actually were worthwhile.

Appeal

Developed by Ron Gilbert and the Double Fine team, The Cave had high expectations to live up to. While there are good moments in the game, ultimately it failed to impress. You start with a selection of seven characters, ranging from a fairly normal Hillbilly to an eastern Monk with a dark twist, of which you can take three into The Cave they are standing at the entrance to. The Cave in question happens to be sentient, narrating the events of the game in what could be called the best narration voice since Rucks from Bastion. In any case, the characters you choose to take in with you end up determining the path that you take through the caves. Each character has a unique area within the game that requires their special talents, whilst other paths become closed off and thus unavailable.

Gameplay wise, The Cave is a puzzle-platformer. There are many puzzles that you have to solve to unlock the next part of the level. Most of these are either ‘find item A and use on problem B to obtain item C to fix problem D’ or ‘use two characters to hold a door open, then use the third to pass through’. Most of them aren’t too hard to work out, but some of the solutions do fall into ‘adventure game logic’, where they either made no sense, or were too obtuse to easily solve. The platforming is serviceable, although it doesn’t really call for a lot of precision in regards to timing jumps, but ultimately bland, requiring no more than 5 minutes to learn, and nothing to master beyond that. The graphics are nice, but fail to detract from the fact that The Cave is relatively lackluster in the areas that count.

3
Score: 3/5

Appeal

Ron Gilbert, the legendary inventor of Monkey Island, is back, backed up by the team at Double Fine with their latest creation - The Cave. This must be already a formula for success and the rest of the game just makes itself, right? Wrong. As much as the game may look fun on the surface it’s what’s inside (the cave) that matters.

The Cave is funny, there is no question about it, very funny to be honest. The game is good looking with varied and changing scenery. But that’s not enough. The puzzles are different and interesting, but what I found quite tedious is all the going forth and back. The game feels like one big fetch quest which we all hate. It’s not as bad per se but it’s on its way there. Mechanically the problem is when you are playing alone, and the game supports only local co-op, is that you have to constantly switch between your one-out-of-three characters and go either plant him in some location or pick something up, then choose another character and repeat it all over...through the whole game. If the game had online co-op this problem would not exist as much, as not everyone has a spare controller or a partner. Still, if you enjoy fetch-questing then this is perfect, otherwise – pick it up for the "lol's".

3
Score: 3/5
Comments (3)
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Posts: 53

It would have worked as a 5 dollar indie game with no gameplay, where Ron Gilbert got to shoot off all his funny lines and leave.

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Posts: 1501

@Fr33 - yeah it felt it had a lot of things that needed "grinding" to be accessible.

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Posts: 179

On a final note, the discovery that each character had two possible endings also disappointed me....creating more forced replaying...