I’m not an adventure game aficionado. I’ve really only played Sam & Max and The Walking Dead, making my experience with the genre quite limited. I didn’t play Monkey Island or anything “back in the day” and I only know of Ron Gilbert through my friends who say to me “I really love Ron Gilbert.” My experience with his latest adventure game, The Cave, is thus unclouded by fanboy bias whilst simultaneously obscured by adventure game apathy. So did it make me want to dive further into adventure games, or squander its opportunity to pique my interest on behalf of the genre?
Before I answer, it’s worth noting that The Cave is sort of unique for adventure games in that it mixes platforming with puzzle solving. You still need to find object A to use with object C to make obstacle 1 move to location 7 so you can progress to obstacle 3 and use object B to unlock obstacle 2 and get to location 10, but these locations and obstacles are now atop ledges, at the bottom of a multilevel cave, or across a gap that needs to be traversed with a rope. The game begins by offering seven different characters with varying abilities (though strangely one of the seven is two people, which might make it eight…). From this pool of seven you may choose three with which to explore The Cave. Right off the bat it’s worth noting that only two or three of these abilities are actually worth your time. Most of the character abilities are only useful in levels that are specifically designed with that character in mind and nowhere else. On my first playthrough I chose the scientist, for example, who could hack computer terminals, and outside of her specific level, I used that ability exactly two times.
Because the game is arranged so that you explore an intro level, a character specific level for each of your three party members, and three general levels, the game must be set up in such a way that no one or two characters can blaze through The Cave. This leads to most of the puzzles being very general in relation to your chosen characters. Rather than, say, having a puzzle where only one switch can be reached by my adventurer, an object can only be reached by the hillbilly, and an entire section can only be navigated by the time traveler, any general character can be used to stand on a floor switch or hold a lever. That isn’t to say that the puzzles aren’t clever, because they are and they’re well made (if occasionally a bit obtuse). However, I would like to feel a sense of reward for my choice in characters, and for the vast majority of the game, I never did.
To that point, one of my biggest complaints with The Cave is that my choices either lack consequence, or that I simply don’t have choices. The plot driving the game is that each of the characters wants something desperately and is willing to commit a terrible sin to achieve it. The Cave itself exists as a living entity that has what each and every character is searching for hidden within it, but will only grant it after testing each character’s resolve to discover if they’re willing to commit these terrible sins to get what they want. My problem with this from a gameplay point of view is that there were several instances where I felt like I could simply not commit the sins in question, but was forced to anyway for the sake of the story.
“Why can’t I just go around?” I would find myself asking, but no, the only option is to kill an innocent bystander or two (or more) to progress with the game’s narrative. I suppose that’s okay from a storytelling perspective, but I would have preferred a way to avoid committing the sins if I was clever or thorough enough.
I suppose the reason why I’m not particularly thrilled to be shoehorned into a specific path is because, aside from The Cave, no one has a personality to explore. While there is a backstory given for the characters through The Cave itself and some collectible slides, none of the characters actually speak…at all. They don’t talk to each other, themselves, or in any way at all. There was a huge opportunity to have what could be some hilarious dialogue between the characters serving as a driving force for multiple playthroughs of the game, but unfortunately that potential lies unexplored. If you’re a completionist, you’ll have to go through the game at least six times, which, let me assure you, is maddening to consider. Your initial playthrough will see you experience the entire game, seven levels, completely fresh. Of the seven levels in the second playthrough, assuming you choose a new set of three characters, only three of the seven levels will be fresh. In your third playthrough, only one of the seven levels will be fresh. You may ask here why you would have to play the game thrice more, and the answer would be because each character has a good and bad ending, and you can’t simply reload a checkpoint to see them all. The word “tedious” doesn’t even begin to describe replaying the exact same puzzles with no variation or spontaneity, over and over again up to six times.
Those shortcomings aside, The Cave still has excellent visual design. Fun and interesting artifacts and fossils buried inside the environment, easily visible to the player because of the game’s 2D nature. The sound is also excellent; with no traditional music to speak of, the amazing ambient sound really showcases how silence with the right mixture of effects can be a symphony all on its own. The voicing acting for The Cave is also fantastic, with excellent comedic timing and some clever dialogue which, I’ve been told, is a Ron Gilbert staple. All things considered, the character development is the only thing holding the game back from being a home run for me. As it is, I can recommend it, but only with an asterisk by that recommendation expressing that the game could have been a lot more than it is.
Score 7.5/10 – Review by Jared Brickey