By John Walker on January 24th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
We’d strongly hoped to bring you a review of the PC build of The Cave before now. Now the PC version is unlocked, and we’ve finally been able to play it, I’m able to tell you wot I think. And the strangest thing? The PC code is significantly better than the dodgy 360 version, making it all the more mysterious that it was kept from us.
The Cave is from a parallel universe. It’s one where no one ever invented the puzzle-platformer, and this is humanity’s first go at the genre. That’s the only explanation I can figure.
Ron Gilbert, of course he of classic LucasArts adventures, has taken what appears to be a fresh approach to a few adventure tropes. There is a cave, The Cave, a sentient, narrating chasm of underground tunnels and biomes, and into it will venture three of seven possible characters. Along with general areas, each has her/his own specific areas of the cave, although all three are always needed to progress, and along the way you’re told some sort of peculiar morality tale about each.
It’s first and foremost a side-scrolling platform game. That’s important to remember, because for the vast majority of the time you’ll be traipsing your characters back and forth across the large levels, jumping holes, climbing ladders, screaming in fury when you can’t jump off the ladder, finding yourself somehow back on the ladder, finally managing to escape the ladder, and getting stuck on a rope. Each section of the cave is a collection of puzzles, often using objects you find along the way, and it’s perhaps in this that it shares a fraction of anything in common with an adventure.
Each of your three chosen characters can carry one object at a time, which are then used in apposite circumstances, always with the purpose of opening up the next section of the Cave to run into. Adventuring minds are helpful, as you’ll need to assume to use the sausage with the dinosaur to create the oil, and so on. But there are also a decent number of red herring items to pick up, so having the right character in the right place with the right thing is a large part of your purpose here. And a large reason why you’ll shake your fists at the sky.
It’s the most frustrating part. Because while the concept of taking three characters, each with a unique ability that allows access to specific areas of the Cave, is a splendid one, you’re left having to move all three of them around the same sprawling area, climbing the same set of godforsaken ladders and ropes over and over, and spending far more of your time manoeuvring than doing anything satisfying. And I can find no option for co-op in the PC version. It’s this that gives The Cave an overwhelming sense of dullness.
And it’s a real shame, as were this tightened up, made far more engaging for the vast, vast majority of players who’ll play it alone, it could have been a nifty, cute idea. As it is, even the most unique locations become tainted with the bitter taste of drudgery.
Take what could have been the absolutely superb Time Traveller section. As you might guess, in this section of The Cave there’s a time machine. It transports you from the present to the sci-fi future, to the prehistoric past, and with more than a touch of Day Of The Tentacle, you’re using causality to solve puzzles. The aforementioned dinosaur/oil conundrum is a great example of this, but also a great example of the frustration that lies in the way. To solve this you end up running back and forth across the same map not only with three separate characters, but in three separate timezones, with extremely poor flagging of what’s where, and those ladders to tiresomely negotiate at every point.
Where the game becomes even more peculiar is when encountering a section designed for one of the characters not with you. While I’m very impressed at the whole game being designed to be possible no matter which three you take with you, why an area that is specific to someone you didn’t pick must be sort of half-played bemuses me. There’s nothing to tell you that you can’t do anything in an area, just a bunch of doors you can’t open, keys you can’t find, and objects you can’t do anything with. It’s only when you realise you can just run past the whole thing via a certain passage, puzzles seemingly solved ahead of you, that you realise you’re just not meant to be playing here. Huh.
Having finished the game, I immediately restarted with three new characters. (Would I have done this were I not reviewing it? I’m not sure.) And I got stuck on the very first puzzle. A puzzle I’d completed with no problems the previous time, with three other sets of skills. This offers a huge potential, and I thought for a moment I’d failed to recognise how smart it might be. But sadly it was a blip.
The motivation to play again is to reach the areas previously inaccessible, and perhaps to learn the stories of the other characters. However, these tales told in stills collected throughout the levels hint at a pathos the game itself never comes close to. Each is a morbid story of lost loves, cruel ambitions or murderous greed, clearly mimicking the memories unlocked during Psychonauts. But sadly the stories themselves aren’t nearly as strong, and more significantly, the characters they’re about never earn your sympathy, let alone interest, while you’re playing as them. Since each is silent, just having a story Sellotaped on top of them doesn’t really cut it. And it’s just not that funny. Not that it’s trying and failing – when it puts out a joke they’re mostly decent – but that for so much of the game, the humour is spread incredibly thinly. Instead it attempts morbidity, but even here it falls short of reaching anything particularly noteworthy. The murderous twins get the closest, but the rest are just insipid tales of nothingness – a guy might not get a girl, a scientist’s morals are tempted by money, an adventurer’s ego is a bit big.
The largest demotivation for playing again are the sections common to every time through. Finding a miner his three minecarts was by far the least interesting and most laborious section the first time. Realising I had to do it all again, and that the unique skills of the characters played no part whatsoever here, wasn’t one met with relish. Nor the next barely varying challenge to get rid of a dragon-thing, and indeed nor the beach section that comes right after it (unless you have the Monk with you). The idea that you’d play a third time through to take the final of the seven characters seems bewildering. Let alone to see the tiny cosmetic alternative ending available for each.
It all looks very pleasant, as you’d expect from Double Fine, but there’s no getting around that you’re always in the washed out colours of an underground cave (bar one section on a beach). The PC version’s animations are all really splendid – massively different to the 360’s glitchy, poppy struggle. And the detail with which each background is packed is utterly lovely. If you’re deciding between the PC or 360 version, there’s just no competition in looks – it is so vastly superior on the Mother Machine, the Vaseline smear gone, the choppiness smoothed out, and the whole thing a much more crisp, fluid affair.
Also significantly improved in the PC build are the controls. While you can still play with a pad, there are also options for keyboard and/or mouse. The latter seems the best option, with movement on the left button, jump on the right, and then a sort of splurged confusion of interaction draped over the rest. Which still isn’t great, clearly, but oddly feels better than the more instinctive choice of a controller. However, any hopes that a “point and click” mode would replace the platforming must be instantly abandoned. You’re still required to leap gaps, scramble about, and scream into space about why it’s so slow to climb or descend ropes. In fact, clicking at a certain point on the screen is more likely to send your character running onto spikes than anything else, so it’s always about direct control.
The Cave just needed to go further in almost any direction, to avoid being the almost-something affair it is. If it wanted to be about narrative, then have the tales be more vividly explored by the action of playing (it should be said that the Scientist’s and Twins’ sections get much closer to this than the rest, and both is memorable, unlike the rest I can barely recall a day later). If it wanted to be about exploration, then create something more elaborate, and more elaborated. If it wanted to be a platformer, fix its bloody platforming. And if it wanted to be an puzzle-based adventure, then remove the vast corridors of nothing you’re forced to repeatedly-repeatedly run down. And whatever it wants to be, for crying out loud, why couldn’t it have included a button that – should all the paths be clear – gathers your whole team together in one space? It does do that for you when you progress through major markers, but I was desperately missing such an option so very often, and think I’d have liked the game about thirteen times more if it were present. (Oh, and then there are the times when you’ve deliberately left characters at certain points, and then it gathers them for you when you don’t need it – those are fun.)
The whole game feels like the puzzle interstitials in a fully-fledged puzzle-platformer, the variation from the combat, or acrobatics. But this is just those puzzles, and far too often they’re not particularly interesting. (I’d say about half of the characters’ areas are left very wanting.) Hence that sense that parallel universe sensation, where this would be a brave step in a completely new direction for the adventure, rather than a peculiarly diluted version of a genre with which we’re very familiar. Trine this is not.
That you can pick any three of seven characters and still have a meaningful game feels impressive. Although after an initial sense that you’re adapting to circumstances, it quickly becomes apparent that individual skills really only apply in a character’s specific section – somewhere mostly inaccessible if they’re not with you. But when the vast majority of your time is spent scrambling about the dull platforms, the mechanics needed to be so much better than they are. The levels needed to be so much tighter than they are. The characters needed to be far more developed. The puzzles needed to be less based on pulling levers to open doors. The gags needed to be much more frequent. And the damned ladders and ropes needed to be fired into the Sun. You get the idea. The Cave, while inoffensive and occasionally rewarding, ends up falling short in too many ways. It sadly isn’t the trailblazer for a new genre – it’s a game that doesn’t seem to have learned from the examples that came before it.