Thursday, 31 January 2013

REVIEW - The Cave (PC / PSN / XBLA)

Let's Get Spelunking

For many gamers of a certain age, the name Ron Gilbert will set the heart racing with excitement, for it was he who brought us such classic adventure games as Maniac Mansion, its sequel Day Of The Tentacle and, of course, Monkey Island 1 and 2. These games are considered the very best the genre has to offer and have captivated gamers over the years with their intuitive interfaces (thanks to the excellent SCUMM engine), cartoon graphics, witty dialogue (often with full speech), and devious and amusing puzzles to solve. Of course, Ron wasn't alone in creating these games, he was joined by the talents of Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer. Schafer also created Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, so his involvement in The Cave only builds the expectations and excitement further. With these two adventure gaming geniuses behind its production you have a guaranteed win on your hands. Or do you?

Many eyebrows were raised when the first information and screenshots of Gilbert's new game, based on an idea he has had for the last two decades, first emerged. Many were expecting a valiant return to form, an old school point and click adventure game with a modern lick of paint. When it was revealed to be a 2D platformer many people were disappointed, yet remained optimistic, assuming that with these two gaming legends behind it, all would be OK.

Personally, I was never caught up in the hype, in fact I was more excited about the prospect of a modern 2D platform game with puzzles than I would ever have been over a point & click adventure. The thing is – and you will probably hate me for this – I never actually liked the Monkey Island games. I have tried many times over the years to sit down and play them through, but I just cannot get into them. The pirate theme and humour just never resonated with me and I found myself quickly bored. Day Of The Tentacle, Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit The Road were another story. I adored these games, and have completed them more times than I care to remember. Since he left Lucasarts to start Double Fine, I have been left cold by Tim Schafer's work. Nothing really grabbed me, though my girlfriend swears that Stacking is very good indeed. I certainly didn’t understand why everyone went bat-shit crazy when Double Fine started their, now famous, Kickstarter project for an unnamed adventure game, throwing bags of cash at them like it was going out of fashion. I am sure if Ron had done the same for The Cave he would have reaped similar riches, but instead it is produced by Double Fine and distributed, rather randomly, by Sega.

A final product was never going to live up to the level of expectation so let's put aside the these guy's involvement for now and look at The Cave from a sensible, grounded perspective. Is it a good game? Well, yes and no.

The game tasks you with choosing three adventurers (of a possible seven) and then exploring the depths of The Cave in search of what each of these spelunkers desires most. Your adventures are narrated by The Cave, a sentient geological structure who gains great pleasure in witnessing those who enter him (cough) display the darker sides of their personality.

Visually the game is pretty impressive, with some lovely graphic novel-esque backdrops, impressive and charming 3D character models and nice dynamic lighting effects. It really does feel as though you are exploring the insides of a cave system, even when the stage inside said cave is a laboratory or Victorian era home. The music is subtle and fitting to the atmosphere created by the setting and the sound effects and voice acting are all of a high standard. The Cave himself is the highlight, but there are some amusing characters to be met along the way. It is a shame the playable characters do not have any dialogue, their stories instead being told by a series of collectable story book pages, but there is just enough dialogue from NPCs to satisfy.

Unfortunately the same suffers from some technical problems. While playing, the game suffers from frame-rate hiccups. The XBLA version is especially bad, jerking and twitching around like Mohammed Ali attached to a car battery. It is completely unacceptable and as such I highly recommend you choose the PS3 or PC versions, which run much better (I have not tested the Wii-U version). Worse still, often your character will glitch into the background and get stuck. This happened to me twice, resulting in having to completely restart the game (reloading a save didn't work). On the PC, the comic book style story pages are displayed in a low resolution, meaning they have a nasty pixelated look, much different to the screenshots posted on The Cave website. These issues should not have made it into a finished product and really let the presentation down.

Gameplay is also a bit hit & miss. While interesting to explore, The Cave is fairly linear, insisting you only go in one direction, depending on which characters you have selected. There is no Metroidvania style open world to explore here unfortunately. Puzzles are very simplistic with each small section of The Cave containing a very limited number of items and objects you can use them on. It seems exceptionally basic and childlike compared to the puzzles found in classic (or modern indie) point & click adventures. To be honest, it is not a very fair comparison to make, and one only levelled at the game due to Ron Gilbert's involvement. The experience offered by The Cave is nothing at all like that found in games like Monkey Island, or Grim Fandango. A more accurate comparison would be The Lost Vikings (in which you alternate between three playable characters), and the Dizzy series of games, popular on home computers in the 1980's. Dizzy also blended 2D platforming with simple object based puzzles (hmm, where should I use this crank? Maybe on the only well without one? Etc).

In The Cave, object puzzles actually play second fiddle to the platforming ones that make up the bulk of the game. More time is spent pulling levers, standing on touch plates, and moving blocks, than combining items or using them with interactive parts of the background. It is a shame as the actual platforming itself is not the game's strong point. The characters have strange jumps that feel floaty, climb ropes and ladders at a painfully slow speed and, most annoyingly, die if you fall too far. When you find an object you have to trek across long, dull platforming areas to get to the place you want to use it and it gets pretty tiresome. You just want to get on with it so you can see the next section and see where the story goes.

There are moments of genuine creatively that shine through, though, giving you a short glimpse of the magic contained in old adventure games of the 1990's. But these sections are always over far too quickly and leave you imagining what The Cave could have been had the entire game been designed this way. The Time Traveller's section is the best example of this. It involves switching between three different time periods, set in the same locale. So, for example, if you remove an item from the past, it will vanish in the future. It is pure Day Of The Tentacle stuff, three characters manipulating the present by messing around in the past. It is the most inventive, exciting, and genuinely amusing section of the game and as a result shows up the rest of the experience as rather bland.

The whole quest can be finished in around two and a half hours, which feels painfully short. I was actually gob-smacked when the game ended, my only thought being, 'Is that it?'. Luckily there is added re-playability in the fact you can choose another set of three characters to play as and get a new level for each of them. Unfortunately you still have to play through three sections that remain the same, regardless of who you pick, not helped by the fact that these parts are the most boring. Also irksome is the bizarre decision to have seven characters, meaning you have to play through The Cave thrice in order to see all the levels. I am not sure many gamers will want to bother as after the second play-through The Cave has exhausted its entertainment value.

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy my first journey through The Cave immensely. I was engaged in the well written narration, quirky story, and interesting puzzles enough to begin my second run immediately after completing the game. But by the time that was concluded I had no inclination to play it again, due to the huge amount of repetition and the substandard platforming involved. I have mixed feelings about The Cave as a whole. On the one hand, it is an enjoyable Dizzy clone with decent visuals, some amusing dialogue, interesting story themes and puzzles that are fun to complete. It will keep you engaged from beginning to, all too quick, end, and offers enough incentive to play again. However, it is far too easy, and plays it safe with regards to the inventiveness of the puzzles, relying far too much on tedious positioning of characters and lever pulling.

For PS3 & PC owners I would recommend it as it offers you five or so hours of entertainment for only £9.99. Do not come to The Cave expecting anything resembling the classic point & click adventure games the creators are more well known for, else you will be sorely disappointed. As a game standing on its own merits, it is simply average.

The Good

  • Pleasant visuals and music
  • Entertaining puzzle platforming
  • Humorous in places
  • Time Traveller section shows signs of brilliance

The Bad

  • Very basic puzzles
  • Lack of challenge
  • Far too short
  • Ropey platforming mechanics
  • Technical issues (especially the XBLA version)


(take off a point for the XBLA version)

Developer :  Double Fine
System Reviewed :  PS3, PC, Xbox360
Also available on :  Wii-U
Price :  £9.99 / 1200 points