“It’s a story of seven people a glimpse into a dark place in each of their hearts.”
That’s what the trailer for The Cave tells you. I don’t honestly know what I expected from this tidbit–maybe a sad story about a handful of strange tragedies. What I got instead was a thoroughly entertaining romp of murder and deceit.
While dodging ridicule from the cave itself (“Yes, I’m a talking cave”), you take control of seven radically different antiheroes who have business deep below the earth. The Knight, the Adventurer, the Hillbilly, the Monk, the Time-Traveler, the Twins, and the Scientist are your companions through this glib, sentient setting. Each has a special skill that helps them traverse the terrain: the Adventurer wields a whip that lets her swing easily over spike traps; the Time-Traveler can project herself through walls and difficult obstacles. The truly clever part of The Cave is the adaptive landscape, allowing different journeys tailored to individual characters’ skills.
The Knight’s skill, true to tale, is invincibility.
Puzzles are the name of the game in The Cave. If you’ve ever been frustrated with co-op activities in the past (and inferior, impossible teammates), then The Cave will be straight up your alley. You’re playing all by yourself in this teamwork adventure, tag-teaming between three explorers to achieve goals and best trials. In the Time Traveler’s story (arguably my favorite of the bunch), each adventurer is sent to a different time period–past, present and future–in order to manipulate a centuries-old landscape. The puzzles are exceptionally well-executed, just difficult enough to challenge and impassion the player.
The Cave is a character on your journey, constantly needling your hard work. It derives twisted pleasure from any misstep you make, serving as the narrator in your adventure. The Cave’s abuse isn’t the only comedy, however. Riddled throughout the game are icons called cave paintings that you’re expected to activate. Each cave painting gives you a page in a character’s story. These pages give you a clue as to the origin of each character, lay out their problems, and present you with a disturbingly hilarious means to achieve their goals (one, for instance, pretty much calls for the murder of some poor, unexpected cave-dwellers).
Look. Look at how beautiful this is.
I’m a big proponent that games should serve an artistic purpose. The Cave meets my demands spectacularly. It wasn’t uncommon for me to stop my adventure for a few moments to admire the landscape around me in dizzying awe. Everything is rendered beautifully (I have never been so impressed by water in a game) and very distinctive of Double Fine’s art style.
There are always a few very specific things that can make me absolutely crazy about a game. One of those is an explicit attention to detail. The Cave delivers spectacularly. For instance, characters move up and down ladders with each foot on a dedicated slat. (Seriously, the next time you’re climbing something in a game, check out where the feet go. You’ll never be able to not notice it again.) One of my favorite features is the item names. Instead of using identical labels for every object in the game, you get torches with personality: Flame, Hot Flame, Flamey-Wamey Thing, Chuck The Flame, Flamey Flame and Ouchy-Burny Thing.
The Cave has received rather mixed (but ultimately above-average) reviews from journalists. The puzzles can be a bit tedious if you don’t know what you’re doing, but the entire process eventually becomes instinctual after a few minutes. There are some definite weak spots in production quality (not surprising or unexpected from a lower-budget independent game), but I’m completely willing to excuse them.
Every now and then, find myself screaming as I throw my little adventurers towards their certain doom, but that’s part of the slanted charm. All in all, I had an astonishingly good time playing The Cave, and it’s found a permanent home on the shelf of my favorite games.
If you still need some convincing to play this great game, check out the trailer.