I’m not much of a fan of The Cave. By this I refer to the the talking entity known as ‘The Cave’, the titular grotto who narrates the events of the story. The game itself is okay, but I actively dislike the role that this sarcastic entity plays. I appreciate his humour and the interesting commentary he provides on the various playable characters and their relation to society, but his tendency to provide spoilers from the very beginning helps to subdue potential moral gut punches that the game seems poised to deliver, and oftentimes it instead feels like a bitter, cynical old man is sternly wagging his finger at me. There are other reasons why I feel the morality plays in the title don’t always amount to much, and they tie in to the gameplay which itself has its own problems. In fairness though the puzzle solving aspect should make at least one or two playthroughs of The Cave worthwhile.
As a puzzle game The Cave differentiates itself significantly from the point-and-click titles of old that creators Ron Gilbert and Double Fine head Tim Schaefer have concocted, though there are many references to these scattered throughout. Rather than referring to an overarching narrative, we bear witness to the bite-sized tales of tragedy of seven different characters, each with their own selfish reasons for purging The Cave’s depths and a unique puzzle section that serves to expose their (often obvious) failings. Interspersed between these are puzzle areas mandatory to each playthrough regardless of your choice of character – you can only choose a maximum of three – and these serve up more generalist food for thought in the realms of choice and both personal and general consequence.
I feel that The Cave stumbles here on several levels. With the aforementioned spoilers that The Cave gives us about what the outcome of each of their puzzle sections are, fates seemingly unavoidable up until the ending of the game where your chosen characters attempt their exit from The Cave and thus provide an ending to their tales, I seldom felt shocked at what I saw. Additionally, many of the character’s endings fell remarkably flat. In one ‘bad’ ending a character who became increasingly angry decided to overthrow his master – echoed by his unique puzzle area – and became a ‘dark master’, an intimidating figure to a new young apprentice. ‘Whoop-de-doo’ was my first thought. ‘Good for him!’ was another. A lot of the endings felt too lightweight and impersonal to leave any lasting impact. There was one lone exception for me, as this seemingly unassuming and perhaps more eminently relatable character to ourselves in the real world met a surprisingly morbid and unsettling end to their tale in their bad ending. That one DID leave a mark on my psyche.
I recently thought that it would have been better to intersperse the choice of character ending within the puzzles themselves by offering an alternative outcome to them – but that would betray the point of The Cave entity itself – to deliver a message. The Cave shows you an outcome that may yet come to pass, going so far as to reveal it to the player long before its inception. And here I have come full circle. The spoilers, often dry and biting in their tone, feel very unnecessary. 2010 indie platformer Limbo is much more successful in communicating notions of personal struggle through only your surroundings and an almost complete absence of anything else, and it’s a shame The Cave lacks such purity and weight in its execution.
The unique structuring of the game also disappoints. To see all that there is to see in the game – two endings per character, and only three characters to be chosen per playthrough, requires six playthroughs. Six playthroughs of the same unchanging puzzle sections, of which in my opinion are less interesting than the character specific sections, of which are well supplemented up by cave paintings depicting the characters’ lives and hinting towards their potential conclusions. The Cave isn’t the best showcase for providing high quality replay value.
When it comes down to it the game’s strongest aspects lie with its puzzle solving, and whilst they don’t set standards aflame with creativity, there is some suitable challenge to be found. A section involving time-travel is likely to boggle the mind, and a particular puzzle in a carnival left me confused up until a seemingly unimportant environmental achieved salience. There’s a fair share of simple stuff as well – no prizes for guessing what you have to do with three levers in front of you or a having a stick of dynamite in hand and a flaming torch just above your head! Levers, or at least devices that provide a similar function, feature too prominently in my book.
That the game is a mixture of 2D platformer as well as puzzler that has no inventory system also serves to make completing puzzle sequences tedious at times, as there will be much time spent backtracking to pick up items or set things in motion, breaking The Cave‘s sense of rhythm, though some savvy strategic planning can minimise this – you can carry items with you in your hand whilst pulling levers, for example, saving time digging about in an inventory which is a major plus point for this new style as opposed to the point-and-click tradition. Local co-op with up to 3 players can also mitigate these issues if you all know what you’re doing, but that’s another issue. It’s just unfortunate that the platforming element is so mediocre and dogged by unresponsive controls.
Even with all this in mind, The Cave is far from being a bad game, it’s just a bland one that doesn’t make the most of its potential concept. It’s best treated lightheartedly as a platform puzzler with morality as perfunctory window dressing rather than its central tenet – and certainly NOT like another Monkey Island game – you may feel like your time has been wasted otherwise. Heck, I’d say it works the best for the younger end of the spectrum where the academic leanings of Braid or the maturity needed to appreciate the likes of Limbo or even Catherine don’t suit. Ultimately, beyond some solid and genuinely enjoyable puzzling there is a lack of force and drive with which The Cave is liable to leave its mark.