The Cave is a game full of familiar elements of the puzzle-platformer genre but which fails to come together in a way which supports the designers’ intent for it to be played three times over to completion. Conceptually, it is appealing; from a collection of characters, pick three and enjoy three small adventures with a deadpan narrator filling in the gaps in their backgrounds. Each is a pastiche of a different genre of fiction or type of game, with refreshingly dark humour that often hits the mark.
Yet the technical failings of The Cave make it very hard to enjoy. Firstly, there are seven characters of which a player picks three; by this logic the third playthrough will see two thirds of the game’s varied content being repeat performances and while the writing is fresh and acidic the first time it is experienced, its appeal is limited thereafter and all that remains is busywork. Similarly, each playthrough has its own repeated sections between unique adventures – the introduction, epilogue and mid-way levels are the same each time. Again, this is counterintuitive in a game whose appeal is in working out the solutions to puzzles – completing the same puzzle three times again feels less like entertainment and more like work. The puzzles themselves are oddly balanced, ranging from incredibly easy pick up an object on one screen and move it to the next screen to less intuitive ones – and it is these latter type that are more interesting yet also at times more frustrating. Old adventure games received significant criticism for being illogical and forbidding prospects where items had to be used counter-intuitively to progress and consumable items would often lead to inadvertant failure. That The Cave has none of this is in many ways a strength of it, for it is never required to completely start again if a puzzle is completed partially yet incorrectly, but at the same time the whole game is thus reduced, in time, to a series of trial-and-error “use each object in turn on each highlighted location” chores.
The addition of special abilities for each character is good in concept and used integrally to sections like the Knight’s quest, but some – such as the Hillbilly’s – are used infrequently and unsatisfyingly which renders their sections less unique and more like reflavourings of the core gameplay with a new skin. It is in this aspect – the presentation of the game – that The Cave also exposes another limitation. In certain sections seeing the way to progress is rendered very difficult by the poor lighting and texturing, meaning an easy puzzle can seem impossible simply because it is hard to define what is traversable. The combination of this and the significant back-tracking between areas is an irritation compounded by the unsatisfying movement physics – the characters move slightly too slowly and clumsily, and the fall damage is slightly too punishing and the ladder animations significantly too slow, to sustain the amount of walking about that the game requires. Often the barrier to enjoyment comes not from illogical or impossible puzzles but simply the realisation that a fuse must do a round-trip of the level because you forgot one important switch somewhere, or a wrench put down somewhere is needed again in an obscure corner for a puzzle you did not realise would require it. A simple tweak to movement speed and perhaps the elimination of fall damage would make traversing the levels far more painless and enjoyable – all told this is but a minor flaw of the game.
Despite all the mechanical quibbles, The Cave is a good game both in concept and writing; Double Fine have effectively remembered what made them a household name, and gone a long way towards mending the reputation of adventure games. Yet it is not enough, in the end, to make it a truly enjoyable game. Too much of the quality – the writing, the quirky character and level designs and the amusing “cave paintings” unlocked for exploration – is locked behind unsatisfying movement and inconsistent puzzle design. The easy sections often feel too easy and unrewarding as a result, while the difficult sections can be dull as much because of how long it takes to move around or how hard it is to find where to go as because of the poor design. It is a flaw that similarly affected the conceptually similar Fez; getting from area to area was unnecessarily difficult due to a poor map which made the joy of it – exploration and fishing out secrets and puzzles – harder to get to. Indeed, The Cave has no puzzles that would trouble Fez‘s complexity – no codes to crack or secrets hidden in tiny background details or scenery pieces. Everything is clearly labelled if it is important, and the few red herrings for comic effect are also generally obvious from the start. This in itself works against the game’s assumed longevity; while it is reasonable to claim that simply hunting blindly for interactive things would not in itself be fun, when the answers to puzzles are often spelled out long in advance by clearly-labelled halves of puzzles (turning a “how do I solve this” moment into a “There will be a thing in the next room because I’ve seen where it goes) there is less incentive to play on.
To conclude, The Cave is not a very good video game. It has an interesting concept and makes strong efforts to combine old genres with new mechanics, but does so in a way which is often unsatisfying – missing a lot of where the original fun was. A game like Fez – arguably even simpler in execution than The Cave owing to its lack of object puzzles at all – still remained more satisfying because the answers to the puzzles were never labelled and the deduction required work outside the game. To its credit, The Cave has amusing writing and a neat visual style – but charm alone cannot make up for its many technical flaws.