In The Cave, a motley group of travelers explore a mysterious network of caverns. Each character has a different reason for this expedition. The Cave's players have diverse goals as well. Some of you are fans of Double Fine Productions' other quirky adventure games. Some of you are hankering for a good XBLA puzzle game in the mold of Limbo or Braid. Others are simply looking for something short to tide them over until the bigger new releases of this season arrive. The Cave has something to offer each of these groups.
At the start of The Cave, players pick three playable characters from a cast of seven. Three players can team up on one console/PC and each control a different character. Alternately, one player can control all three and switch between them at will. Each character has a unique ability. For example, the Hillbilly can hold his breath for extended periods of time, allowing him to swim through areas that other characters can't traverse. One section of the game is specifically tailored to each character's story as well. The Knight's section is a quest to slay a dragon. You won't see this section of the game if you don't have the Knight in your party, though.
While each character has their own unique ability, they're rarely utilized outside of the character-specific sections of the game. Most of the puzzles involve finding items throughout the game world and figuring out how to use them to bypass obstacles. It's almost like a point-and-click adventure game except that you can only carry one item at a time. Coordination between the characters is often required as well. In an early portion of the game, one character lures a monster with a bell while another grabs it with a crane. The timing is very forgiving here. You don't need quick reflexes or superb platforming skills to beat the game. You win by thinking your way through each puzzle and trying out solutions. If you happen to die in the process, you'll respawn immediately.
The quality of the puzzle gameplay is uneven. The Time Traveler's section is one of the best, with players visiting the same time era in three different time periods in order to solve a series of puzzles. Other parts of the game almost feel like filler. They take far longer to do than to actually solve because of all the character-switching and back-tracking. The lack of an inventory screen does make the game more accessible but it can be frustrating to find that you left the needed item with another character on the other side of the level. It's also disappointing that the game doesn't evolve or escalate over time. There's no big climax to test all the skills you've acquired.
Thankfully the puzzles are only part of the reason to play the game. The story-telling is as much of a selling point, if not more. Each character seems like a stereotype at first but over time we learn that they're not quite what they seem. The Knight's previously mentioned battle with the dragon turns out to be anything but heroic. The game is loaded with dark comic twists, with our cast of "heroes" frequently hurting everyone more than they help. The fact that the player is actively participating in this path of destruction just makes it all the more amusing. Frequently the solution to a puzzle turns out to be much more cruel than you would've initially expected.
The game takes between 4 and 5 hours to beat. Half of the campaign is made up of character-exclusive sections, though, so the game's designed to be played more than once but with different characters. Still, the half of the game that doesn't vary based on your characters won't be as entertaining the second time around. Again, the character's unique abilities rarely play a big role outside of their tailor-made section. Certain puzzles won't change no matter which characters you're playing. That realization really killed my enthusiasm for a second play-through. Still, maybe I'd revisit it in a few weeks or months if only to get the many Achievements I missed.
The Cave oozes humor and charm and is a great way to spent a cold afternoon indoors. The replay value is dubious, though, so it's likely you'll play the game once and forget about it once big releases start hitting stores.
Platforms: PSN, Xbox Live Arcade, PC, Wii U, Mac
Developer: Double Fine Productions